Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lent, joy and the heebie-jeebies

Our life should be a continual Lent. Is that a scary thought? I have to admit that the idea tends to give me the heebie-jeebies. Lent often seems to be overlaid with a lot of artificial asceticism and guilt and these are not the attributes I want to characterize my life. But in the Benedictine Rule which we follow Benedict said the life of a monk should be a continuous Lent. Fortunately the idea isn’t quite as off-putting as it first sounds.

Benedict devotes one entire chapter to the observance of Lent. And while he does strongly urge giving up something for Lent, he also says something very interesting about why we should do this. The purpose of Lent is to “look forward to Easter with joy and holy longing.” (RB 49:7) Now there’s an interesting concept, Lent is about joy and holy longing, and not guilt. Frankly that’s a relief because for me giving up things often just leads to failure and guilt. Instead, Benedict implies that the extra disciplines are simply designed to sharpen my sense of anticipation, of deep longing to experience the transformative power of God in my life. Lent is like anticipating a big event by marking off days on a calendar knowing that something wonderful is coming.

These practices of Lent are reminders that Easter is not simply a given, it is not something we can take for granted or be complacent about. By setting aside Lent as a sacred, anticipatory time we will experience Easter as the always new, always unmerited, always transforming gift of God’s grace in our lives. In other words whether or not I even try to give up something this Lent the practice and the anticipation will be about joy and longing.

There is something rather innocent about this attitude toward Easter. It brings to mind the simple excitement of small children anticipating Christmas. For small children the big event hasn’t yet been overlaid with obligation, pressure and guilt, it is still just a wonderful, magical gift. But as we mature we lose our sense of wonder about Easter just as we did with Christmas. We know how the story will end. The emptiness of the tomb evokes a yawn rather than trembling and wonder. Most of us are no longer capable of the earth shattering awe that is the essence of Easter. For most adults Lent has no sense of joyous anticipation but is a rather morbid dirge of sacrifice and asceticism. Perhaps a Benedictine Lent calls forth a peeling away of the attitudes keep us anaesthetized from the true feeling of Lent. Perhaps Lent is an excited anticipation of joy, a deep, wonderful aching for the ultimate gift of new life at Easter. Perhaps life as a continual Lent is a calling that all Christians, inside and outside the monastery, can embrace as we all “look forward to Easter with joy and holy longing.”

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