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The Lonely Season - A Holy Tuesday Reflection from Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith


I didn’t hear the word “Lent” until I was in seminary. I grew up in a rural part of the South, where low-church Protestant traditions dominated, and until I was about 13, my family didn’t spend much time in church. Even then, after we joined the local DOC congregation, I was influenced more by the rampant evangelicalism of the 1990s than I was by the DOC, and if anyone was talking about a season leading up to Easter, I never heard their words. I didn’t know people “gave things up” for Lent or took on spiritual challenges. The idea of spending 40 days contemplating mortality was foreign to me, and I never attended an Ash Wednesday, Maundy Thursday, or Good Friday service until I was one of the people leading them. I grew up enmeshed in the various forms of Christianity that flourished in my small town, but Lent was never part of my world. 


That has been a blessing and a curse. It has been a curse in those times when I have had to plan and lead Lenten activities — worship services, classes, or conversations with congregants —without really knowing the tradition or practice of Lent for myself. But being a stranger to Lent has mostly been a blessing because it has allowed me to create my own relationship with the season, free from too many other influences. I have been able to take what I find valuable from the Christian traditions of Lent while leaving the rest behind. 


My Lent sometimes looks a lot like the Lent of others, and sometimes it doesn’t. I don’t find much value in the self-denial and self-abnegation that can sometimes come with Lent. Giving things up or taking things on has never felt like an authentic practice for me, although I recognize that those practices can be very valuable for others. I don’t think that giving up chocolate or Starbucks or television for six weeks really brings me any closer to understanding Jesus, though I know those things can be meaningful for others. 


For me, the value of Lent is found in its frank acknowledgment of human frailty. As I get older, I find myself passing out of the season of life when a lot of my friends are falling in love, working on their careers, starting families, or reaching for their dreams. Those things still happen, but they are becoming rarer. The season I seem to be passing into is a lot more complex and conflicted. Friends are wandering in midlife, pulling the plug on dreams they no longer hold, receiving serious diagnoses, and realizing that the relationships that were once at the core of their identities now no longer bring them life. Some of my friends — more than seems right for people our age — are dying. This season brings with it a lot of recognition that life can be difficult, confusing, and tragically short. There is real joy in this new season of life, but it is tempered with the realization and the reality that being human is messy and hard work. 


More than any season in the Christian year, Lent speaks to the messiness, the difficulty, and the tragedy of life. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday with an acknowledgment of our live’s bookends — dust and ash — and it ends in the silence of a tomb. In between, we follow Jesus’ journey through conflict, struggle, and the assaults of the world. Jesus’ life, and his death, become mirrors for our journeys and lenses for seeing ourselves and others as wounded and persevering people. 


Of course, at the end of Lent comes joy. On the other side of the tomb comes resurrection. The core of the Christian gospel is that death does not have the final word and that life triumphs over everything sent to stand in its way. We hold an irrational and foolish hope, against all evidence, that things work toward the good, and that God travels with us through our wildernesses and our valleys. It certainly does not feel that way all the time, and the season of Lent is an opportunity to say so. Lent helps us acknowledge the times when hope falters and the possibility of joy fades from view. Lent takes us to the cross and the tomb. But Lent also always leads us to an empty grave, and the realization that there is always a reality beyond what we can see, and it brings us to something we might call faith: the knowledge that in whatever seasons we find ourselves, we are never alone. 


 

Rev. Dr. Eric C. Smith is a member of the faculty at the Iliff School of Theology, where he teaches New Testament and early Christianity and co-directs the Doctor of Ministry in Prophetic Leadership degree. He is the author of several books and articles, and he is a member of the DSF Board. You can follow his weekly reflections at ericcsmith.substack.com

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