Lent came quickly this year.
We’re only days away from the forty-day period where Christians contemplate sin and mortality as we prepare ourselves for Easter. As part of this period of penance, many Christians look within themselves for attachments and desires that, if sacrificed for these forty days, will lead them closer to God.
I’ve been an on-again, off-again Lent self-denier. To be totally honest, I feel my results have been mixed. In past years, I’ve given up such things as animal products, alcohol, and at some point, of course, chocolate. I would like to think that, in my most effective years, I’ve found myself somehow savoring the sweetness of Easter more than I would have otherwise. In my less effective years, the fast has served only as a mild annoyance.
In most Protestant churches, Lenten practice is seen as merely optional (if it’s observed at all). And in an American culture where fasting is mostly a bygone spiritual practice, my Lenten fasts rarely seem motivated by any meaningful context or tradition. Thus my fast often feels akin to going to the gym, lifting the heaviest weight I can, then going home and not returning for a year. In a life where fasting is underutilized, one forty-day stint is not going to make a big difference.
In addition, Lenten self-denial feels extra onerous in a year when most of us have given up far more than we ever bargained for. If we’ve already given up parties, concerts, optimism, seeing our grandparents, our general sense of well-being, etc., what more could it possibly mean to add chocolate into the mix? Surely the Lenten practice of self-denial is designed to address excess and not lack. Heaping deprivation upon deprivation cannot be a healthy spiritual exercise for most people—or at least not one to be tried lightly.
And yet, pandemic conditions can also exacerbate excess. Long hours at home can encourage addictions, excessive anxiety and stress, and even excessive attention to things of less-than-ultimate importance.
Ultimately, however you observe it, Lent is about anticipating the cross. Which means undertaking practices designed to give us deeper knowledge of that from which we need redemption.
Ash Wednesday’s solemn refrain—“remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return”—is basically a reminder we are all just sentient meat. Yet, the point of Lent is not despair over our futility but just the opposite: the unveiling of life in its most basic worth. After all, for all its tricky connotations, “redemption” means “to buy back.” And one does not buy back that which is worthless.
I’m still deciding whether to give up anything for Lent this year. I probably will—I know well that my American life still features plenty of excess. And yet, anticipating another Lent in the pandemic reminds me that this season is not, at its core, about sacrifice. It’s about the indelible worth of being fleshy creatures living in the sight of our creator.
In a year when futility and mortality abound, Lent is our chance to see them as endemic to the human experience in the first place, to explore them a little and take in their scope. Only then does the cost of redemption reveal itself.
Klaas Walhout graduated from Calvin in 2016 with majors in philosophy and religion. He has lived on the East Coast since then. He currently lives in Philadelphia, PA, where he spends his days (and sometimes nights) working as a hospital chaplain.