In March 2020, when much of the United States entered some iteration of lockdown or quarantine (and in some places never really left that state), I accepted that we were just living “the Lentiest Lent”—a time of most hardcore sacrifice. However, that feeling did not subside when Lent ended. Our society has had to continually grapple with death that is premature, isolated, cruel, and, in so many ways, utterly preventable.
One year later, in Lent 2021, how can we participate in the death of Christ and walk the road to Calvary? Why would we want to spend 40 more days living Lent when we have been doing so for the past year?
The interesting thing about the COVID-19 pandemic timeline is that it has been sneakily liturgical. Our journey from Lent 2020 to Lent 2021 has mirrored the liturgical calendar in more than just chronology: We entered into the most purifying period our modern society can remember and sacrificed much more than even our Lenten practices asked of us. Instead of coming out of the tomb with Christ at Easter, we continued in the most un-ordinary of Ordinary Time. In the midst of the darkest Advent, the in-breaking of light into our darkness was the availability of vaccines—hope that an end to the pandemic is in sight.
We know how the story ends as we reenter Lent 2021: We may still be in a period of pervasive darkness and suffering, yet we know the rebirth into new life hopefully coming this Easter. We hope that we will come out of the tomb with Christ; we also know that in the midst of this darkness, hopelessness, divisiveness, tyranny, and toxicity, there is light to be found beyond the here and now. In the words of youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman: “For there is always light, if only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
This year, when suffering surrounds us so intensely, a Lenten practice of giving up the simple pleasures of coffee or chocolate might be ill-placed. Much has already been sacrificed. We are seeing the brokenness of the world firsthand, thrust into a daily encounter with the truth of Lent. This world and our humanity are not as God created them to be.
We are hurting. We fail one another when we choose self-preservation over sacrifice for the greater good. We fail ourselves when we set aside what we know to be right in exchange for what we know to be easy. We fail the God who loved us into being when we allow the voices in our heads saying we are insufficient to overwhelm the voice of truth saying we are enough.
In Lent 2021, how can we participate in the death of Christ and walk the road to Calvary?
Every corner of our hearts cries out for the unconditional love, the healing without price, and the truth of Christ as we prepare the way on Earth for the new life that salvation brings.
In considering how best to reclaim this Lent in preparation for new life, the words of spiritual titan Henri Nouwen in A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee (Orbis) speak to me:
But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in Your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in Your death? Yes, Lord, I have to die—with You, through You, and in You—and thus become ready to recognize You when You appear to me in Your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess. . . . O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find You again.
To write about death in a time when hundreds of thousands of Americans have died and are grieving feels, at best, tactless. However, in this year of profound suffering, my gaze is drawn back to Christ, who knows human suffering most intimately, and the Blessed Mother, Mary, who knows human grief most acutely.
Thankfully, for each profoundly sorrowful account of pandemic life, there are hundreds of hopeful tales that demonstrate the best humanity has to offer. These stories inspire us to prayerfully consider what must “die” this Lent so that we can be reborn as God desires us to be.
What then—in each of us and in our world—needs to “die” to reclaim the personal, purifying practice of this liturgical season? We each have something (for me, definitely more than one thing).
My desire for control had to “die” this year: I was forced to give up control of my career and vocational timelines, my grand plans for travel and leisure and work, and any hope of controlling the decision-making of others (Wear a mask! Stay home if you can!).
This Lent I am letting my passivity to the chaos of my day “die” by regaining control of the things I can. I’m making time management my Lenten practice.
So this Lent I am letting my passivity to the chaos of my day “die” by regaining control of the things I can. I’m making time management my Lenten practice. I am concentrating on running my day and not letting it run me; utilizing each chunk of my day to be a more engaged employee and collaborator, a better wife and partner to my husband, a more intentional “dog parent” to our new puppy; and, above all, building in prayer more intentionally instead of allowing it to be the first priority sacrificed to the winds of chaos.
For so many people, this “one long Lent” has left us just trying to survive, barely keeping our heads above water. In this case, Lent is about self-care in a way that is less about diving more deeply into sacrifice and more about reorienting oneself to what matters.
Self-care is not all face masks and meditation; it requires an acute self-awareness of what we need to survive and thrive in the fullness of the life God wants for us and to seek those things as priorities, the way we would do so unabashedly for others whom we love.
Perhaps a lack of care for self is what needs to “die” this Lent. Lent could be the moment of care for self that many of us need.
Perhaps, we need Lent now more than ever.
Image: Unsplash/Rui Silva SJ