An upside-down take on Lent 2011...

Over the past 15 years I have come to embrace an "upside-down" take on Lent.  I have found that both the Roman and Reformed expressions of this essential spiritual season are not only repulsive to me (for very different reasons), but also destructive in what they teach us about God. 

+ The Reformed/Protestant Lent is often so anemic and trivial that in most expressions it causes spiritual starvation in our souls.  The liturgies are watered down Catholic retreads, the sense of "fasting" is trivial and there is almost no depth to the spiritual disciplines of the season.  Think of the "Lenten Self-Denial" coin folders of the past; putting nickels or even quarters into a cardboard holder each of the 40 days of Lent has NEVER meant self-denial.  It is, rather, an almost irrelevant exercise in practicing a self-congratulating piety that is the polar opposite of Lent.

+ And the Roman practice is just as bad - but for vastly different reasons.  If the Reformed Protestant Lent is theologically and spiritually trite, the Catholic expression is obsessively destructive and ignorant.  Yes, there is often liturgical depth - from Ash Wednesday through the Easter Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil of Holy Saturday - and there is also a long history of practicing the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and alms giving. But what I have discovered is that countless people have no idea what the connection is between God's love and their minimalist fasting.  Nor are they certain how it is that each sacred liturgy takes them deeper into the Paschal Mystery.  More often than not there is a wooden sense of obligation that remains unfocused beyond the ritual.

And let's be clear that the rituals are not only obsessed with a vision of the Lord's atonement that is destructive, but still virulently anti-Semitic.  Sure, the language of the liturgy has been sanitized in the last few decades, but the music of the tradition is still ugly, mean-spirited towards the Jews and morally offensive.  So... given the choice between a rich but destructive liturgical Lent and one that is spiritually irrelevant and aesthetically vapid it seemed that the time had come to turn the whole thing upside-down.

In subsequent postings I'll try to unpack what I mean by this upside-down Lent - and why it works better - but for today let me say a word about Ash Wednesday.  The wise and tender Roman Catholic educator, Gertrud Mueller-Nelson, teaches that the whole journey of Lent - embracing Christ's suffering and our own - is all about discovering how to take all of the "misunderstandings, losses and failures, separations and loneliness, loving and longing fears... and long shadows" that are cast across our days as part of the path to the light.  "We have learned to avoid the pain and the hurt," she writes.  We think we are clever in doing so... when, in fact, our denial and avoidance take us farther away from God's grace and presence.  Like the story of Jonah," it goes from bad to worse until we finally find ourselves in the belly of the whale."

To prepare for an alternative, she writes, demands Carnival - a conscious embracing of our shadow selves - that not only express in costume and activity our darkest fears and wounds but also allow us the chance to playfully release them into God's great love:
There is a dreamlike place that tradition offers that holds a wild pageantry of the dark, unknown elements of the soul:  Carnival.  Carnival prededes any efforts we might make at dying by allowing us to live in a compensatory period - briefly - that is a kind of reckless and daring make-believe world of shadows.  And throughout history, in every part of the world, civilized societies recognize the need to return for a brief moment to the chaos... a dance that honors all that is dark and messy and disorganized and iconoclastic and just the other side of our human consciousness...

The Feast of Fools is the Christian paradigm for Carnival - and I'll head into that territory tomorrow.  For now let's just say that the upside-down Lent that I am exploring is playful and sensual as a way of letting go and trusting God's grace at a deeper level; it is tender and compassionate as a way of sharing with the poor; and it is mostly silent or musical as a prompt to prayers of waiting and discernment.  What's more, it asks each and all of us to look at where Christ is being crucified within and among us today rather than only looking backwards in the traditionally sentimental or fetishistic ways of the Reformed and Roman traditions.


Anonymous said…
During this time between church homes, I am so grateful for your words. Thank you.
RJ said…
Thanks you guys: miss you both!

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