I share with many others some of the great variety of ways that Christians observe Lent. Some fast, or practice an additional data devotion, or join a study group, or make an extra effort to get to church for Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, or the usual Sunday service. In most everyone at least thinks about giving up something for Lent. Due to the precautions we are taking to protect ourselves and each other from the latest pestilence, it seems like we’re giving up Lent for Lent.
Of course, it’s always interesting to hear what people say they are choosing to give up. Not usually work or school or Lenten study groups, and certainly not Church. Television and social media used to be common, but right now they’re essential to this new, isolated life. Candy, or perhaps chocolate. Wine or red meat. Something we like; occasionally, something we suspect we like a little too well.
Lent is an echo of our abundant blessing, for the blessing that surrounds us all is that we can choose what to surrender. We are, all of us, so endowed with the gifts of this world that there is a menu, a plenitude, of things and habits and services that surround and support and tempt.
Lent is the time to punch a little hole among the items of that menu, To give up something in order to create a space for an appreciation of the blessings of God’s world … and the blessing of God’s word to us through the season. The simple ability to choose among things that can be given up is itself a celebration of God’s abundant gifts.
Imagine, for a moment, someone who had nothing to give, or who had so little that every possible choice became a cry of desperation. Food for one’s child? Safety to sleep through the night? Another month to live?
This year, everyone is told to give up something else: something not in the plan. We don’t get to choose, and the giving itself isn’t neither sacrifice nor sacrament so much as it is safety. Safety, and the instruction to rearrange our own lives in a way that benefits and protects the lives of all of us. That keeps us all mindful of the lives and frailties of others just as we are mindful of our own.
The Lenten Fast is, in reality, the celebration of the great abundant gifts we have, and a chance to part the curtain of material gifts to glimpse the greatest gift: the unmerited blessing of God’s love. This year, part of the blessing is that we shall surrender the holy time we share with God and with each other. To exchange Wednesday group or Sunday morning for silence. That silent time can become part of Lenten devotion, as well.
Before the quarantine came, we prayed the ancient Great Litany that Bishop Thomas Cranmer wrote in 1533. It is the first liturgy of any kind written in English, and is often joined the First Sunday in Lent. Along with Lenten devotion and fasting, the Litany directs our attention to the needs of all of the world, from Adam and Eve to the present day.
In Cranmer’s words, we pray “That it may please thee to visit the lonely; to strengthen all who suffer in mind, body, and spirit; and to comfort with thy presence those who are failing and infirm, [and] that it may please thee to support, help, and comfort all who are in danger, necessity, and tribulation.”
That it may please thee that, in this silent time we will know thee better through our own neighbors, endangered by virus, loneliness, exhaustion, or concern for the isolation of the present day and for the uncertainties of the days to come.
From the greatest to the least among us. From those who have no home to dwell in to those whose home becomes a forced refuge in time of plague. Indeed, for the whole world. It reminds us that we have much to work for, even more to pray for, and a very great deal be thankful for.
St Paul’s Episcopal Church