The kingdom of God does not come with signs to be observed or with visible display, nor will people say, Look! Here! or, See there! For behold, the kingdom of God is within you and among you. – Luke 17:20-21
I missed Palm Sunday this year, and ironically only realized it was Ash Wednesday the other week on account of a great post by a friend of mine who also identifies as an Atheist. This is one of the things that happens when you’re a Christian (though I think some people would contest that self-identification, and sometimes I do as well) but you’re no longer – for all intents and purposes – a churchgoer, when you respect and even enjoy the measured meditativeness of the liturgical calendar but don’t have the practical aspect of it to mark the days.
So, Lent. I like Lent. I realize that I may be a rarity there, given that I don’t especially relish feelings of guilt (I have them, I just really don’t enjoy them). Nor do I enjoy self-deprivation. I’m also pretty bad at it. I also think these things are, by and large, a tremendous waste of time, to the degree that they’re motivated by any extended meditation on just what an incredibly awful person you are. So you’d think that I’d be counted out of most of the things that define the season for most religious people who care about the season at all. But I like Lent. I like Lent because of what I’ve picked out of it, held onto.
Lent is really about waiting.
All fasting seasons are, or at least the two biggies are. I’ve written before elsewhere about how I understand Advent as a time of reflection and anticipation, and I understand Lent the same way – except in as much as Advent is about the anticipation of the Incarnation, Lent is really more about waiting for death. Thinking about death. Understanding death.
Well, great, here we are with the depressing shit after all. But wait, hey, hang on a tick.
Here’s the thing about death. A lot of people perceive Christians – really religious people in general – as more concerned with whatever afterlife may or may not exist than with what’s happening right here and right now on Earth. I think this a fair characterization, but I also think it’s a theological error. I don’t think it makes a tremendous amount of sense for a Christian to dwell overmuch on the life to come. Mostly because Jesus didn’t do that.
He talked about it, sure – or at least made vague and highly metaphorical allusions to it, often in parables. But I don’t think it was primarily what he was concerned with, nor did he seem to feel that it should be a primary motivating force. Don’t do good because it’ll keep you out of hellfire, guys. Do good because you should do good. It justifies itself. Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.
So how can we understand the anticipation of death in the Lenten season?
That death comes. It’s inexorable, unavoidable. We don’t know when or how; it may be suddenly or it may be drawn out; it may be peaceful or it may come by violence. All we know for sure is that it comes. We have no idea what comes after. We have guesses. But we’re not really encouraged, by our own religious texts, to focus on it to the exclusion of the here and now. Jesus was concerned with what we do – something that sends most Protestants into a Reformational cold sweat, but I really think it’s true. When Jesus commands, what he commands generally concerns what we do with the time we have in life, before the dark takes us.
Feed the hungry. Heal the sick. Clothe the naked. Comfort the imprisoned. Welcome the stranger. Give aid and shelter to the outcast and homeless in your midst. Do this, in remembrance of me. Of death. Of what life requires of you. Do this, and life goes on, even when you don’t. We can hope for new life even in the face of oncoming death; we can make this new life for each other and share in its bounty. We leave it behind us when we go on to whatever is next. What we leave behind is really what matters.
Jesus Christ’s final act before death is an act in life, on Earth: he offers comfort to a man suffering beside him. If you’re a Christian, the most important act in this story is the sacrifice of a man we understand as Word made Flesh, of course – but this smaller, humbler act is still so significant, or it should be.
Do. Do. Do. And recognize that your time is short. And you have no way of knowing what comes after, or control over the same. And in the end no one is very likely to care how great your faith was, or what you believed deep in your heart, or what your convictions were, or how right you were. What people will remember is what you did. As you look toward death, that’s what you should remember as well.
That’s how I understand Lent, anyway.
So yeah. Me and Lent. We’re okay.