“What if I get nothing out of Lent?”
We’re so pragmatic!
We want results, or if nothing else, explanations. It is so like us to approach in this way even these times in the liturgical seasons that urge us to take a break from something for a few weeks. “What sort of epiphany am I going to discover through this practice? What golden nugget of truth will I dig up by giving up chicken nuggets and their kind during these 40 days?”
Or even if we’re in some other season of life that is awfully burdensome and beyond our control, we are so frequently prone to think, “What am I supposed to be learning in this time?” or “What is God trying to teach me?” Often these ponderings come from a premise that is more cliché than it is true – “There’s a reason for everything.” Really?
Thomas Merton once wrote: “We cannot avoid missing the point of almost everything we do. But what of it? Life is not a matter of getting something out of everything. Life itself is imperfect. All created beings begin to die as soon as they begin to live…” Well, that’s awfully morbid, Fr. Merton! But these words are not all that different than the ones I spoke to those who gathered for the imposition of ashes last week: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
Numerous people come forward who have just lost a friend to death from pancreatic cancer four days prior. Another with tears in her eyes just brought her husband home from the hospital…a husband who had pancreatic cancer six years ago and still has days and weeks where the effects take their toll on his health. Children looking up at me in their innocence with a smile on their face as I kneel down and tell them the same thing I tell the 90-year-old woman who makes her way forward with a walker to the chancel to receive the ashes: “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It is closer for some than others.
“What am I supposed to be learning in all this? What can I get out of this?” And I’m wondering if I need to learn to be content with this response: “Perhaps nothing.” I’m not trying to be nihilistic, but I wonder if lingering too long looking for some hidden meaning or hoping for an epiphany might not provide the satisfactory explanation I desire. Perhaps the only desire that can only be fully satisfied, as Merton had said earlier, is “…the desire to be loved by God.”
One of the passages for that somber day – Ash Wednesday – is from the prophet Joel, who speaks to a people who are coming to grips with their own frailty as a nation – threatened by either: (1) a mighty Assyrian empire with an overpowering military; (2) a plague of locusts that would devour their crop and drastically affect their livelihood and health; or (3) both. Speculation can abound as to theodicy – why was this evil coming upon them? “It’s punishment from God for their unfaithfulness.” “It’s to enter into suffering so they can grow in their awareness and dependence on God.” And so on. For Joel’s situation, there seemed to be a clear explanation as to why – they understood it as punishment for their unfaithfulness, their lack of trust in God to provide whatever they needed.
The explanations might look different in our frail circumstances. But what stands out to me is that his response gives utterance to a resignation from trying to control the outcome and rather to simply do the right thing – to repent in dust and ashes. After the call to repent, to return to the Lord, Joel offers up a rather peculiar, ambiguous outcome. “Who knows whether [the Lord] will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him…” (Joel 2:14). Quite an interesting level of uncertainty in the prophet’s words. “Who knows…?”
In grief, in contemplation and a growing awareness of our own mortality, in view of circumstances that are beyond our control, in humility, and in repentance of past mistakes, we turn to God with ashes on our heads in the shape of the cross – the ultimate sign of mortality and the reminder of what it cost our Redeemer Jesus to rescue us from the pit of death.
And so, among other things I’m giving up for Lent, I’m trying to give up the search to find some other hidden meaning. Perhaps I won’t get anything out of it. We don’t enter into the Lenten season practicing disciplines in order to achieve a particular return. It’s not an investment. Fasting and praying are not disciplines that we engage in in order to “cash in” on some prize later. Whether we offer the prepared prayers of the liturgies or in extemporaneous manner, it is not for the sake of getting what we want, as if God were a vending machine sort of divine being – but our prayers, our fasting, our disciplines…these are for the sake of training our minds and bodies and souls to grow in our desire to be loved by God and to take one step closer in our desire to faithfully follow Jesus. And when the former is realized, the latter may be more likely to become a part of who we are as we find ourselves embracing those who are poor or grieving or meek or lonely or embattled or any other attribute so given by Jesus in the beatitudes – and doing this in compassion, carrying on our foreheads, but more importantly in our hearts and actions, the sign of the cross.
Who knows? Maybe there’s nothing more to get out of it than to know that we are loved by God. Isn’t that enough?