So began a recent exchange on Twitter. I seldom take the bait, but this is Lent, after all. Two days before reading this message, I had eschewed chocolates, roses, and a decadent dinner in favor of ashes, penitence, and the reminder that I am but dust. During my sixty-mile daily commute, I had also been pondering the nature of the Lenten fast, realizing once again that just as no good I do can possibly earn God’s grace, so nothing I sacrifice can possibly match my need for self-denial and repentance.
Thus, this woman’s message rankled me as quite the opposite of Lent–or, more accurately, the epitome of what I have come to call Lent Lite. (N. B. Yes, I realize that my own need for repentance requires that I indulge in much less judgment of others than I am displaying here. However, for me, Lindsay the Brave is not really a person, but simply the avatar for a 140-character blurb on a social medium intentionally devoid of real conversation or engagement. Moreover, I have gained some insights from my meditations on this thread, so despite the mea culpa, I will proceed.)
Almost everything in this young woman’s list represents a direct challenge to what we are called to focus on during Lent. Her resolution to give up “not practicing self-care/self-compassion” seems to defy the Lenten practice of self-denial. Her decision to give up shame directly contravenes the injunction in the Ash Wednesday collect to “lament our sins and acknowledge[e] our wretchedness” (BCP 264). And she closes her list with “not living your truth.” According to the only theology I know, we as Christians don’t have our own individual truths, but one “way, truth, and life” into which we are called to live.
The exchange continued:
By this point in the discussion, the chasm between our positions became manifest. Yes, although I cannot claim that I have ever participated with my whole being in the discipline of Lent, I AM advocating 40 days in the desert for us all. I am advocating 40 days–perhaps leading to a lifetime of self-discipline–in which we finally acknowledge that the culture of the selfie is a culture of selfishness and self-aggrandizement and ultimately, self-destruction. And I am suggesting that the observance of a holy Lent–and the lifetime process of sanctification–may be our only escape.
I first became aware of Lent Lite when personal circumstances forced me to move to a new parish, close in miles but infinitely far in theology from the cradle of my Episcopal faith. At St. Christopher’s, we were reminded more than once that we are dust. The priest insisted on the existence of evil and counseled us to renounce our sinful nature. We ate simple soups and bread for our Wednesday night suppers and heard lessons from Celebration of Discipline (Richard Foster) and Wrestling with Angels (Madeleine L’Engle, Tony Campolo, et al.). And when we knelt for general confession, the period of silence after “make your humble confession to God, devoutly kneeling” was very long indeed, providing ample time for physical and spiritual discomfort. And since we always used Rite One* during Lent, we then said in unison:
We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness,
which we from time to time most grievously have committed,
by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty,
provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.
We do earnestly repent,
and are heartily sorry for these our misdoings;
the remembrance of them is grievous unto us,
the burden of them is intolerable.
At St. Paul’s, by contrast, we always used Rite Two, which forgoes bewailing and never even mentions our wickedness or God’s wrath. To compound the difference, the celebrant at St. Paul’s changed even the language of what some call the 1979 Book of “Or This.” Instead of “Let us confess our sins against God and our neighbor,” he always said, “Let us confess our sins against God, our neighbor, and ourselves.” There’s that pesky Self, rearing its ugly head again.
During Lent of 2011, I heard that same priest say that penitence is an outmoded medieval concept that we should forgo as we focus our lives instead on celebration. He continued by suggesting that it would be much better if the holy meal we commemorate at the Lord’s Table were a reënactment of Jesus’s breakfast on the beach (John 20: 1-14), not his last supper before the crucifixion. If a priest in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church could speak such sacrilege during the season of Lent, why should I be surprised that a pamphleteer for a lightweight feminist theology proposes on social media that we observe Lent by giving up self-denial?
And she had even more:
I will let Jesus have the last word in this debate:
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:3-5)
* The 1979 edition of The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church contains two rites for Holy Eucharist. The first is the more penitential, with language and theology more closely resembling that of the 1928 and earlier editions of the prayer book; the second contains modern, inclusive language; multiple options for Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Holy Eucharist; and a generally more human-centered approach to liturgy.