Shadow and Light: A Lenten Reflection
From the archives: originally posted April, 2011.
Five long weeks of Lent, and yet one more, as we move through Holy Week toward the events of Easter. Why observe Lent? And why so long, when it seems so very long, these five weeks and more of a bare, unadorned church, of the disciplines of self-denial and self-examination?
Lent is indeed too long – too long for me to go on my own strength and resources. It is long enough for me to feel the initial enthusiasm of self-discipline, and past it, the weakness of failure. Lent is long enough for me to see my own weakness. Long enough to say, What’s the point? Why keep struggling on?
Lent cuts through our too-quick assurances of peace and joy; forces us to recognize that the pain of the world, and our own pain, cannot be salved by a cheery Bible verse or a hearty exhortation to rejoice. The brokenness of our world and the needs of the human heart run deeper than that.
When the shadow is upon me, promises of blessing and joy seem unreal, as if seen through a haze or muted by distance. When the future is unknown and uncertain, words of hopeful encouragement seem nothing but trashy trinkets; in the shadow, diamonds’ luster is dulled, and seems rather the cheap glitter of rhinestones. I cannot do, or be, all that I feel called to; I am incomplete, broken. What then?
Lent is long enough to remember Our Lord falling as he carried the Cross, and getting up again, and continuing on his way. Yes, on the way toward the Resurrection, but first, on his way to Golgotha, and a terrible death on the Cross.
Lent points toward Easter, but it takes us on a journey first. We begin with Ash Wednesday, and then journey through the wilderness, day after day, just as our Lord spent those forty days in the desert being tempted of Satan. And Lent brings us to the doorstep of Easter – Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, all steps leading up to Sunday.
First, Maundy Thursday; “Maundy” from the Latin “Mandatum,” meaning “command”- a reference to Jesus’ words at the institution of the Eucharist: “Do this in remembrance of me.” The entrance to Easter, Maundy Thursday reminds us that we are called to obedience. And called to obedience first – before we have the reminder of joy, on the day before Good Friday, a reminder that the way of Christ is the way of the Cross.
What does our Lord command us to do? He tells us, makes it simple for us: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself.” Our Lord calls us to love others as he loves us: desiring the good of the other above our own good.
Lent is long enough to try to love others as Christ loves us. Long enough for me to convince myself for a little while that yes I can do it, that indeed I do love others with that unconditional and self-sacrificing love. To convince myself that indeed I am putting all my hopes into God’s hands with simple trust, and that I love Him and have confidence that He will provide for me.
Lent is long enough to break that too. I find that what I thought was self-sacrificing love still has its jealousies, its envies, its fears, so that even that which is good and true is wrapped round with the disreputable tatters of self-will. Even when I think I have put all in God’s hands, I find that I am clinging still. Lent is, in short, long enough for me to fail, and to recognize my failure; to be emptied out.
I do not like being emptied out.
It is, nonetheless, necessary.
Mary tells us, in that great song of praise called the Magnificat, that God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.
To be filled, we must first be made empty, empty of all the things that we try to substitute for God’s grace.
Easter promises that we will be filled with that grace.
God’s grace; the renewal of our hopes by participation in the one, eternal sacrifice on the Cross, and the renewal of our life by participation in the eternal risen life of our Lord.
Without God’s grace, interrupting our world with the shock of the Incarnation and the scandal of the Cross, there would be no end to Lenten sorrow.
Without the glory of the Son’s self-offering on the Cross, his offering to the Father that is definitively accepted in the Resurrection, and without the gift of being drawn up, through the Son’s humanity, into that perfect sacrifice, there would be nothing but the ashes with which we began Lent: from dust we came, and to dust we shall return.
Lent is like a cleansing rain that, though it brings with it dark clouds and a chill downpour, refreshes the dry and cracked earth, making it ready for the new life and new growth of Easter. And this is the gift of Lent: we know it is but a season. Even as I reflect on the darkness of the season, the recollection of the Cross cuts through the shadow, and, dimly, a gleam of that uncreated light shines through.
Dr. Holly Ordway is a poet, academic, and Christian apologist. She is the chair of the Department of Apologetics and director of the MA in Cultural Apologetics at Houston Baptist University, and the author of Not God’s Type: A Rational Academic Finds a Radical Faith. Her work focuses on imaginative and literary apologetics, with special attention to C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams.