Come to me,
all you who are weary and burdened,
and I will give you rest …
For my yoke is easy
and my burden is light.
I’ve always been a fan of Lent. It’s a good time to make fancy spiritual to-do lists, read important books, and whip ourselves into spiritual shape so that we come out the other end holier. I love the idea of becoming holier! (Unsurprisingly, I also love New Years Resolutions).
Lent hasn’t always been about a frenzy of perfectionism, though. Historically, Lent is the fasting period in the liturgical year between the feasts of Christmas and Easter — 40 days the Church sets aside to meditate on our mortality and repent of sin.
Somewhere along the way, though, the emphasis on our smallness and sin shifted, and the spiritual practices that were supposed to make us feel and mourn our humanity were swapped out for practices to make us more disciplined and stronger, “better” Christians and better citizens. For many, Lent is now time to try to scale impossible heights of spirituality, purity, and self-control. We use Lent to beat ourselves into shape, to tame our human bodies, and to try to become just a bit superhuman.
There’s nothing wrong with self-improvement! But discipleship is the focus of Ordinary Time — that period between Easter and Advent, months of Gospel texts where Jesus preaches and heals and serves, when we work through the steady practice of sanctification. Lent, though, serves a different spiritual purpose, and isn’t a hyper-intense “40 Days of New Years Resolutions!”
Lent is grittier, earthier, and more human.
Lent begins with ashes on our foreheads, reminding us that we came from dust and we’ll end up back there. Lent also ends with death — the sun sets on Holy Saturday with Jesus still in the tomb. The season is bookended by human fragility and transience. The world isn’t the way it should be, and we aren’t the way we wish we were, either. There are aches of sin and death in the center of the world that we don’t know how to heal.
The impulse is to use Lent to fix these aches. But Lent isn’t time to practice saying repeatedly if only we could be better. It’s time to practice being present to the ways we aren’t better: to practice being present to our humanity.
And in this heavy season, we see a God who doesn’t stay removed from our pain or tell us to “get it together!” and “just ignore the suffering!”, but a God who comes to carry our human burdens alongside us.
“Come to me, all who are weary,” Jesus says in Matthew. “For my yoke is easy and my burden is light!” (Matthew 11:28,30). This verse feels like taking a deep breath. We’re trying to pull the weight of being human all by ourselves, piling on practices and productivity, ignoring our pain and fighting through. We keep thinking that succeeding at Lent means pulling this weight all by ourselves.
Jesus doesn’t take away the heaviness of being human. But Jesus comes alongside and says, I will pull the weight of being human along with you. When we pull it together, it’ll be lighter.
This is the Gospel — that Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself human” (Philippians 2:6). The story of Lent isn’t the story of a superhuman God swooping in to tidy things up while staying clean and in control, or a story about how we can do fantastic, ethical things “through Christ who strengthens us.” It’s a story of a God who is here with us, inside it all.
God Incarnate means “God with a body.” It means God knows everything ugly and scary about being human, all about broken hearts and broken promises, all about having a body with anxiety, insomnia, and the flu.
If Lent is just superhuman-ing through our fragility, we won’t see Christ, aching body and aching soul, not just a popular preacher or successful prophet, but a dusty person as lonely, scared, and weary as us.
This God says to us, “you are entirely human, and I’m with you. You are entirely human, and entirely Beloved.”
In practicing that Presence of unconditional acceptance, maybe we’ll become better people. And maybe we won’t become better people. That isn’t the goal, though. If that hoped-for holiness doesn’t find us, Lent hasn’t failed. Grace, like the theologian Paul Tillich says, comes anyway:
“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a meaningless and empty life. […] It strikes us when, year after year, the longed-for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage.
“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!” If that happens to us, we experience grace” (The Shaking of the Foundations).
This acceptance of ourselves, fully human and fully fallible, but still held and Beloved, is the deepest lesson of Lent.
If we spend Lent pushing against our humanity, muscling past the ways we’ve failed, it’s hard to learn this lesson of radical grace that is the beginning and end of God’s heart for us. We’re permitted to be small and scared, because grace is for that small, scared version of ourselves. Grace is, in fact, especially for that version. This is some good news, because these pandemic days, sometimes that feels like the only self we have left.
We’re all experiencing such a lack of control right now, and it makes sense to try to gather our lives back together by making rules to organize ourselves and the world.
But Lent has a better gift for our battered souls. We don’t have to keeping trying to overachieve our way through spiritual practices, attempting to launch ourselves into superhuman spiritual orbit. We can name our weaknesses out loud, to mourn and suffer them together — and to know that Jesus is with us, pulling alongside us.
Into heaviness and sorrow, into sin and failings — God comes.
We are tired, but we are not alone.
Laura Jean Truman is a queer writer, preacher, and former chaplain living in Atlanta, GA. Originally from New England, she has a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of New Hampshire and an M.Div. from Emory University Candler School of Theology, with emphases in monasticism and mysticism. She supports her itinerant chaplaining and writing by slinging drinks at a historic tavern in downtown Atlanta.
Facebook | facebook.com/laurajeantrumanwriter
Instagram | @laurajeantruman
Twitter | @Laurajeantruman
Website | http://laurajeantruman.com/
Church Anew is dedicated to igniting faithful imagination and sustaining inspired innovation by offering transformative learning opportunities for church leaders and faithful people.
As an ecumenical and inclusive ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church, the content of each Church Anew blog represents the voice of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the position of Day1, Church Anew, or St. Andrew Lutheran Church on any specific topic.