I quit Lent this year. I didn’t really, but in retrospect, I should’ve. When the COVID lockdown started, it was unsettling. Everything was different. People were dying. The world seemed lost. I didn’t figure it out until Easter, but, in the time of global pandemic, Lent doesn’t make sense.
The liturgical year is a re-enactment of Jesus’ life, a way to tell time that corresponds with the cycles of hope and despair, suffering and salvation, which mark human existence. We observe these seasons as a reminder. In a world that is easily distracted by wealth or privilege or competing attempts to ascribe meaning to self-indulgence, we’re prone to forget reality, if not ultimate reality.
In normal times, at least for us in the wealthy West, Lent is a welcome and necessary focus on the suffering our culture spends so much time helping us avoid. As we walk through the pains of human existence, through the eyes of Jesus, who chooses willingly to identify with the poor and oppressed, we can better understand our responsibilities to each other. We recognize and remember that salvation costs something.
It’s often said that white congregations focus on Good Friday and minorities emphasize Sunday morning. This alludes to the divergent experiences of privilege and oppression. Those Christians who don’t look like me don’t need to be reminded of the cost of salvation, or the very real place of suffering in the human condition.
In normal times, I need Lent. Yes, it’s the epitome of privilege that I can choose a specific season to focus on and attempt to understand the depths of suffering in the world, but it is also reality. Without those intentional periods, despite my everyday attempts to avoid the seclusion and separation to which modern society gravitates, if I don’t make space for suffering and sacrifice, my culture will do its level best to ensure I never see it.
Ideally, we’d be able to focus on all aspects of God’s Kingdom and Christian living at all times. We’d be able to balance the positive and the negative, the suffering, sacrifice, and celebration all together in a messy, but helpful mix. I’ve tried and I’m just not that good at it. I need the rhythms of the Church Year to keep me honest.
Not this year, though. Lent just didn’t make sense. I did not need to be reminded that people are suffering, that the world is not as perfect as I’m led to believe, that peace and justice and equity and salvation don’t just happen. I was reminded of those things every day. More of it on Sunday wasn’t helping.
But its for that same reason I’m really looking forward to Advent. In the same way Lent was the exact wrong season for us to be in a global pandemic, Advent is the perfect time to experience an overwhelming problem that is beyond our control.
Advent is my favorite season – largely because I’m a control freak and I constantly guilt myself into believing I’m not doing enough. I love Advent, because I’m given permission to pass the buck, to admit I can’t solve all the problems in the world – that no one can – and to put all the weight of responsibility back on God.
Advent is the season to shake your fist at the heavens and exclaim, “Why the heck are you letting this happen?”
Now, I don’t believe God pulls strings in everyday life. I don’t think God controls the weather and I don’t think God can keep my car from running out of gas until I get to the next exit. I don’t have a conception of God that lends itself to the unexplained.
I’m also not one to abdicate human responsibility. I don’t think we, collectively are incapable of living and being the people God created us to be. While I don’t think humans naturally possess the ability to bring about our own salvation, I do whole-heartedly support the idea that, as part of God’s salvation of the world, we’re invited and included (and perhaps necessary) for that future to become reality.
We can do what God has called us to do. We have a part to play in the fulfillment of all things. We just can do it by sheer force of will. Like most gospel-related issues, this is one of control. We attempt to tackle, solve, and overcome our problems with power and force. If we give more, work more, try harder, accomplish, then we can bring about the solution to all life’s problems.
Advent is the season where we admit that’s just not true. You cannot conquer your enemies by cunning or guile or brute force. We can only “win,” by persistence. Advent is the season where we remind ourselves to keep our heads down and keep at it. War, poverty, hatred. Racism, inequality, violence. These are the insidious enemies of the gospel and they remain so because we continue to attack them on their own terms.
COVID has shown us we can’t win through bluster. We can’t wish or will it away; stubborn refusal to acknowledge the power of this particular enemy has not effect (or maybe the opposite effect). That does not mean it can’t be defeated. God has promised and given us the power to overcome. It’s just not done the way the world tells us it should be.
We are powerless to defeat real evil, if we expect the victory to come tomorrow or the next day, or even in our lifetime. That doesn’t mean we stop trying, but it does mean we take a different approach. Advent is the season where we let go of our allusions of grandeur and say, “God, your way better work, because ours sure isn’t.”
That’s the desperate hope I need during this pandemic Advent season. I pray it’s hope you find for yourselves during this time as well.
Christ has come. Christ is coming again. Come, Lord Jesus. Come.