I’m a firm believer that Lent, practiced consciously, is a guardrail against spiritual bypassing.
The regular observance of seasons of austerity, lament and penance, which we Christians get in Lent and Advent, guide us to enter into aspects of the human experience we’d rather not endure.
Other spiritual traditions have similar seasons: Jews have Yom Kippur; Muslims have Ramadan; Hindus have Navaratri; and so forth.
These rhythms keep us pain-avoidant human beings honest.
They take us into the shadow so that we have an opportunity to alchemize – or if you prefer a Christianese word, redeem – what we find there: the uncomfortable feelings, the limiting beliefs, patterns of harm, the losses we didn’t have time to grieve and the traumas we didn’t have resources to heal before.
These seasons offer us the opportunity to make meaning of the human condition and to accept it as it is, to accept ourselves as we are.
In Western culture, we make very little space for weakness, pain, mourning, lament, sadness. We are taught early on that excessive feeling that doesn’t fall in the category of anger or excitement is unwelcome, and that sadness is a pathology.
But the rhythms of the Christian faith tradition offer a different paradigm: one that welcomes the mourner, blesses the weak, and gives space and voice to lament. It assigns value to loneliness and suffering even as it assures us that we are never alone in suffering.
Jesus heading out to the desert wilderness for a period of solitude and austerity sets the precedent for Lenten practice. Jesus accepts all parts of human experience, entering into the full spectrum of emotion. He rejects no parts of the whole.
In week 2 of Lent, Year B of the Lectionary, we are invited along with the disciples to “deny” ourselves, take up the instrument of our suffering, and follow Christ into the totality of embodied adventure, and to do this willingly, without judgement or resistance, trusting that the way out is the way through.
Over the years, I’ve come to interpret most of the actions and experiences of Christ as invitations.
For example, Jesus resurrects; we are invited into resurrection. Jesus is embodied; we are invited to embrace our embodiment. Jesus heals; we are invited into healing. Jesus even dies, and we are invited into that sacred path also!
But most pertinent to the season of Lent: Jesus is baptized; we are invited into baptism. Jesus goes into the desert; we are invited to go into the desert, or to re-interpret it when we, inevitably, find ourselves there in this life.
I’ve also come to understand baptism as a ritual signaling our consent to the ongoing process of transfiguration, or inner transformation.
The Catholic Vatican Council II identifies two central elements of the season of Lent: baptism – either recalling it or preparing to undergo it – and penance. In other words, the spirit of the season, as they imagine it, is that it is an extended ritual of purification and preparation.
So, in the texts, Jesus is baptized, then heads out to the desert to take care of some inner work.
The invitation for us to follow that path is there: to wash ourselves, and then let the desert dry us off – to go to that arid, sandy ground empty, nowhere for longing to hide. So dry and desperate, it cracks right open.
Jesus went out to the desert; but in my experience, the desert often comes to us. And the desert is what has my attention just now. I am thinking of that solitary expanse. The harshness of it, but also the beauty.
I am thinking of how resonant Jesus’ expedition there is to me now; Mark’s gospel says the “Spirit drove him” there (NRSV). I am thinking of the circumstances in my own life that drive me to someplace bleak and essential, where the only thing to focus on is my own longing, my own thirst. Where I am cracked open.
And it’s here, in the desert wilderness – the gift Lenten practice offers us – where we become honest about our pain, our trauma and wounding, our broken paradigms.
This is the guardrail I’m speaking of, which keeps happy-go-lucky Christians from romanticizing and un-grounding our faith: Lent means we do not minimize people’s pain, participate in spiritual bypassing or over-spiritualize trouble.
We listen to the abused, marginalized and oppressed, and we seek to interrupt cycles of harm and injustice. We care for our earth-home. We take action to do our own spiritual work that often involves de-programming, unlearning and addressing trauma.
This is how I’ve come to understand penance: we uncover the limiting beliefs we’ve held and release them to make way for something better, a new way of being. We go willingly into shadow so we can properly appreciate and embody light.
This purification experience, demonstrated by Christ in the scriptures and woven into church practice by the early mothers and fathers of the church, is necessary for our thriving.
In Lent, we are invited to stop judging our pain and instead feel it and allow it to teach us. It is part of a cycle; we don’t stay in Lent forever.
Death comes, and then resurrection. Weeping comes in the soul’s night, then joy in the morning. We sow in tears; we reap in joy.
If we never accept the rhythm of sowing in tears, we have little appreciation, much less gratitude, for joy. We know light by its contrast to darkness.
May you experience the blessings of baptism and penance in this season of Lent, and may you allow Lent’s shadow to guide you into new life.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series for the Lenten season. An article reflecting on the lectionary texts for each Sunday during Lent will appear weekly. The previous articles in the series are:
Sneaking Off to Mass and Returning with a Face Tattoo | Jessica McDougald
Do God’s Promises Extend to Savlanut, Sarah and Tseba? | Meredith Stone
An ordained minister, Pratt is a writer, pastor, musician and mystic who regularly creates and shares modern liturgy on her website and Patreon. She currently serves as pastor of worship and liturgy at Peace of Christ Church. Her book Call and Response: Litanies for Congregational Prayer is available for purchase.