or rend the soul, such grief is not Lent's goal;
but to be led to where God's glory flashes,
God's beauty to come near.
Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear;
Make clear, make clear, make clear where truth and light appear.
--Now Quit Your Care, by Percy Dearmer
The liturgy and worship used during Lent, and many of the study guides written for it, have a strong focus on penitence--even the liturgical color for this season is a somber purple, representing contrition. A dictionary defines “penitence” as “regret for one's wrongdoing; repentance.” It's hard not to translate that into a sense that Lent must be a deeply dreary or upsetting time; a time when guilt and regret and sorrow overwhelm us.
It's especially difficult for those of us who grew up in the Church; who grew up, to some degree, believing that we must keep constant tabs on ourselves, that if we let go for one instant we will slip into sin. That continual self-scrutiny is the only way to ensure that we live rightly and godly in this present age. To a heart that has borne that weary burden, Lent can either feel like a guilt trip or like a slap in the face.
As if we needed a whole block of 40 days dedicated to reminding us that we are imperfect. Some of us do need that reminder. But most of us see that fact all too clearly most of the time.
However, as the quote above describes, Lent is not just for sorrow. It's an opportunity to evaluate ourselves if we need to, and to bring to God our faults and wrongdoings for forgiveness and healing.
It's even more than that. If you already keep a clean slate before God and others, or try to, Lent becomes something quite different from the traditional time of self-examination and regret.
Lent is a season of clarity. A time for putting aside, as Paul writes in the context of our everyday faith, “everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles,” so that we can see more clearly the beauty and glory of God. Not just in prayer or worship or the sacraments, but in the world around us and the people we love and in our own hearts and minds and bodies.
That's one reason we give something up for Lent. It reminds us to search for God in the moments we would have given to that Internet site or that drink or that pastry or that TV show. Giving up good things for a time can sharpen our perception. Dealing with sin does that as well.
I went to my Ash Wednesday service not sure how I would feel. My life has taken so many upward turns these past few months--work, my engagement, spiritual renewal. I'm not in a state of perpetual celebration, but joy is so close to the surface of my heart every day that I didn't feel like I wanted to try and hunt for sin to repent of just because it's Lent.
That was the revelation I had on Ash Wednesday: I don't have to. In fact, the conviction I felt was that I needed to let go of that need, of that perception of myself as incurably, potentially wrong. To allow that His work in me is good, that His gifts to me are good, and that I am a gift myself.
Lent is for clearing our vision to see God more clearly. What gets in my way most is the shadow of myself, or the self that I fear I could be or become. The more I search my heart, the more self-centered I become, and the less able I am to acknowledge the grace and goodness of God as He incarnates them in me. In ME, you guys.
I can spend my prayer time during Lent frantically searching my heart for sin which isn't there as easily as anyone can spend it not digging deep enough.
Or I can spend Lent asking God how He sees me, and trusting that He will let me know that. If there is sin in my life, I can focus on that when He brings it to mind, rather than obsessing over the possibility. And if He has glorious things to tell me about how good and beautiful and wise I am, I can spend the season repeating those truths to myself until I begin to believe them.
I can choose to trust God. Trust His work in me. Trust that God has created me, and is re-creating me every day.
This, too, is a holy Lent, the journey I am on this year. Not into deeper or more sincere penitence, but into a settled clarity of spirit where I can see myself as I truly am in Him, and thus know more of who He is.
I pray for truth, peace, clarity, and a new vision of God's glory and beauty for each of you in this season.