Lent is the forty days (not including Sundays) before Easter, when many Christians prepare to commemorate and celebrate Good Friday and Easter. This preparation often includes fasting. For more than a year, we have been required to restrict our lives in many ways because of the pandemic—a kind of involuntary fasting. It can therefore be helpful to consider what Lent can teach us for faithful discipleship during the pandemic.
In February 2021, one of Canadian Mennonite University’s weekly half-hour student forums was titled “The Longest Lent.” Four staff members and professors spoke about their experiences of the pandemic through the lens of Lent. As one of those four, here’s a little of what I shared.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. During Ash Wednesday services, the mark of the cross is made on people’s foreheads or hands with ashes. Along with the imposition of ashes, these words are spoken: “Remember, you are dust and to dust you will return.”
These grim and necessary words remind me that, despite my good health and employment during the pandemic, I also experienced losses—returns to dust. I was unable to attend the funerals of four uncles and aunts. For many months I was unable to visit my family members in other provinces. I experienced the loss of “weak-ties”—that is, rubbing shoulders with acquaintances who help me feel that I’m part of a community and part of something bigger than myself. (Read more here.) I learned that Canadian society is more racist and divided than I realized. A grey emotional fog settled into my life, and the lives of people around me. This baseline of threat, seriousness, loss, and lament made even joking feel out of place.
However, the first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service, different words were uttered. I was in the chapel at Health Sciences Centre. Twenty employees from across that huge institution had gathered to remember Jesus. And with the imposition of ashes on my forehead, came this pronouncement, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to the gospel.”
During the pandemic, this alternative sentence gives me hope. Along with our deaths—our turning to dust—comes hope of new life and resurrection, whether mini-resurrections now or the great resurrection when Jesus returns.
And so, during this Longest Lent, I am also noticing the light that spills like milk through cracks in the grey shiplap over our heads. I notice the joy among people of all ages playing, strolling, and visiting on the Assiniboine River ice trails made by the river’s neighbours. I recall that, in the 1500s, the pastor and theologian Martin Luther refused to move to safety, but continued caring for those of his parishioners who were suffering from the pandemic in his century. (I wonder how churches can do that today?) I also ponder my Dyck grandparents, who loved songs about heaven. They had experienced the atrocities of civil war and anarchy in south Russia 100 years ago. When they migrated to Canada, they would often say, “Next year we will die”—but they lived into their 90s! Was their love of heaven-songs escapism and irrelevant for our times, or was it more than that?
Tom Wright, in his article “Jesus is Coming—Plant a Tree” (available here), reminds me that our labours done “in the Lord” are never wasted because of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:58). Those efforts will make a difference in the new heaven and new earth when God comes to make his home among us (Revelation 21:1-4).
And so, in this Longest Lent, I believe it’s worth turning away (aka repenting) from seeing only grey, and turning towards light and goodness. We make that turn by living according to the faith, hope, and love of the gospel—until Christ returns.
I’ll therefore leave you with a song from the Taizé Christian Community in France (you can hear the music here):
God is only love. Dare to give everything for love.
God is only love. Give yourselves without fear.