There are many worthy things people opt to give up for Lent. Orthodox traditions fast from meats, eggs, fish, and fats during Lent to give focus to Christ. Others give up their favorite indulgences, from chocolate to alcohol to sugar. Still others might abstain from watching TV, or renew a commitment to exercising daily. There’s also been a recent movement to honor Lent by being more charitable, taking a pay-it-forward approach to the season.
The heart of Lent is a somber period of preparation to remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But is that what we need right now, more focus on suffering? In a year of constant disappointment and grief, it feels like we’ve been in suffering overdrive.
This is exactly why this year’s Lenten season could be especially impactful.
It’s probably safe to say that most of us American Christians have lived pretty squishy lives, happily going about our days with only occasional disappointments and inconveniences. We don’t live in a war ravaged country. Most of us have never experienced ongoing hunger or water shortages. This is our very first pandemic.
Lucky us. Seriously! That’s why it’s been so easy to turn to chocolate as a worthy sacrifice during Lent. I have to admit, in the grand scheme of things before COVID, giving up chocolate felt like a HUGE sacrifice.
Now, we’ve lost a year of landmark occasions. We’ve lost gatherings and celebrations. We’ve lost school and work routines. We’ve lost ground in our careers. We’ve lost health. We’ve lost loved ones.
We’re worn down and ragged from waiting, waiting, waiting for vaccines and relief from daily limitations and suffering. We’re worn down and weary from debates and disagreements, isolation and exhaustion wearing each of us thin.
Who could possibly understand this loss? Who could possibly understand the depth of our grief?
Traditionally, the Lenten season begins on Ash Wednesday (February 17 this year) and lasts 40 days, not counting Sundays, leading up to Holy Week and Easter Sunday. Its intent is to parallel the 40 days of preparation and temptation Jesus faced in the wilderness with Satan (Matthew 4:1-11). Likewise, for centuries, Christians have fasted and prayed during Lent to prepare themselves to remember the holiest week of the year, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The chorus of a familiar hymn, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, and the things of this world will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory and grace” is preceded by this verse, “O soul, are you weary and troubled? No light in the darkness you see? There’s light for a look at the Savior, And life more abundant and free.”
Who hasn’t felt weary and troubled? Who hasn’t longed for light in the darkness?
When we turn our eyes toward the ways Jesus handled suffering, we witness the model for dealing with our own suffering. When Jesus was at his weakest in the wilderness, tempted by Satan, he turned to Scripture to be steadied by the Word. When Jesus grieved, he turned to God in prayer. He did not try to bear his suffering alone, he turned to God. He turned to his disciples. He turned to Love.
Meditating on Christ’s suffering and our own mortality brings us to a deeper understanding and gratitude for the suffering Jesus endured and the grace that is promised from his resurrection. It makes something of the nothing we feel. Through the experience of Christ, suffering is transformed, from a purposeless weariness into character and hope. Jesus makes meaning blossom out of our suffering.
This Lent, no matter how we fast or what we choose to let go, let’s fuel our intentions with the light and life of Christ, who proves again and again that there is power in suffering, transformation in perseverance, and hope beyond what we can aspire to on our own. For every skipped dessert, sip on the Living Water that is the Word of God. For every extra good deed, meditate on the sacrifice of God that made acceptance available to all, no matter what we’ve done. Infuse the material world of sacrifices and charitable acts with the spiritual light of the Holy Spirit guiding you in remembrance of Jesus.
He has the power to transform every suffering into hope.