The crocus, daffodils and Bradford pear trees are beginning to bloom and you know what that means- it is Lent. Growing up Dutch Reform in a Polish Catholic neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Lent was just a time of year when it was always cold and damp, the sky was overcast, everything appeared dirt brown and my Catholic friends gave up a little bit of happiness in their life (usually chocolate candy) in preparation for Easter. Needless to say my memories of the Lenten season are less than glorious. As a young protestant, I really did not have a concept of the meaning or purpose of the Lenten season; my sacramental friends did not seem to find it a serious or edifying time either; they wanted their chocolates. We used to joke about the season, calling it “Lint” and saying it was a time to clean the dryer vent and remove the cotton fluff from your belly button. Ah, the frivolity of youth.
Later, when I was in college, I sang in the choir of a local Episcopal Church and it was here that I began to learn about the ancient sacraments and the Liturgical Church year. Over the years, with study, contemplation and prayer, my understanding of Liturgical practices and traditions deepened; like St. Paul, I began to think less like a child and more like a maturing Christian. Today I embrace this time of sackcloth and ashes. I look forward to abstaining from meat so that others might be well fed, and my spirit revels in prayer, self contemplation, repentance and the hope for the renewal that comes with the Easter resurrection.
As I sat down to write this discourse on Lent I wasn’t sure as to what to say. In the past I’ve expounded on the reasoning behind Lenten practices such as refraining from singing the Gloria or saying alleluia, extolled the benefits of fasting and prayer, and the need to take a humbling journey back to ash and dust from which we are formed so that we might be reborn in the resurrection of our Lord. I’ve even praised the beauty of the solemn hymns in minor keys, music that somehow fills us with a sense of comfort in these last dim days of winter where we long for the renewal that comes with longer days and the bright green leaves of spring.
So, I did what I always do, I asked God: “What’s the point…?” No sooner had my mind pronounced the final ‘t’, when my head was filled with with the words of Gregory the Great set to the tune of Erhalt uns Herr:
“The glory of these forty days
we celebrate with songs of praise;
for Christ, through whom all things were made,
himself has fasted and has prayed.”
While this is an excellent hymn for Lent, it doesn’t really make my top 5 and it surely does not warrant becoming a personal earworm (which it has become) through this Lenten season. But as they say, be careful what you ask for; I have my answer and now I need to understand it.
Before anyone becomes nervous that I am about to embark on the importance of numerology in the scriptures, rest assured I will not be going there! 40 is, however, an important number found throughout the bible. We all know it rained 40 days and nights on poor old Noah, Moses lived in Egypt and then the desert for 40 years each before delivering Isriael from slavery and subsequently camped out on Mt. Sinai for 40 days talking to God and receiving the 10 Commandments, not once, but twice! Later he and the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before coming to the promised land. Kings Saul, David and Solomon reigned for 40 years each. Jesus wasn’t presented at the temple until 40 days after his birth, he fasted in the desert while being tempted for 40 days (the model for our Lenten season) before starting his ministry, he remained on Earth for 40 days after his resurrection before his ascension, and the list goes on. So what is it about 40 that makes it so prevalent?
Some interesting facts regarding 40: the average life expectancy 2000 years about was 35-40 years, hence 40 years was the length of a generation, humans can live without food (but not water) for upwards of 40 days, a red blood cell lasts about 40 days and human skin turns over about every 40 days, it takes a minimum of 40 days to make a change in ones habits, it takes about 40 minutes to dry a load of clothes in an electric dryer, and in the middle east winter grain will be ready for harvest about 40 days after the first green shoots of spring (that puts it about the time of passover).
If one looks at these examples of 40, there is an underlying cycle of beginning, duration and finally an ending leading to new beginnings; 40 is about letting go of the old and the start off something new. In all the biblical accounts the protagonist consciously removes themselves from the world through isolation, fasting and prayer while relying solely on God’s will for support and guidance; at the end of the 40 days (or years) they emerge very different, renewed, closer to God and ready to do His work! That is the point of Lent: 40 days to remove yourself from binding ties of the world, put yourself in God’s hands through fasting and prayer, and bringing about change via self examination, repentance, death to selfish desires and putting others first so that you can be resurrected with Jesus at Easter, reborn anew in the image of the Creator, ready to do His work.
Clearly the glory of these 40 days is not found in the minor keys of hymnody, nor in the giving up of chocolate candy, alleluias and meatloaf on Fridays to show how pious a Christian we are; it is found in our individual transformation from being a Christian of the world to being one of Christ’s own working in the world. In many ways, my youthful self had it right calling this a season “lint”. For just like our clothes (and belly buttons) which pickup stray fibers, dog hairs, pollen, dirt and dust which hold fast through the wash cycle only to be separated and collected by a dryer’s lint trap, we too become entangled in worldly snares, the remnants of which cling to our souls. Lent is indeed a time to give up this worldly “lint” so that we might joyfully begin our spiritual journey renewed and strengthened. For as Gregory the Great said in the last stanza:
“Then grant, O God, that we may, too,
return in fast and prayer to you.
Our spirits strengthen with your grace,
and give us joy to see your face”