The Less It Feels Like Lent, the More It Feels Like Lent

When one observes certain annual traditions long enough, you begin to develop layers to your expectations for them.

If you’re used to an annual vacation to the same location every year, for instance, there is the macro level of anticipation for the trip overall. The dates are circled on your calendar, you make lists of what to pack and travel arrangements and figure out who will feed the pets while you’re away. You maybe keep a photo nearby that reminds you of your eventual return.

But then there are further layers down into which you may drill once you reach that special destination. You may have favorite restaurants you can’t wait to visit again, or favorite parks to hike, or little traditions of your own that you just do while you’re there. The more familiar you become with this terrain of your heart, the longer this list of beloved practices becomes.

Many who consider themselves practicing Christians are over halfway through the season of Lent, that holy time leading up to Easter focused on themes of cleansing, repentance, preparation, and humility. It is a time for believers to remember their dependence upon God for mercy and forgiveness, things they cannot give to themselves. As part of this, many adopt practices of piety, self-denial, and prayer for the duration.

As with favorite annual vacation spots, people of faith may anticipate observances such as Lent at both the macro and micro levels. There is the big idea of Lent as a season of making ready for the celebration of Easter, and then there are the many layers underneath it such as particular spiritual practices, specific musical selections, special observances during Holy Week, and the cathartic fanfare of Easter morning.

Lent has been a favorite season of mine for most of my life. I’ve long looked forward to this time of year both in terms of its overarching themes and for the particular practices that are especially emphasized this time of year. When I was a pastor, I did my best to convey its meaning and importance to the people I served, and I was thankful to be both guide and fellow traveler on the journey.

These past few years, however, I’ve been having trouble with the micro side of Lent. I haven’t been able to identify practices to which I’ve been able to commit. I haven’t managed to prayerfully reflect on the macro themes of the season the way I once did. My involvement in a church has helped to counter this, but I’ve largely been going through a drought regarding my own practices.

I mentioned in a recent podcast episode that this time of year has brought some negative associations for me these past few years. This is the time of year when I experienced something that started me down the path out of pastoring and into my current position–a relatively minor disappointment that served as one more fishhook that nagged at me for years before I made a move.

And then this time of year was also when pandemic shutdowns began, moving the final month of my time as a pastor into an online space and limiting opportunities for closure. All of this still lingers inside me, lessening over time but nevertheless present.

As a result, I may still be struggling to focus on the micro practices of this season, its rhythms and music and stories. But the macro practice of seeking God’s presence for meaning and new life are very much with me. It feels like Lent in the deepest sense, and I live in enduring hope of eventual resurrection.

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