Millions of Christians around the world are keeping Lent in some way, as the Church has done for 1700 years. Why? Because something powerful happens in our lives spiritually when we focus on Lenten themes and prepare to enter into the profound mystery of Good Friday, and the incredible joy of Easter Sunday, at the end of these forty days.
Lent began on February 18, Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting that follows the feasting of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. Perhaps you went to a service that day and received on your forehead the cross-shaped smudge of ashes to remind us of our moral fallibility and creaturely mortality (“to dust you shall return”).
Or perhaps you have decided to “give up something for Lent,” such as Starbucks, sweets, social media, screen entertainment, or a weekly meal. Any form of fasting or abstinence like these makes us more keenly aware of our deepest longings and truest “food”— joyful intimacy with God, authentic friendships, meaningful work, or encounters with truth, goodness, and beauty.
Perhaps you are only vaguely aware of Lent. Or maybe you meant to pay some attention but you missed the start and now you feel a bit awkward about doing anything this year. Please don’t let these thoughts deter you from experiencing what Lent has to offer. Lent comes to us always as invitation, not obligation.
As I wrote in a previous blog post, “Less is More: The Secret of Lent,” a little hunger is good for the soul, enlarging our appetite for God. So, to feed your soul during Lent, let me offer an image and a poem.
Here is an image of the first piece of original art that my wife and I ever purchased. It’s entitled “Grace & Gravity” by artist Erica Grimm of Vancouver. I bought it because God had used this image in a remarkable way during a stage of my own spiritual journey.
This artwork is about five feet tall and a foot wide. The black lower section is a steel panel; the drawing in the upper section is covered by encaustic, creating a waxy surface.
The image is of a bird skeleton with a set of feathered wings attached. A thin band of gold leaf separates the two sections. The title references the writings of the twentieth century French mystic Simone Weil.
As I meditated on this image, I wrote this poem:
Gravity and Grace
These weeks of Lent must be for me
an exploration of Simone Weil’s
two movements of soul, dark gravity
pulling down and its bright exception, grace.
Here is what I must learn: I am this bird,
skeletal, stripped of flesh and feather—
ineluctable, the pull of black earth—
my white bones, flightless, left to weather.
Only then will wings descend to take up
my frame, animated once again, to race
into the sea’s early mist, the abrupt
light, the sun rising with a golden grace.
What pulls or weighs you down—spiritually, morally? And where does this ultimately lead? The short answer is this: time pulls us down because we are mortal and sin pulls us down because we are fallen. And this gravity of body and spirit will ultimately lead to the grave. Jesus experienced such gravity:
- At the outset of his public ministry, having been affirmed and empowered by God at his baptism, he spends forty days alone in the desert fasting, praying, facing his temptations, and wrestling with his God-given identity and mission.
- At the end of his ministry, having just been transfigured by God in a mountain-top experience, he agonizes in the Gethsemane garden, staring at the cup of suffering and death, but still he says yes to his Father’s will.
It is good for our souls to sustain for forty days a posture of humility and dependence, to reflect on our vulnerability to suffering and death, to acknowledge our moral failings and flaws, to deny ourselves and take up our cross in concrete ways as we follow Jesus. This deepens our discipleship; it infuses us with grace!
Ah, grace,the counterweight to spiritual gravity. It is grace that lifts us up. It is grace that brings forgiveness. It is grace that changes us. And the ultimate end of grace at work in us? Resurrection! Hallelujah!
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble,” writes the apostle James. He goes on to express promises that are so apt for Lent: “Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you…. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.”
May it be so for you over these next weeks on campus.