The Lenten season begins today, though for most this is only noteworthy as a dimly remembered justification for a lot of shenanigans in New Orleans the night before. There is much good in such preparatory seasons, however, even for those of us whose lives are not shaped by the rhythms of a church calendar. Decorating the house for Christmas a month early (or three months early…) extends our enjoyment of the holiday, giving us temporal creatures more time to revel in the thing we love. The Christian calendar surrounds its major holidays with whole seasons — Christmas is traditionally twelve days long, and Easter Season lasts until Pentecost.
While it’s nice to know that advertisers were not the ones who invented long holidays, it is particularly probable that no marketing agency would ever come up with Lent. For Easter (and Passion Week as a whole), the Church has historically taken a different route of preparation than starting up the celebrations early. Lent is preparatory for the remembrance of Christ’s Resurrection because of its contrast to that fact of utmost joy, rather than its continuity with it. Lent is meant to be privative, the fast before the feast, a reminder of why we need God’s intervention in the world in the person of Jesus.
Depriving yourself of something is a good way of waking up to its importance. Skipping a meal makes you aware of your appetite far more than satisfying it would. Lent is a season that capitalizes on this principle. To return to the analogy of Christmas: it’s as if you were given one Christmas present for your entire life. Each year, rather than receiving a new one, you would re-open the old, commemorating when you first received it, and celebrating it again. There would be some counterintuitive wisdom in forgetting what it was you were going to get, or at least remembering what it was like before you received that one gift. Any anniversary is this way: we remind ourselves how glad we are for events which have occurred (births, weddings) and revel in them as if they were new again. Of course, experiences deepen over time. A fiftieth wedding anniversary should have a depth of meaning and experience that a fifth cannot — yet it is in remembering the wedding itself that we set aside time to appreciate the marriage presupposing it.
This doesn’t mean you should spend the month before your anniversary pretending to be single, or even trying to remember what life was like without your spouse. Neither should you hit your thumb with a hammer in order to reconnect with your digits. Lent is not about self-inflicted pain or forgetfulness of our security in Christ. It does recall that our salvation is not a “given,” but a free gift. It is a season of repentance, of giving up, so that we may better rejoice in and receive the fulfilled promise of Jesus’ Resurrection.
This Lenten season, spend time in the Old Testament. Remember how many promises went unfulfilled until the fullness of time. Feel for yourself, along with God’s people through history, the need for a mediator and a savior. Fast from something — remind yourself how little we deserve, and how much we have. Remember the poor. If you can, increase your giving — let your giving up be a giving toward someone who experiences want through all seasons. Lent is a season of remembrance, one brought about not by extended celebration but by protracted absence of it. Remember Proverbs 27:7: “He who is full loathes honey, but to the hungry even what is bitter tastes sweet.” Don’t starve yourself this Lent, but don’t revel in the usual American over-abundance either. Allow yourself to go without the things you’ve come to expect. Don’t sate yourself so that you have no appetite for the sweetness of our celebrated salvation, when Easter comes. ‘