I always begin Lent with a rush of ascetic enthusiasm, secretly hoping the fast will slim down my waistline by Easter. This, I am keenly aware, is not the point of the season. The point–at least one of the points of the Lenten fast–is to increase my capacity for suffering, which in turn will increase my capacity for joy. Really, my goal should be to swell like a balloon over the next few weeks.
Any suffering I am liable to inflict upon myself will be nominal indeed. I lack the guts of the ancient ascetics who threw themselves into berry brambles or sat on the equivalent of telephone poles for extended stretches of time, to purge their bodies of sinful desire, or to diminish the physical so as to clarify the spirit. In fact, I believe that God so loved the world that he became a body. The Anglican prayer for Ash Wednesday floors me every year: “Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent…” Penitence starts with believing that God hates nothing he has made. This is the truth I must wear—like a hairshirt—this Lent and throughout the year.
This, I think, is the church’s wisdom in maintaining the Sunday feast throughout the fast of Lent. God hates nothing he has made—why do I? At the potluck after church this past Sunday, I started eating a slice of a lavish chocolate-cherry tart made by a woman named Barbara who has silver hair bobbed to chin-length and bangs cropped to mid-forehead. I couldn’t finish it, it was so utterly decadent. Barbara has been observing Lent far longer than I, and I relished a grin over her audacious potluck offering. Really? On the first Sunday of Lent? “What do you have up your sleeve for Easter?” I teased.
It is no easy task: seeing and savoring the evidences of God’s love for all he has made, while at the same time seeking to share (in some small way) the sufferings of Christ. My hunch is that most of us are given to one of these–shall I say callings?–more than the other, and that the invitation in the Christan life is to explore the presence of Christ in the places we would naturally avoid. For he is there in both: the cup of black tea without the usual dollop of honey, and the chocolate tart so rich it cannot be sliced thin enough. For some of us, the ‘true fast’ of Lent may be in the celebration of the Sunday Feast, and the diligent search throughout the week for evidence that God hates nothing he has made. The first narcissus. A bowl of hot cereal topped with last summer’s sour cherry preserves and toasted walnuts. Homemade bread, on the rise.