There is a small part of me – let’s call it my inner child – that desires for the Christmas season to be extended sixth months in either direction. Time off from work, school, commitments. Time spent with family, friends, loved ones. Time to celebrate, or for some, time at least to open a gift or two. But instead of two days, two weeks or even a month that is spent celebrating Christmas, imagine if we celebrated in that way every day. Sounds pretty great to me, or at least to my inner child.
The reason I love the Christmas season so much actually has very little to do with time off, family or gifts (although like most people, I do very much enjoy each of those things). The appealing part about Christmas to me is the celebration of new life. The birth of Christ, the most important birth in the history of the world, can bring inexplicable joy and excitement. The Advent season anticipating Jesus’ birth reminds us of our own experience anticipating new life, like when pregnant mothers glow with an indescribable expectation, or when parents who decide to adopt cry tears of joy as they meet their child for the first time. There is so much joy found in the expectation of new life.
As Christians, that joy typically extends to us in the Christmas season. We enter into Advent, ready to once again welcome in the Son of God, sent to deliver us from our sins. Regardless of what stresses or problems tug at our sleeves, as people who have devoted our lives to following after Jesus Christ it is challenging not to feel at least a little joy when our face is turned toward the brightness and hope of the Christmas season. Somehow, Christmas softens our eyes to the sharp evils of the world. Hopeless situations seem a little less bleak, despite the harsh reality that may prevail.
Although the joy of Christmas is something I crave, I have recently come to realize that although year-round Christmas sounds like a wonderful idea, it actually isn’t. Someone, somewhere, who was no doubt more educated and more logical (and more adult) than I am, realized this long ago and developed the church calendar which congregations of different denominations have since looked to for centuries. On this calendar, we find Advent and Christmas of course, but also Epiphany, Lent, and Easter. These seasons are remarkably spaced out to fit so well with the seasons of a year in the life of a disciple of Christ.
Christmas is commonly the favorite, but Advent and Epiphany are equally as joyful and anticipatory. Easter is a pretty joyous occasion, too, but in a different way. At Christmas we celebrate the birth of Christ; at Easter we celebrate the life, ministry, death, resurrection and promised return of Christ. There is joy there, but also pain, death, surprise, and an open-ended expectation that requires much more patience than Advent does. Each season is unique, but there seems to be an undercurrent of joy in each of these.
Lent, though, is something of an enigma to many people. It sticks out from the other seasons of the church calendar, probably because it is traditional for Christians to participate in some sort of discipline during the forty or so days of the Lenten season. It is no surprise then that Lent is such an odd time. It is challenging to find joy in a period of discipline – which, these days, is a harsh word with generally negative connotations that tastes unfamiliar in our mouths.
Fasting (another seldom used word) is the traditional discipline of Lent, and you’ll hear Christians talk about giving up meat, soda, or other various pleasures. Ideally, the disciplines of Lent are supposed to mimic the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his ministry. They are supposed to prepare the Christian for the hardships of life, ministry, and eventually – at Easter – the death and resurrection of Christ. Fasting in particular is meant to form and shape the Christian into a more submissive, obedient (oh look, more unfamiliar words) disciple. No wonder you’ll never hear anyone talk about Lent as their favorite season. It requires these words to be invoked and practiced in a world that tells us we deserve the opposite: self-indulgence, over-indulgence, power and control.
Although not all denominations participate in the full spectrum of the church calendar, my church tradition encourages discipline in Lent. From the time I was young, I’ve heard every year about Lenten discipline and fasting. As a young adult mature enough to engage in Lent and actually understand it, I’ve tried every kind of fasting in the book. I’ve given up different foods, drinks, and food altogether (for one or two days a week). In recent years, I’ve heard about new movements of Lenten disciplines, like volunteering in service to other people or even simply adopting a more Christ-like mindset.
This Lent, I struggled to land on a discipline that would grow me in the ways the season intends. I’m experiencing this strange time of transition after graduating from college but before pursuing further theological education. I’m stuck in a state of physical and mental disorientation and inconsistency, which sounds like it would be helpful in the Lenten season. However, Lent is a season of the spirit which is shaped by the physical and the mental. Despite my confusing circumstances, my spiritual life has benefitted from time away from structure and expectation. I find myself spiritually healthier than I have been in years. After an inventory of my spiritual life at the beginning of this Lenten season, I believed that this newly discovered spiritual health would make any Lenten discipline a little less helpful. In the past, the disciplines I engaged in were meant only to address my spiritual shortcomings.
After prayer and consideration, I ended up with no specific Lenten discipline. I still participate in my normal spiritual disciplines (daily prayer, reading and writing Scripture, periodic contemplative silence) but I didn’t take up any new ones for this season. Given the fact that I’ve actively participated in Lent since I was a teenager, I felt like my conclusion was a disappointment, if not to God then most definitely to myself and my church tradition.
Since the beginning of this season, though, I have thought about Lent almost daily. After sorting through convention and tradition, I remembered the inspiration for the season of Lent: Christ’s forty-day journey of silence and fasting in the desert, meant to prepare him for a ministry unlike any the world had ever seen or ever would see again. Although few knew it at the time, Jesus entered the wilderness as the Son of God, the Word, the one who was, and who is, and who is to come. The spiritual health of Christ at the moment he entered the desert was as perfect as it was when he left. Jesus obviously did not require discipline to bring him nearer to God; on the contrary, Christ’s identity as Son of God allowed him full access to and shared identity with God. Jesus did not require this discipline, but he chose to participate it in anyway.
None of that is to say that my spiritual life does not require discipline; I chose not to participate in a new discipline this Lent because I couldn’t decide and I was already engaging in certain disciplines, not because I thought I didn’t need it. But I find it interesting that so often we view spiritual discipline only as a mode of increasing our spiritual health, or as a way of decreasing our distance from God. But at the center of the inspiration for Lent we find Jesus, whose spiritual health and closeness to God are in perfect condition.
Why participate in Lent, then, if not just for improvement of our spiritual health? Well, as disciples of Jesus, we want to follow in his footsteps. We desire to do the things that Jesus does. So we take part in spiritual disciplines, we are baptized, we experience communion. We seek to heal what is hurt, bring life where there is death, and give of ourselves to others. At least, that is the way it is supposed to work.
How often do we actually do those things, though? I know that I am guilty of going through the motions, affirming my own success as a follower of Jesus regardless of whether there is any proof of that or not, denying the reality of my sinfulness, perpetuating hurt rather than healing it, and the list goes on and on. Lent is a really good time to perform an inventory on our discipleship. It is a good time to consider the reality of our success as those who claim to follow Jesus. It is a good time to realize our need for discipline and, more importantly, our need for forgiveness and grace.
This Lent, I think my discipline is different. My discipline is discernment about my own spiritual life. I am searching honestly for my shortcomings, which are too easy to unearth. I am developing a plan to combat those shortcomings. I’m in my own sort of wilderness, preparing for what I hope will be a ministry that really does follow in the footsteps of Jesus.
My challenge to you is to consider adopting a Lenten attitude year round. We all know that if every day was Christmas, it would lose the excitement, the joy, and everything that makes it special; it would become incredibly ordinary. Yes, we often call ourselves a Christmas people, or an Easter people. But, if we decided to be a people of Lent, a disciplined, submissive, obedient people, I believe the Lenten mindset would also become incredibly ordinary – in the best way. The discipline of Lent is meant to anticipate Holy Week, and the joy of Easter; imagine how it would be if, through our discipline, we anticipated the Last Supper, the Cross and the Resurrection year round. I think we would find ourselves squarely where we desire to be: directly behind the one whose name we proclaim.