Out of the dreary, dark February nights comes an ancient monastic practice designed to prepare Christians for the light to come. Lent has historically been a chance for us to hunker down, shield ourselves from the harsh climes and divert our energies away from comfort and excess into wholesome prayer and devotion.
Our modern sojourn of 40 days and 40 nights in the desert is an admittedly watered-down affair. Rather than subsisting solely on bread, water and the holy Word of God, we tend to mark the season with abstinence from certain mild excesses and vices. Even so, Lent is a season savoured by many Christians as a chance to refocus on Jesus, the ultimate source of all that we enjoy and appreciate. There are, of course, plenty of benefits both psychological and spiritual to a season of anti-consumption like lent. In a culture fueled by the consumption of (what we have now all discovered as) unessential items, to spend six weeks choosing to restrain the impulse to devour more stuff can feel immensely freeing and empowering.
In March 2020, as the Church, and much of the British public were already in the midst of a season of abstinence, much of the world was also facing an extraordinary call to cut back. The dust swept up by the COVID-19 pandemic – which has now claimed over 375,000 people worldwide – was enough to drive people of all colours, creeds, nations and nationalities into their homes for shelter, waiting until their governments gave the ‘all clear’.
For many in the modern world, a lockdown of this scale is unprecedented. But for some Christians, the timing may have seemed uncanny, almost appropriate. The call was to stay home, only shop when necessary but also to think outwardly about neighbours and to express profound thanks for those on the frontlines. In 2020, Lent was essentially state-sanctioned. Abstinence became a duty, an act of national service.
In the UK, every Thursday evening at 8 pm, the nation gathered in doorways to share a socially-distant ‘Peace’ with one another. A display of gratitude in a time of crisis, complete with applause, pot-banging and fireworks.
Then came Easter: The declaration that Christ has risen. Songs were sung; vast quantities of chocolate were shamelessly consumed, lambs were roasted and dipped in mint sauce. The resurrection is evidence that the very fabric of the universe has forever been altered. Christians prepare for that moment in the prayer and fasting of Lent and then celebrate the revival of all things by easing their self-imposed lifestyle lockdown.
But somehow Lent continued.
On April 13, Easter Monday, when the Church was ready to get back on the booze/chocolate/Facebook (delete as appropriate) the call to cut back from authorities had only grown stronger and more urgent. Prime Minister Boris Johnson had only just left the hospital after a severe case of COVID-19, and the UK death toll had passed 10,000.
Churches had just begun to adapt to the idea of meeting virtually and the reality was setting in that this was going to continue for quite some time. This brought opportunities – an estimated 15m people watched or listened to a UK church service and outward-looking parish communities rushed to meet the practical needs of vulnerable parishioners through food banks and support lines.
By the start of May, it was beginning to seem like this Lenten lifestyle was going to be the new normal. And the sun had started to come out. Spring turned inexorably to Summer, the liturgical season of Easter turned to Pentecost and now Ordinary time. Time did not stop moving forward and lockdown continued to keep us in place.
For many of us, the cognitive dissonance that this experience has engendered is a source of significant pain. We are formed by the natural cycles which move from Winter to Summer and back again each year, and the liturgical, narrative movement from Advent to Christmas, and Lent to Easter. For these symbols to not be met by their corresponding action – from indoors to outdoor, from abstinence to feasting – has led to a deep sense of ‘wrongness’.
We are formed by the natural cycles which move from Winter to Summer and back again each year, and the liturgical, narrative movement from Advent to Christmas, and Lent to Easter. For these symbols to not be met by their corresponding action – from indoors to outdoor, from abstinence to feasting – has led to a deep sense of ‘wrongness’.
Often these feelings are not acknowledged or discussed but inevitably practical questions have been raised as to whether the lockdown would hold – could the people hold their nerve? Would they eschew the warmth and light of summer for more chastity and discipline? What about the parents who were now dual providers and educators? And what about those for whom home could not be relied on as a place of sanctuary?
The devotional practice of Lent is marked by introspection and preparation. It falls at the twilight of winter, and it ends with an outward-facing, joyful celebration of new life in the world and new life in Christ.
At this point in 2020, though we may have acknowledged and celebrated our resurrection with Jesus, it feels as though the full celebration of new life and the world around us is on hold, at least until the pandemic is under control.