No, I haven’t gotten my seasons confused. I know we usually associate “wish lists” with Christmas. Lent isn’t about getting stuff, it’s about unloading stuff, right? In the popular imagination, Christmas is about joy and hope and faith and love, and Lent is about denial and guilt and suffering and pain. Lent is not a festive season. Lent is a season of penance. Having a “wish list” for Lent almost sounds sacrilegious, doesn’t it?
Certainly Lent has a particular feel to it. We will likely see a more somber “look” in most liturgical places of worship — a sparseness meant to call attention to Jesus’ forty day fast in the wilderness. We’ll hear plenty of calls to repentance, self-examination and the turning from sin. The music for the season will mostly be in a minor key — and we will put on our best solemnity as we slog along with the unfortunate notion that external displays of misery reveal an internal attitude of contrition.
I had never observed Lent until I became an Episcopalian twenty years ago. The possibilities within this season for “spring cleaning of the soul” were made very clear to me by the clergy and people who comprised the parish community of which I was a part back then. We gathered for Bible studies, slurped on soup, noshed on pretzels, engaged in service projects, participated in saying extra prayers, walked the outdoor stations of the cross (you can do that in shirtsleeves in February/March in Florida!), and generally enjoyed one another’s company as we walked the way of the cross. Sure, we fasted and “gave up” stuff for Lent, but we shared those intentions with each other and talked about them openly from week to week. We encouraged each other in keeping our respective disciplines and we comforted each other when we inevitably “slipped” here and there through the forty days. By the time our band of pilgrims made it across the seasonal finish line to Easter, we were exuberantly shouting, “Alleluia! Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen Indeed!” I can tell you from personal experience, the Easter lilies smelled far sweeter and the Easter “Alleluias” were far more robust after intentionally “doing Lent” together.
Ever since my first Lent in 1991, this has always been my favorite liturgical season (even if music in a minor key can sometimes be a REAL downer!). Over the years, though, I’ve noticed that it’s harder and harder to get “critical mass” when it comes to observing Lent together. Like so much else in our society, we’ve become so pressed for time it’s more and more difficult to get folks in the same room for any given activity. Intellectually, I understand that the days of fifty or sixty adults crammed in a parish hall for a Lenten supper and an hour of engaging discussion about some aspect of Christian living are, for most parishes, “bygone days”. And yet, there is no doubt in my mind that I was a far more consistent participant in Lent when I had the benefit of a company of pilgrims with whom to enjoy the trip from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day.
So my Lenten Wish List has only one item. I wish (pray for actually!) that over the course of the season, folks will find a few fellow pilgrims to join them on their Lenten path. There is strength in numbers, but the numbers don’t have to be large — two or three will do. People with whom and for whom to pray. People with whom we can share our Lenten intentions/disciplines and who will hold us accountable in a loving way towards keeping those intentions/disciplines. People who will share their own journey with us. If Lent is simply reduced to an individualized, spiritual endurance contest, we will have exchanged this season of spiritual fecundity for yet another exercise in spiritual narcissism.
Perhaps the reason it’s been so easy to cancel communal gatherings during Lent isn’t because they are no longer relevant. Perhaps it’s because we never fully recognized the power of the community of the faithful gathered in a common purpose in the first place. I think now is a good time to rediscover that power. Lent is a good place to start. Anyone want to join me?