Coronavirus: The Lenten fast we did not choose

I attended our church’s Ash Wednesday service with hardly a second thought, going forward to be marked with ashes of repentance to signal the beginning of the 40-day Lenten season ending with Easter Sunday. I never imagined that would be one of the last public worship services I would attend during Lent.

I don’t think any of us would have chosen the fast we are currently practicing. Social distancing, which is a nice way of saying “forced isolation.” No parties or gatherings or dinners out or even in-person Sunday worship services. Is this how I imagined Lent?

In a word, no, never, not at all.

We are all living through a time none of us could have foreseen. We’re balancing working at home with homeschooling without any social outlets. We’ve seen the inside of our four walls much more than ever before, and we have been forced to be limited to in-person social contact within our homes and workplaces (if deemed “essential”). What will it be like when this unchosen fast is broken? What kind of grand dinner parties and back-to-school celebrations will be held? What will it be like to return to worship at our places of worship, side-by-side with the physical manifestation of the Body of Christ? To receive the elements of communion again in the Lord’s Supper? To witness a baptism? To sing with a building full of people?

I think I’m saving my true Easter celebration for then. (Oh, that it were *only* 40 days of this unchosen fast!) I think that will speak of resurrection, of life after death, more than our live-streamed service this Sunday – if I can say that without being sacrilegious. Don’t get me wrong – I am grateful for technology that makes live-streaming Sunday worship possible, and “virtual” small group meetings and friend chats. But I know I’m not alone in saying that virtual is no substitute for in-person.

How will we emerge from this fast together? I hope we will be people who cannot help but cherish our social gatherings more – who stop putting off inviting the friends for dinner and holding the “just because” party. People who will never take a coffee date or lunch meeting for granted. People who will value connection in physical spaces more than we ever did before, when we couldn’t help but take it for granted and assume that “lunch out” and “dinner dates” would always be available.

I hope we are a people who will be more appreciative of those on the frontlines right now. The delivery workers, the grocers, the nurses and doctors and healthcare workers, the teachers (oh, the teachers! let’s all vote for HUGE raises for them!), the USPS deliverers. Let us make this imposed social fast one that yields good fruit in the days when the fasting ends. For it will end one day. Coronavirus will not have the last word. No, it will not, and we will emerge stronger, more connected, more grateful. Resurrection people who cherish life after death in every sense of the word.

Holy Monday

{repost from March 30, 2015}

It sits just on the other side of triumphant Palm Sunday, and days before the remembering, mourning, and celebrating of Thursday through Sunday. It can feel lost – this “Holy Monday.” (And is that an oxymoron? How can Monday ever be holy? More often “mundane” is an adjective of choice.)

I wonder if “Holy Monday” (and “Holy Tuesday” and “Holy Wednesday”) are needed so that our hearts are ready for the sobriety of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. For something shifted in the crowd who welcomed Jesus with palm branches waving, surrendering their outerwear as a pathway for their donkey-saddled King. Something shifted between this “Triumphal Entry” and the angry crowds begging for his execution on Friday. It was the overlooked days of “Holy Monday/Tuesday/Wednesday.”

The days when I overlook – or fail to look – at my king, humbled and riding on a donkey, but riding nonetheless TO ME; the days when I overlook the tears Jesus wept over this city (and symbolically, over every city in which any of us dwell); these days are the ones when my heart can go rogue. It slips out beneath my notice and goes after its old lovers. The ones promising quick satisfaction without waiting for long promises to be fulfilled. The lovers who tell me I’m beautiful (especially if I use their line of clothing and beauty products). The ones who lure my restless heart with excitement and adventure (forgetting to highlight the fine print warning of: use only at great risk to your soul). It was these false lovers who won over the hearts of the crowds in the four days between Palm Sunday and Good Friday. The false lovers were clothed in religious garb. They planted questions like –

“How dare he claim to be the Son of God? Who does he think he is?”

“We were promised a Messiah to rescue us. We are still under Roman oppression. Jesus cannot be the promised one.”

“This Jesus is not what we really want. He is working too slow – or not at all.”

And these same religious leaders were at work behind closed doors making deals with an insider who would betray Jesus (Judas). They were plotting his death while the crowds went about their business on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. They were stirring up the crowds, with insidious doubts at first and then with explicit commands.

Holy Monday can become “Holy” only when I first admit how similar I am to these fickle crowds. I want a king who comes on my terms, to deliver me in my way, and to make me powerful with him. A king who calls me to follow after him, deny myself, and lose my life to save it? No, thank you. I think I’ll go find someone else. Holy Monday becomes holy when I look at the God who has won me wholly. Even (especially) in the days when my heart feels prone to wander.

Lent as a rehearsal of the gospel

cross desert

For a contemplative – which is what I am in many, many more ways than I’ve been willing to admit – Lent is a season rich with treasures. There are worship services full of meaning: Ash Wednesday to launch Lent; Good Friday to meditate on the suffering of the cross; and then the glorious climax of Easter Sunday at its end. There are thoughtful devotional resources. This year I’m reading “Journey to the Cross” which I found here at TGC, written by Kendal Haug and Will Walker out of Providence Church Austin. The church worldwide is led into a season of denial leading up to Good Friday, and then the church universal celebrates joyously on Easter Sunday. 

It’s a rehearsal of the gospel story. Not only in the obvious way – the season of repentance, remembering, self-denial, that ends with a day of remembering Jesus’ suffering for our sake; and then three days later, celebrating resurrection life with the empty tomb on Easter – but also in our own hearts.

Each year I face the reality that the law cannot save me. Regardless of how low I set the bar for Lenten denial (“just” abstaining from sweets, or “just” not using non-essential phone apps) and repentant engagement (“just” loving my family better, or “just” noticing the homeless in our city and praying for them) – I can’t do it. On a “good” year I might last two weeks before I break Lent. Then I inevitably do what I try to do when I forget that Jesus did it all. I try to be better; I try harder; I invite more accountability; I set the bar lower or higher.

And my striving never works. It doesn’t produce the result of a more disciplined life. Instead, it produces a heart desperate for the rescue of grace. A heart that comes to Good Friday painfully aware of my inability to stay awake to repentance even for 40 days. A heart that cannot make itself righteous. A heart that needs resurrection hope. A heart that is rescued only by turning away from self-denial and embracing the life of the dying-now-resurrected Savior.

So this year, as I’ve been aware of my inability to sustain any sort of meaningful Lenten fast – I say, “help me, God!” And I thank God that he has. That he sent Jesus whose ministry started with the test (and the passing!) of the wilderness temptation. Jesus who followed the Spirit into this very wilderness testing, passing the test I will always fail.

True Lenten fasting uncovers the layers of our hearts where we struggle to trust this Jesus who did it all for us out of love. True Lenten fasting leaves us longing for more of Jesus and hopeful because in the Spirit through faith we have Christ within us – the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)