fasting, of self-denial, giving up certain luxuries in symbolic solidarity with Christ's ultimate sacrifice, is common across all denominations. It may not be quite as popular today as it once was but we all know of it. So we typically forsake chocolate or going out to eat or watching movies or some other food or activity that gives us pleasure. Some of us choose to give up and live a more austere life than others. You get my drift. Except this Lent was different.
We were barely into the typical pattern of Lenten devotion when the world changed. COVID 19 and coronoavirus turned an ordinary Lent into something strange, foreign, alien, and scary. Suddenly it was not a choice to give up candy but the world and its fear had stolen our lives. We ended up giving up the ordinary chores as well as little luxuries of life. Well, that is not quite true. We did not have a choice. Fear took them from us with the promise that we might be safe from the threat if we gave up enough for long enough. So we have huddled in our homes, kept our distance from friends and strangers alike, restricted our coming and going, and listened to the grim news. Along with this, we also surrendered something more. We gave up the comfort of God's House and the gathering together of His people around His Word and Table.
It has been a long and torturous Lent. It was not because we gave up more than we could or should have but because it was not given up at all. It was taken. In exchange, we lived in the tension of our fears, hoping against hope for the day when the threat would end, but unsure life would ever return to where it was. Churches have been shuttered and we have learned to watch worship as if that were normal. The sacrifices we have made have tempted us to think that we have suffered more than any before us. We struggle to see God in the shadows of our fears or to find peace and rest as the nightmare unfolded. In the end it seems as if the Church has become as weak as ever -- hidden behind locked doors and stuck competing with the latest memes or cute videos to give relief or comfort to a people who have only screens left.
But there will be an end to this long Lent. I cannot predict it now nor can you. But it will come. We will certainly be different people, with different views of life, and with different relationships -- both toward people and the sacred institutions and important pillars of our old lives. And then we will see what has always been, the one constant. Change and decay, all around I see. O Thou, who changest not, abide with me. The Word of the Lord endures forever. This life was always weak and fragile, wasting away toward its appointed end even as the life that death cannot overcome was and is moving toward its appointed and eternal future. In the end, I hope and pray we are not the same and the lives we go back to are not the same old lives along with the bitter memories of the past few months. I pray that God will teach us the wisdom of His Word and we will learn that only the Lord is trustworthy and true, eternal and good. I pray that though the cost of this long Lent will be great, the wisdom we will learn by faith will be greater still. If God be for us, who can be against us?
God uses the difficult experiences of our lives to persuade us to hope. Hope is not a decision or an intuition or a feeling. It is grace, bestowed by the Holy Spirit, that moves our hearts to trust when dark the road and uncertain the path -- because Christ has walked the way, the author and pioneer who charts the way for us. As long as we keep our eyes upon Him, we need not know the way. The richest experiences are not the joyful moments that we wish would last forever but the dark and difficult times that we wish were over before they began. For hidden within our pain and loss is the Lord who paid the ultimate price to rescue us from despair and lead those captive to death to hope and life.
In the history of Christendom, the best hymns have been born of pain and loss, sorrow and grief. In the crucible of suffering, saints show themselves and shine with the brightness of the one, true Light. In the tests and trials thrust upon us, we discover what must never be surrendered. God has planted us in hope when He joined us to Christ's death and resurrection. Easter is not some distraction to make us think death never was but the profound triumph that is most clear and most profound when death is recognized as real and powerful. Christ has overcome death not with a whim but with His earnest and holy life, His life-giving sacrificial death, and His perfect and ultimate sacrifice. Easter does not take away from the cross but shows to us in unmistakable fashion what the cross has accomplished, once for all. Our salvation is won, forgiveness is not in doubt, and a life stronger than death is now our destiny in Him who died never to die again.
Lent is always long. It always is. This Lent has surely been longer. But Easter is forever. The long and dark Lent will not remain in our memories but Easter will fill every emptiness and turn our focus from what we lost to what Christ won for us and our salvation.
The end of Lent also means that I can break into my stash of Thin Mints Girl Scout cookies that I purchased just a few days before Ash Wednesday. Happens every year but then they taste so good!
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