Now I understand what Lent is all about

By Ellaine Downie

I usually don’t “do” Lent. On Pancake Tuesday, between mouthfuls of dough and maple syrup, some of my more spiritual friends announce what they will be giving up for Lent. Sometimes it’s chocolate, sometimes it’s the movies.

I remember one year a friend announced with some trepidation – and (if this doesn’t sound too bitchy) a rather “holier –than-thou” expression on her face – that she was giving up meat for Lent. I immediately told her that was a great idea, that I would support her and even happily join with her. She was most surprised, since she knew that I don’t usually “do” Lent (I’m not sure she realised I was a vegetarian).

They say that sacrificing something you enjoy is supposed to help you remember and identify with Jesus’s sufferings and the suffering of his disciples. “A good spiritual discipline,” they say, and I suppose I agree, in theory.

I might sometimes argue that I don’t actually see, from a biblical perspective, where the whole idea came from, but Pancake Tuesday is probably not the time to conduct such a theological debate.

Sometimes, other Christians boldly suggest I should give it a try, sacrifice something simple and see what I learn. They then go on to propose something easy, like refraining from drinking that calming glass of red wine each evening around 5pm.

I tell them I don’t usually “do” Lent.

But this year has been different. Pancake Tuesday was on February 25, meaning Lent covered the month of March.

When I look at the month of March on my calendar, I see nothing marked on it – no activities, no dinners with friends, no special events, no visits by grandchildren, no playing music with my church band. No church at all. Only a large red cross drawn through the whole page – and in large black letters the words: WRITE OFF!

This year, I didn’t have to willingly give up anything to help me understand Jesus’s sad journey to the cross. I have had – we all have had – nearly everything dear to us stripped away. Unwillingly, I am experiencing what the disciples must have felt in that final journey with Him.

Easter week for the disciples was a time of bewilderment, a time of not believing what was happening to them and to the One they had trusted and believed. They experienced the awful realisation that the most horrible thing in the world would actually happen to the One they thought had such power, such love, such compassion! The One who was able to physically and mentally heal people – they had seen it with their own eyes. The One who was in touch with God himself.

Death was in the air and they felt it in their gut. They didn’t understand why or how, but there was this deep inner groaning, a sense of not being able to control the evil that was encroaching on all sides.

A sense of betrayal too perhaps, of being taken for a ride, of not trusting their own good judgment for having followed Him. Had they not given up everything to follow this man – their families, their jobs, their livelihoods because He had helped them make sense of their lives, of the world, of everything. He was the One with the words of life!

But now it was all falling apart. He was set on going to Jerusalem despite the obvious danger. He was determined that he was going to die.

And they had to keep following, even though it made no sense. They plod on after Him, doing what He says, but not believing this is really happening. That they would personally deny Him, that one of their own would betray them all.

Emotions on this journey skyrocket and an excited crowd welcomes Jesus and his friends. The mood then plummets as the reality of betrayal and capture and crucifixion sinks in.

They are just ordinary people caught up in a political nightmare; a shameful humiliation of Jesus and anyone associated with Him.

This Lent, I didn’t need to choose a token sacrifice in order experience what Jesus’s disciples went through.

I now know how it feels:

  • to be isolated in a hostile crowd, to have people avoid looking you in the eye
  • to be locked away from the people I love, from their support and their touch
  • to feel betrayed or misunderstood by friends
  • to feel we have lost our way and to wonder whether to trust our leaders
  • to not quite understand where we are being led and why
  • to react emotionally to events unfolding at a rapid pace, experiencing a daily roller coaster of feelings
  • to wonder how to remain positive, how to cling to faith in God, while being overwhelmed by feelings of personal sadness.

All this in a background of fear and the scent of impending death.

This year I think I finally “get” Lent.

I offer this prayer:

This year, because of the pandemic, we now understand how your disciples felt as they trudged with You to the cross. We understand the anxiety and confusion, the sense of feeling lost, the fear of death. 

More than ever we need your strength and presence to help us every day. We pray that You will help us grow in resilience, to see beyond ourselves and our personal pain and to know that trusting You still makes sense.

 Keep reminding us that despite the evil days You ultimately conquered death –  that You see the bigger picture – that You will see us through this present pain and return us to a life of hope.

 Amen 

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