If February wasn’t already bleak enough, Lent makes it almost unbearable. Much of North America is covered in a blanket of cold, and the warmth of Spring is a distant dream. And while at Christmas and Easter our churches are filled with joyful celebrants, most parishes were all but empty on Ash Wednesday, and emptier still on Shrove Tuesday. Hanging the greens is far more exciting than burning them. Baby Jesus is to be adored, the risen Jesus is to be worshipped, but the cross is to be hidden, or tidied up a bit. And in reality it most certainly can’t be loved. Which leaves us wondering just what we are to do to properly commemorate Lent.
Yet, as odious as the cross is, this is where our faith begins, in the cold, dark night of the soul when we dare to believe in the very God who is fully revealed in the suffering and abandonment of Jesus by God. This is indeed a scandal, and foolishness to the Greeks! “The cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.” Meaning, there can be no Easter without Good Friday. There can be no resurrection of our Lord without first joining Him on the painful journey to Jerusalem. There can be no forgiveness of sins without first acknowledging that through our violence, ego, and rebellion we are complicit in his torture. To rush past the tomb on our way to the mountaintop is like opening a gift without the heart to embrace it. Bonhoeffer called this cheap grace, its “a grace we bestow on ourselves”. It is preaching forgiveness without requiring repentance.
You cannot truly celebrate the end of anything without first starting at the beginning. That’s why on Wednesday the faithful few gathered to begin the long, penitent journey of Lent by being reminded that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. The Lenten rituals of prayer, fasting, and self-denial remind us who we really are by preparing our heart and soul to meet the risen Lord on Easter. In fact, these spiritually forming activities pre-dates the established church, with evidence that first century Christians formalized a time of intentional self-reflection, taking seriously Christ’s commands to “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me continuously”.
Christ’s three-fold challenge (deny, pick up and follow) is the foundation of Christian discipleship. Lent becomes the opportunity whereby we align our soul and will more deliberately with the Spirit of God. It is living for forty days how we should be living 365 days a year. And while the setting down of habits, addictions, and luxuries is the first step toward change, self-denial is much more than first-world, bourgeois asceticism. Your very choice to fast or deny your physical needs provides both existential and spiritual freedom. “It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no man can live a fully sane and decent life unless he is able to say ‘no’ on occasion to his natural bodily appetites.” No one who simply eats and drinks whenever he feels like eating or drinking, or gratifies his every physical urge and impulse can ever consider himself free. If so, you are a slave unto yourself.
However, self-denial isn’t an end in itself. It is never enough to simply put aside this thing or that, we are required to pick up something else altogether. The specific turn of phrase echoing down through the ages to ‘pick up your cross’ has no other meaning than an invitation to share in Christ’s suffering love for the world. According to John of Chrysostom, “No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.” So maybe this year, instead of passively giving up something like chocolate or beer, choose instead to actively take something on. Because to journey with the crucified Christ towards Golgotha means solidarity with the sufferings of the poor and the misery of both the oppressed and the oppressor. During the next 40 days, actively confront evil, right a wrong, heal and do not hurt. Picking up your cross might be as simple as giving your seat to someone else on the subway, carrying spare change to give out to the needy, praying for someone every day, waking up early to meditate, forgiving an enemy, or confessing your sins to your spouse and children.
As we move deeper into Lent, as one spiritual season gives way to a new one, urge one another on to follow him unceasingly on the journey. After all, obedience is never an accident. You will never fortuitously fall into faithfulness, it requires intentionality and action. Join the saints in this season of spiritual change repenting of sin, renewing of faith, practicing the traditions of the ekklessia and preparing to celebrate the joyful mystery of our salvation: Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again.
 Mark 8: 34.
 Fears, J. “Rome: The Ideology of Imperial Power.” 1980.
 Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation.