By Ginny Schaeffer, director of the Angela Merici Center for Spirituality
What if we view this desert time of Lent as not just a time to reflect or
to lament or to confess or to fast, but a time where we learn to be free.Megan Westra
Two years ago, we lived through a different kind of Lent. In order to keep ourselves and each other safe from a virus that humanity had no natural immunity or a vaccine against we stayed safe at home. Restaurants, bars, all non-essential businesses and even churches were shuttered, closed to prevent the spread of a novel virus that killed efficiently and prolifically. We watched refrigerated trucks pull up behind hospitals and act as temporary morgues because hospital and city morgues were overwhelmed. Our nursing homes became killing fields, not through any fault of the staff; it seemed this virus had an affinity for the elderly and others with certain pre-existing conditions.
That Lent was a lonely season. There were none of the usual rituals and trappings – no fish fries, no Stations of the Cross and even the Triduum and Easter were observed in the privacy of our own homes via Facebook and television. Families did not gather for a great feast in order to protect each other, especially grandma and grandpa.
We have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. We have lost loved ones and grieve their passing. We have lost months of being together celebrating birthdays, weddings and graduations. We have lost dreams and plans for the future. Deep, old wounds have erupted, and we have lost our ability to be blind to injustices, inequities and deep divisions.
After two years we are in a much different place thanks to vaccines, treatments and the natural immunity of those previously infected. We were all looking forward to getting back to our old normal with spring, Lent and Easter with fish fries, Stations-of-the-Cross, dyed Easter eggs and family feasts. Yet, like two years ago, we face another existential crisis.
Just days before Ash Wednesday, the president of Russia did the unimaginable and invaded a sovereign country, bringing war to the European continent for the first time in over 75 years. The Russian army is now indiscriminately bombing civilian targets: apartment buildings, suburbs, hospitals and schools. Over 1.5 million Ukrainians have become refugees, seeking asylum and safety in neighboring countries. Those who chose to stay behind are hunkering down in basements and subway tunnels. Teachers, lawyers and housewives have created makeshift assembly lines to build Molotov cocktails. Civilians are taking up weapons to protect their homeland. Western countries, including the U. S., have imposed crippling economic sanctions against Russia and are providing defensive weapons to Ukraine. In reaction to the resistance against his invading army and the united response of much of the world, Russia’s nuclear forces have been placed on high alert.
Once again, we are experiencing a different kind of Lent where suffering and death are front and center. The virus we face this time is not new to us. It is a pathogen we know all too well – hatred, greed, power, revenge and fear. It is a virus that infects all of us at one time or another whether we are willing to admit it or not.
In light of this “different kind of Lent,” how are we to respond? Do we simply observe Lent as we always have, or can we really engage with it? Do we just go back to our old normal that we have all been yearning for or is there another invitation—to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and face our own demons and temptations?
During Lent we are called to prayer, fasting and almsgiving. What if we looked beneath the surface and took these spiritual practices to heart? Perhaps, instead of “saying our prayers” we might actually dare to sit quietly and honestly before God and allow God to reveal God’s self to us. Instead of “giving up” candy or beer, we might take a look at what blocks us from deeper relationships with God, ourselves and others and fast from those things. Instead of dropping our extra change in the church basket we look for ways to give of ourselves, our time, energy and talents to those in need; or, at least, choose kindness and understanding. We are living through yet another “different kind of Lent.” It is up to us what we will make of it.