Lent is holy timekeeping for those of us who follow the church’s calendar.
It begins each year on that first Wednesday when we hear someone remind us that we will die. With ashen faces, we spend the next 40 days marking time with a season of contemplation and acts of penance.
We contemplate the shocking reality that we are human. And because the shape of humanness also includes sinfulness, we prepare ourselves for the radical reconciliation of Easter through ordinary acts and attitudes of penance.
For many of us, our penance takes the form of giving something up – something rich or comforting, like chocolate or (heaven help us) coffee. Some elect to give up a distraction, like social media.
But this is not a normal Lent. Our ritual 40 days of keeping holy time have been interrupted this year by a global viral pandemic.
This pandemic has introduced a different form of timekeeping, but with a disquieting similarity. For, in fact, the word quarantine means 40 days (“quaranta giorni” was the time a suspected ship spent isolated in an Italian harbor).
In our current crisis, our corona-timekeeping, it would be easy to forget we are in the Lenten season altogether.
Our weeks of slowly preparing our hearts for the events of Holy Week gave way to the hurried preparation of our pantries instead.
Before, we looked forward in hope toward Easter. Now, we look forward with trepidation to unknown periods of social distancing and isolation.
Before, we willingly sacrificed caffeine or Facebook. Now, the reality of life amid the coronavirus means we are required to give up far more.
I propose the most striking feature of this Lent is we have had to “give up” something we never contemplated: Our entire view of who we are and what it means to be human.
In these days of isolation and shortage, worry and sacrifice, hiatus and homeschooling, the costliest thing I have had to forfeit is my most cherished illusion – my belief I am an independent, self-sufficient person.
I cannot, it turns out, be a whole and flourishing person on my own.
Staring at empty grocery shelves, I have had to acknowledge I am dependent on supply chains, grocery store clerks, farmers, manufacturers and drivers who deliver milk, eggs, and (God bless them) toilet paper. Our lives, it turns out, depend on them.
Watching news reports about infection statistics, I acknowledge I need doctors, nurses, medical supply manufacturers, immunologists and vaccine developers. Our lives, it turns out, depend on them.
While remaining at home, I see how deeply dependent I am on those who make deliveries, those who prepare prescriptions and those who ensure clean water continues to come from my tap.
I see how profoundly I need the encouragement of friends, the guidance of my ministers and the companionship of loved ones. Our lives, it turns out, depend on them.
In these weeks I have begun to remember my life, work, health and flourishing depend at every point on your life, work, health and our common flourishing.
There is no such thing as self-sufficiency and independence, and this shakes my very identity to its core.
Let us not miss the deeper lesson here. This Lent, you and I are not simply being asked to give up dinners at restaurants, hugs and handshakes with friends, and the daily rhythms of school and work and rest.
We are being required to give up the very idea of self-interested individualism.
You are being forced to give up any notion you are the cause and purpose of your own existence. I am being asked to forfeit any notion that what is good for me can be good if, by having it, I harm my neighbor.
We are discovering again our deep, deep connectedness even as we are being asked to isolate from it.
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two will appear tomorrow.