During Advent, we sing joyful carols and indulge in tiny gifts from our Advent calendars. On Christmas, we feast and rejoice and share the warmth of each other’s company. On Easter, we sing loudly of God’s triumph over death and turn a blind eye while our children gorge on chocolate and treats, and then we wait for half a year until Advent comes again.
But Lent begins with a minister smearing ash on your face and telling you that you are dust and will one day return to dust. In Lent, we give up things that we love and sometimes experience the frustration of breaking those commitments. And Lent does not end with a bright and cheery Easter morning. No, Lent officially ends with Jesus’ last meal, and gives way to Good Friday, when Christ is tried, tortured, executed, and laid to rest in the tomb. You might say that Lent is the odd man out in Church calendar, and for people who know the Church as a place of cheer, comfort, and fellowship, perhaps this all seems quite out of place. Why fast? Why meditate on suffering? Why remember that we are inexorably but dust?
For its very oddness, Lent brings balance to the year. During Lent, we remember that Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert: tired, hungry, and tempted, the devil close behind him at every step. We remember Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem, where, accused of treason, he would find that his closest friends had abandoned him, and one had even betrayed him. We remember that Jesus was once in a garden, alone with God, shaking and sweating and pleading with God that this trial would pass, and that the very next day, he would look his mother in the eye and tell another man to be her son after his death. You might not find that a very pleasant thing to think on—in fact, it is nearly unthinkable—unless, of course, this is reality for you, too.
There are times when life is like a desert, and nothing at all seems to give us comfort or shade or relief from our thirst, and a voice close behind tells us to give up. There are some who know all too well what it is to be kept up at night, alone, shaking and pleading with God for relief. And all of us, at some point, will know what it is to see the person who means the world to us be stolen up into darkness. Lent describes a part of life that the other seasons just don’t cover. Lent is a reminder that darkness sometimes blocks out the sun, and we may not know which way to go from there.
But there, in the darkness and the quiet, there is still Good News: these parts of life are not uncharted territory. Jesus was there, acquainted with our suffering, with hunger and thirst and grief and trepidation. Jesus paved the way for us, because in him, God deigned to walk through our places of misery and anguish, even to the point of death. And God came through, having proved for us that no darkness is insurmountable. Jesus once said, “The one who is faithful in the little things will be faithful in great things” (Luke 16:10). If we practice how to pass through darkness during Lent, when it is only a matter of fasting and meditating—if we learn from Jesus how to suffer and weep and groan faithfully—then when darkness truly covers all, and there seems to be no exit, we will know in which direction to run to reach the light.