Haven’t We All Sacrificed Enough: A Christian Tries to Observe Lent

Article ID: JAF0322AK | By: Anne Kennedy


This is an online-exclusive from the Christian Research Journal. For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

Starting in February 2021, online-exclusive articles, have been locked and are only available for Journal subscribers; however, given the time sensitive nature and global importance of this subject, our editorial board decided to make this available to the public as soon as possible. Also consider this a free preview of the quality and in-depth research that goes into our online-exclusives. To learn more about subscribing and gaining  access to future online-exclusive articles, please see our FAQ section on Early Access to Online-Exclusive Articles by clicking here and subscribing by clicking here.

When you to subscribe to the Journal, you join the team of print subscribers whose paid subscriptions help provide the resources at equip.org that minister to people worldwide. These resources include our ever growing database of over 1,500 articles, as well as our free Postmodern Realities podcast.

Another way you can support our online articles is by leaving us a tip. A tip is just a small amount, like $3, $5, or $10 which is the cost for some of a latte, lunch out, or coffee drink. To leave a tip, click here


​“I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent,” the pastor paused for breath and stretched out his hands to the congregation, trying by the power of his will to disbar the sleep from their eyes, for it was only seven in the morning, and a miracle that any of them were there at the appointed time. His voice called across the empty pews, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”1 The assembled ten people, bilious from the carb-laden stupor of previous evening’s Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper, wrestled their wandering minds to the liturgical mat and began to confess their sins.

It is an ancient practice — the observation of Lent — and one that for many, especially in the apocalypse of COVID-19, is falling by the way. It is becoming a vestigial yet beautiful anachronism for which formerly religious people feel nostalgia, without being able to remember why they obeyed when the church called for their penitent attention.

One such person, Margaret Renkl, writing in the New York Times, found that when in-person services resumed, she had no more desire to go. When, suddenly, Lent loomed up on the horizon, she was forced to rethink the cultural and spiritual rhythms that had given her life some sort of, if not theological, at least practical structure. From the sanctuary of her home, she grappled with the call that I myself heard from the pew, the observation of a Holy Lent, and the smear of ash on my forehead. “Performing this ancient ritual,” writes Renkle, “he will murmur, ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ The priest will say these words on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, but he will not be saying these words to me.”2

Her growing disaffection for the Church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church’s stance on women, was precipitated into full blown alienation in the time of COVID-19. But the deeper problem, I think, is that Renkle ceased to believe in the God whom Christians worship. She puts it this way:

I have had a troubled relationship with the church of my childhood since childhood itself, when I learned in Catholic school that I would never be allowed to become a priest. For decades, nevertheless, the gifts of my faith outweighed the pronouncements of the institutional church that I found alienating or enraging. Human institutions are inherently flawed, and I have always loved the rituals that linked me across time to so many others facing fear and loneliness and pain, to so many others finding solace in their faith. Then the pandemic quarantines left me unchurched through no choice of my own, and the death of our last parent, for whom there would only ever be one Church, left my husband and me free to make our own choices about where to worship.3

There has been a great sifting, that’s true. If you were a person who merely attended a church before the pandemic, the numbers are showing that you didn’t feel like you needed to return when in-person worship resumed.4 Rather, it was the people who sat in front of their wretched screens for several months, frustrated out of their wits, who rushed back to the pews as soon as they were able. These people weren’t church “attenders,” they were members, they belonged — not by some happenstance, but because they had worked for many years to wedge themselves into the lives of other people. Or rather, God incorporated them into the mystical Body of His Son. It was painful and hard, but it happened, and so on the other side of lockdown, there wasn’t any question, they went rushing back.

And this is the key to approaching any particular season in the church, whether a penitential one, like Lent, or a celebratory one, like Easter. If the observance is approached as an individual making a personal choice, the meaning and purpose of the church’s invitation becomes obscured and may even cause distress. For the nominal church attender, like Renkle, when Lent rolls around, questions of religion and faith, however unbidden, surge to the fore: “Isn’t the promise of immortality what Lent prepares us for? How will I make ready, now that I am without a church? What rituals will I observe, now that the stations of the cross no longer belong to me?”5 The “promise of immortality” is rather a vague way of referring to the moment that we all will face — death. How will we each meet it as we go down to the dust? Can some kind of ritual, divorced from meaning and community, make the bitter pill easier to swallow?

The Real Reason for Lent

Lent, for the believing Christian, is not about a personal preparation for death. Rather, it is a time to corporately discover afresh the reason for death itself — your own rejection of the One who made you for Himself. You are a sinner who will one day (perhaps sooner than you like) face a just and holy God who sees all you have done and all you have thought and all you have left undone. This holy God cannot live in the presence of wickedness and sin, which is what — if you look closely — you will discover you have committed yourself to (Rom. 3:23).

But this holy and just God is also merciful. It is one of His “properties,” that is, it is part of who He is (Lam. 3:22–23). And so, He provides a way out of the problem. He comes and takes your place, receiving in Himself the penalty due for your sin and rejection of Him. He takes up the cross and dies, offering His death in exchange for yours (1 Pet. 2:24–25). The “promise of immortality” is not some vague life that goes on in the same way it has here, only more spiritual. It is a sure and certain life with God forever (Rom. 6:4) — a life joined not only to Christ, but to all those He binds you to in Himself.

Tracing out the Stations of the Cross through Lent, or in Holy Week, is one way that Christians remind themselves of the moving and astonishing mercy of God, who set aside everything to reclaim them and bring them home to Himself. But sure, I guess if you don’t believe that anymore, you could still try to do something to mark the occasion. I don’t know why, except to keep the lingering remains of self-sacrifice. Doing something uncomfortable might make you feel better about your inevitable demise. Renkle wonders, though, if she hasn’t already given up too much:

In the old days, my Lenten resolution almost always meant giving up something whose absence I would feel acutely: coffee, perhaps, or cussing. In that way I would be reminded, again and again, of what this season is for. But the practice of imposed sacrifice feels as alien to me now as anything else from my decades as a practicing Catholic. Haven’t we all had enough sacrifice in these last years? Every day I grieve two beloved family members lost during this pandemic. Every day I bear the grief of a burning world.6

For the Christian, the thing you are really invited to do is not give up coffee or chocolate, or even sin (I mean, you should give up sin, but you can’t, that’s the problem — but still, do try), rather you are invited to give your whole self to Jesus. Offer yourself as a “living sacrifice” to the God who made you and loves you enough to endure the shame of the cross for you (Rom. 12:1). Relinquishing the vice grip on some beloved food or habit is one way among many that Christians try to keep their eyes on Jesus. But there’s no point in giving anything up if you haven’t already put your whole life into His hands. That’s just heaping up more ruin for yourself in eternity. Moreover, the whole community penitently joining together to help each other along, to turn away from themselves and their sins toward God, contextualizes both suffering and sacrifice. It is all about love — agape love, the pouring out of oneself for others because of the love of Christ. Why would you do that by yourself for yourself?

Abject Gratitude

For Renkle, and I expect many others, the concept of sacrifice without the prior sacrifice of the Son of God on the cross, though beautiful, becomes muddled and bleak, a barren exercise in human achievement. She writes, “Life is hard for all living things. To make it harder — knowingly and willingly, for even a contained period of time — is a uniquely human exercise. We want to be better than we are. We want living to mean more than surviving. There is something truly beautiful about that impulse, whatever form it takes.”7 I must disagree. The beauty of sacrifice isn’t just in making something harder as a way of making something better. That is a profound misunderstanding of the Christian faith. Christians give themselves up entirely to Jesus, day after day (even in Lent) because they are so grateful for Him, because they love Him, because He withheld nothing of Himself, giving His own body and blood to be their food and drink, to join them to Himself in an eternal marriage that never is broken or ruined. They joyfully suffer for the sake of others because of the wondrous and astonishing love that He pours into their hearts. This is not a human exercise, it is a divine one. It is being caught up into the life of God which is so much better and richer and stronger than this paltry, broken, ruined one we are enduring here.

Renkle goes on: “But as a new member of the unchurched Christian faithful…”8 …I’m so sorry, but I must say it once more with tears — you are not a Christian if you don’t believe in Jesus, and one of the markers of your belief, the fruit, if you will, is that you earnestly desire to be in church with other people who believe. There is no “unchurched Christian faithful.” That is not a thing, but I will let Renkle complete her thought:

…what am I supposed to do with Lent? Surely there must be some spiritual practice that falls between a church-ordained ritual and a secular perfectibility project. Something that would help me use this time of prayer and reflection to move away from the fears I cannot shake — for my country, for my planet — and toward a stronger faith in the possibility of redemption, a more certain conviction that all is not yet lost in this deeply troubled world. My maternal forebears, all Protestants, were great believers in starting the day with a prayer and an entry from that season’s devotional. But my idea of a daily spiritual practice is less a prayer written by someone else than a walk in the woods alone. A devotional isn’t what I’m looking for, and neither is another church’s Lenten program. Not yet, anyway. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m looking for.9

Only Jesus

If I might be so bold as to speak directly to Renkle, and all those losing their faith — Dear heart, the person you are looking for is Jesus. And there is no finding Him in the woods, in some kind of gazing up at the sky by yourself, trying to make yourself feel something, who knows what. Jesus is the only one who can prepare you for death, lead you into eternal life, and make you even know yourself. If you don’t find Him, you will be lost in all your wanderings. Look for Him. Go to church. Open His book. Read it. Otherwise, this will be eternally true for you:

I will almost certainly continue to feel just a little bit lost. I’ll look for a new church someday, a new place to put all this sorrow and a new community with whom to share it, but I’m not obliged to find that place just now. Ash Wednesday tells me only to keep trying: to believe, to be better, not to give up hope. And that’s faith enough for any season.10

I’m so sorry, that’s not faith enough for any season. Ash Wednesday does not tell you to “keep on trying.” No one can overcome sin and death by trying harder. The only way out of the pit that we dig for ourselves is to call out for mercy to the One who is able and willing to have mercy. The only way out is to look at the cross where justice and mercy embrace each other. The only remedy for sorrow and loss is to be consoled by the one who made you and has the power to redeem you. Go get ash smeared on your forehead if you like, but more than that, in the desolation of your soul, say to Jesus, “Save me.” He will. It is for that very reason that He died and rose again. No human sacrifice comes close to the total embrace of Christ on the cross. For Lent, this year, if you would hear His voice, harden not your heart as in the wilderness, whatever post-COVID wilderness of isolating grief that separates us from each other and from ourselves, but turn to Him and live.

Anne Kennedy holds an MDiv and is the author of Nailed It: 365 Readings for Angry or Worn-Out People (Square Halo Books, 2020). Anne blogs about current events and theological trends at Preventingrace on Patheos.com.


NOTES

  1. “Service for Ash Wednesday,” The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments with Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church According to the Use of the Anglican Church in North America Together with The New Coverdale Psalter (Huntington Beach: Anglican Liturgical Press, 2019), 543.
  2. Margaret Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent to This Unchurched Christian,” New York Times, February 28, 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/28/opinion/christians-church-lent.html.
  3. Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent.”
  4. Wendy Wang and Alysse Elhage break down some of the statistics in their article, “Here’s Who Stopped Going to Church During the Pandemic,” Christianity Today, January 20, 2022, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/january-web-only/attendance-decline-covid-pandemic-church.html.
  5. Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent.”
  6. Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent.”
  7. Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent.”
  8. Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent.”
  9. Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent.”
  10. Renkle, “The Meaning of Lent.”
Loading
Share This