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Learning new life lessons from a ‘long Lent’

In his Letter From America, Brandon McGinley hails the challenges brought to us during the Lenten season

I’ve come to love Lent. In fact, I seem to love Lent in proportion to the seriousness of the penances I undertake.

This isn’t necessarily evidence of holiness—not at all. I enjoy challenges, and I really enjoy proving my mettle by overcoming them.

But Lent, and penance generally, isn’t about mettle-testing; it’s about taking on worldly discomfort specifically out of our love of God. In so doing, in denying certain distracting pleasures of the flesh, we learn how to love Him better. It’s about Him, not us.

One of the best things about a hard Lent is that it makes the exuberant joy of Easter all the more tangible. This is an essential truth about Lent: it always points us to, and finds meaning in, the glory of the risen Lord. It’s not about sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice (or for the sake of weight loss, or for the sake of impressing friends with my piety and steadfastness), but about sacrifice in the spirit of Christ’s sacrifice—for the ultimate good.

‘Long Lent’

Now, as a general rule, I think it’s best to observe Lent during the liturgically-prescribed six-and-a-half weeks before Easter. But what about a long Lent? Is there good in bringing the spirit of Lent to the rest of the year?

The term has a very specific connotation in the American Church: the ‘Long Lent’ of 2002. The Boston Globe published the original revelations about the cover-up of clerical sex abuse in January of that year, resulting in months and years of accumulating scandal.

I’ve never been fond of this usage. The penance of Lent is taken on willingly and ordered toward communion with Christ; the punishment the Church endured for the sins of her clergy was imposed from the outside, was largely resisted, and was regarded more as an invitation to institutional reform than to holiness. If the sex abuse crisis has been a long Lent, there has yet to be an Easter.

The idea of a long Lent has been percolating in my mind, though, as the world grapples with an apparent pandemic. Even if the early data suggesting a fatality rate above three per cent prove to be overstating the risk, and even if transmission slows to a more manageable pace, we are still looking at widespread overcrowding of healthcare facilities, restriction of movement and shortages of goods. There will likely be more disruption to everyday like than almost anyone west of the Iron Curtain has experienced in their lifetime.

Worldwide

And it’s beginning, at least in the US and much of Europe, during Lent.

The suffering that we may be about to endure will be, on a world-historical scale, relatively minor. For most it will involve adjustments to regular habits of daily life and of consumption. But, in an age of abundance and comfort, to many this will feel like the ground beneath our feet is, for the first time in our lives, unreliable. It may permanently alter perceptions of just how stable our global order really is, and of what is really important.

This, much more than the enforced penance of the sex abuse crisis, sounds like a candidate for a long Lent. While 40 days—roughly ten per cent of the year—is usually enough to unsettle us and refocus us on Christ, in a world of extreme materialism and comfortable self-absorption, something more intense and lasting may be in order. A long Lent may be just what we need.

It all depends, though, on how we face it. Lent is ordered to Christ, not to endurance or overcoming, and certainly not to anxiety or despair. For the Church, this means carrying on with the business of the Sacramental life as confidently and seamlessly as is prudent.

Depending on Christ

It means demonstrating, in the habits of her institutions and the bearing of her members, that she rests on something infinitely more stable than supply chains or stock prices or even human health. She depends on nothing but Christ.

A long Lent should not throw the Church into chaos or despair; instead, she should be a beacon of stability, a reminder that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy of easy materialism.

So, pray and frequent the Sacraments and do your penance.

This Lent will pass, as they always do. But Christ resurrected will always be there at the end. It’s up to us to remember that, and to demonstrate it to a reeling civilisation.

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