I’m a pastor, which means that by the time you read this, we will be in the midst of the period of the Christian calendar known as Lent.
Growing up in an evangelical tradition, Lent wasn’t a part of the vocabulary of faith with which I had any familiarity. It was what people in my faith tradition would have called “too Catholic.” It occurs to me, now, that our aversion to Lenten observance had more to do with boundary maintenance (i.e., “With its Marian devotion and papal foppery”) than with any actual theological hesitation about Jesus’ sacrifice, or our need to embrace it.
Liturgically, Lent is a period of time before Easter that is usually observed as a time of penitence. It also facilitates an intentional identification with the suffering of Jesus. In practice, however, it’s most often about giving up chocolate, beer, or some other quasi-bad habit.
But, as I’ve grown older, I’ve begun to see Lent as that time in which the systems of domination that eventually kill Jesus are ascendant. The powers that make up those systems—and which so jealously guard their prerogative to take what they want from the poor and the powerless—look inevitable and intractable.
Put more simply, rather than seeing Lent as solely focused on Jesus’ individual willingness to undergo suffering rather than commit violence, it highlights the fact that there are systems programmed to produce suffering. Poverty, hunger, racism, dehumanization, xenophobia, and exploitation occur within these systems not by accident. They occur by design for the benefit of those who already have more than they need to live. Ultimately, Jesus was harassed and, finally, executed for challenging these power arrangements because of their opposition to God’s desires for God’s children.
Lent, therefore, isn’t a glorification of suffering and sacrifice, but a confrontation of the systems that mass-produce suffering and sacrifice for those incapable of insulating themselves against the rapacity of the powerful.
Lent is an attempt to see those who too regularly go unseen.
Lent prompts us to reflect on our own complicity in the systems that oppress the weak and vulnerable.
Lent gives us the chance not just to identify with the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus, but to identify with those on whose behalf Jesus suffered and sacrificed (simply because he couldn’t keep his mouth shut). The grays, purples, and blacks of Lent gain their significance not simply by association with Jesus, but by association with the very people Jesus died advocating for.
If Easter is a triumph over death, Lent is a painful reminder that death is the default position of a world constructed to give the most to the few, and the least to the many.
Jesus challenged that world and died because of it. Lent is a reminder to any who want to follow Jesus of the potential consequences for living like he asked people to live.
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