On Wednesday we began Lent. There were the words we hear every day on this year about repentance, fasting, almsgiving and prayer. Ashes were distributed and each of us was left with her own thoughts as we again entered this season.
Once again I listened and felt that I wasn’t sure I really understood Lent or perhaps more accurately I felt that I wasn’t feeling what I should feel. I’m never sure what I should give up, I struggle to name my repentance, I feel guilty that I will probably fail in my intention to be a better person.
All these thoughts went through my head in a strange sort of Ash Wednesday déjà vu. But suddenly another word came into my head in a startling instant. Compassion.
It was a moment when I began to look at Lent not from my point of view but from God’s. I realized Lent isn’t about me, either my good intentions or my guilt. Lent is about God’s deep compassion for us, God’s desire for our wholeness and healing.
What God feels for us is not a desire for feats of ascetic discipline or even an acutely attuned sense of guilt and repentance. God looks at each one of us with a deep, encompassing, all pervading sense of compassion. The guilt, the resolution, contrition and even the confession of the lack of these feelings aren’t what God cares about. God simply reaches out and whispers, “quiet, listen, do you know how much I care about you?”
Perhaps we work on our determination to keep our resolutions, wallow in guilt, escape into holy reading because all of these are easier than simply surrendering into the overwhelming reality of God’s compassionate love for us. The resolutions, guilt and pious actions all allow us to remain in control, to determine how we will relate to God. And so we can continue to feed our secret, pervasive sense of self-determination.
Ultimately I suspect Lent is both much easier and much harder than we usually make it with our well-intentioned resolutions. Lent is easier if it is really about God’s compassion for us rather than our ascetic strivings. But the paradox is that letting go into the reality of God’s love can make the difficulty of our resolutions look like a walk in the park. Being enfolded in compassion requires a profound level of trust, a level of difficulty that dwarfs our resolutions to give up chocolate or coffee for a few weeks. Lent is a call not to focus on our own strivings but to let go into the reality of God’s deep longing for us.
The poet T.S. Eliot once said: “mankind cannot bear too much reality.” But perhaps that is what Lent is all about, facing the reality of God’s compassion and the paradox of how difficult that can be. And so Lent begins again and with it God’s ever open invitation.