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  • Writer's picture Brian E Pearson

An Unholy Lent

Photo by Ahna Ziegler on Unsplash

"I invite you, therefore, in the name of Christ, to observe a holy Lent." The season of Lent is announced with these words, spoken by the priest at the Ash Wednesday service. Then the people move forward in a row to receive ashes on their foreheads, "imposed" with the sign of the cross, remembering they are dust, and to dust shall they return.

I am not troubled, looking back, at the Lenten observances I encouraged among my congregations, nor at the Lenten disciplines I "imposed" upon myself. Humility is a good thing, recalling us to our rightful place in Creation, not as masters, but as creatures. A little mortification helps to chasten the human ego, which, unchecked, would devour everything in sight, having begun with the apple.

Lent was a time to offer study groups and educational programs designed to engage us more deeply in our faith. Our Lenten worship was restrained, holding off on anything happy or clappy ("Hallelujahs" were out), and it usually included a penitential rite at the start of each service, setting a solemn tone for personal reflection. Like Advent, leading up to Christmas, Lent was a season of preparation, until Holy Week would deliver us out the other side of the darkness into the bright morning light of Easter.

And yet. While Lenten practices in the Christian world vary from the bizarre to the blasé--at one extreme penitents parade through the streets whipping themselves to shreds while, at the other, they think about giving up chocolate--the theological underpinnings give us pause. Why do we do this to ourselves in the first place?

It is inevitable that our spiritual journey will one day deliver us to a place of deep humility. It will do this of its own accord. We cannot possibly walk the Unknown Path without stumbling upon the Universe in all its vast magnificence. The stars alone, on a dark and cloudless night, are enough to inspire awe and make us feel small and insignificant, perhaps even unworthy. When this happens, however it happens, our ego must step aside to make room for those deeper parts of our humanity that feel compelled to bow down and worship.

The question is, can such a movement of the soul be manufactured? Can it be intentionally called forth by practices of prayer and fasting and almsgiving, practices that hint at the depths but could never actually deliver us there? And even if this proved effective--that the imposed observances of a penitential season actually prepared our hearts to appreciate life anew--is that what the church should be doing, assuming responsibility for our spiritual lives by directing our steps through Lent?

I have been surprised at the force of my reaction to Lent this year, several years after actually observing it myself. In my role as a parish priest, I always tried to put a good face on Lent's dark mood, evoking the seeds of possibility planted deep within each of us, recalling us to our primordial connections with the earth (reminding any with ears to hear how the word 'human' is related to the Latin 'humus', meaning 'soil'). But every year I felt the overbearing weight of a tradition that said not only that we are human--that we're all going to die and that we'll likely fall apart getting there--but ultimately that we are sinners too--that we're all going straight to hell, unless we can cop a deal with the Judge.

It's the concept of original sin that, almost single-handedly, has caused me to turn away from the Christian religion, if not from an active personal faith. It empowers the church to hold over us the bad news--that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God--in order to preach to us the good news, that God sent Jesus to die for our sins. In the process, the church gives us both the question and the answer (How can I be saved? Accept Jesus Christ as your Saviour!) thereby placing itself, like the Grand Inquisitor, right smack in the middle of our spiritual path.

In this week's episode of The Mystic Cave, I lament the ominous message packed within the season of Lent and the presumptuousness of the church, directing us along its Way of Sorrows. It even led me to swear, twice, forcing me to label the episode as containing "explicit material." But I also suggest a way of seeing beyond that message to a more loving picture of a more generous Creator who invites us, not to beat a retreat in shame and humiliation, but to step forward and join in the dance of co-creation. It's a very different picture and a very different path. Even, dare I say, a happy one.

On The Mystic Cave podcast this week: "Lent: A Lamentation for the Season of Sin." [Just click on the Play button below to listen to the episode ...]

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