Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What Lent Means to Me: a new series

Every liturgical season is a reminder that many newcomers here at St. Paul’s come from other traditions,  and may not be familiar with the various seasons of the Episcopal church calendar.  This year, we're asking members of the community, from "old hands" to recent arrivals,  to answer the question,  “what does Lent mean to me?”  We'll be posting them here regularly as we move into, and through,  the Lenten season.

Our first reflection comes to us from Robert Heylmun.

The denomination of the church in which I was raised did not believe in Lent, nor in any of the other seasons of the church year, nor even in the saints as they are usually celebrated in more traditional churches. But the idea of Lent was not new to me, even as a child. My Roman Catholic grandmother observed Lent along with meatless Fridays, well after Vatican II, a movement about which she had strong reservations and suspicions. She missed the Latin Mass, and she persisted in the old ways, including Lent.

We Protestants didn’t pay much attention beyond the fact that her usually generous menus around her kitchen table on the farm took on a sparse aspect, often devoid of meat. “Charlotte’s into Lent,” my mother would say, and we would eat at home more often during this season that seemed to extend a lot longer than it really did.

When I became an Episcopalian, I was, as many are, enflamed with my new faith, and I wanted to participate as fully as possible in every facet of its traditions. Along came Lent, and, like a good Episcopalian, I read up on it. “A period of forty weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter as a period of penitence and fasting.” Fasting? Really? On top of that harsh news came the admonishment that, as a memento of my devotion to Lent, I ought to give up something that I would genuinely miss. Such a sacrifice would supplant going around in sackcloth and ashes, and one parishioner announced that she would give up chocolate.  Imagine that. Sackcloth seemed pretty attractive after all.

What had I got myself into? Suddenly the happy club of the Episcopal Church that had accepted me as a member the previous fall was about to impose draconian measures on me for a month and a half. What could I give up? And then why should I give anything up? I couldn’t find a single word about Lent in the scriptures, and the tradition leg of the three-legged stool that defines the Faith was the shakiest of them all. Traditions change. After all, didn’t we ordain women now, and we didn’t used to.

Lots of equivocation and trying to excuse myself from Lent didn’t get me very far. Lent was still there, looming ahead, and I hadn’t done anything about it. As often happens with us, I began to think about why the Church thought that Lent was such a hot idea.

It wasn’t until Ash Wednesday itself that I came to a brighter view of Lent. Ash Wednesday reminds us all of our mortal condition, that we are destined to return to dust. Far from feeling sad by that grim reminder, I somehow felt elevated, free, and as if I had been handed a clean slate, and the idea of penitence took on new meanings. Penitence implies having sorrow for one’s sins, and that in and of itself is a cleansing act, but merely being sorry for them isn’t enough. Correcting what can be corrected, righting what wrongs might have been done, apologizing for hurtful words to someone, moving in ways that characterize a sense that the Holy Spirit stirs within and prompts right actions from being sorry for wrong ones, that’s what penitence meant for me as soon as the ashes were imposed on my forehead.

Lent, then, became a time for doing purposefully good things, and they would constitute my Lenten observance. How easy it was to go to Macdonald’s and buy gift cards to give out to people on the street who ask for help, just as an example. Increase a donation to the San Diego Food Bank, give up a Saturday or two at a charity are other acts that require something of myself. Random gifts, expecting no return (that’s what gift means in the first place), joyfully given in the spirit of Christ who gave everything for us, redeeming us from our willful and errant ways.

That’s what I have done in every Lent since 1984 when I puzzled where I might find sackcloth these days.  Along with the additional prayers and services that accompany Lent, I have found the peace that I think the season was intended to bring, merely by being intentional in giving something of myself to the greater good.

 Thank you Robert!  

If YOU want to share your ideas about Lent, spiritual practices, reminiscences, or reflections, don't be shy!  We want to hear from the whole community, from our cradle Episcopalians to the most recent arrival experiencing Lent  for the first time.  What are you thinking?   Just send an email to us at .   

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