We’re in the midst of lent. Today I’ve been thinking about the paradoxes of this season: a season of grief and of celebration; a season of penitence and a season of joy; a season of abstinence and a season of indulgence. In short, a season of ashes and chocolates.
I haven’t taken much time to reflect on this before. The Protestant traditions that I’ve been immersed in hasn’t taught me much about the traditional practice of lent. I didn’t even hear about it in a church until college. Most Protestants and casual Theists I know see it as a season in which we are encouraged to be more rigorously righteous either by abstaining from vices and distractions or pursuing virtues. There is no real paradox in their practice. If Sunday or the weekend is an exception, it’s more to allow for weakness than encourage special celebration.
For most people I know, lent is sort of like the beginning of the new year all over again. We’ve made resolutions for self-improvement that may or may not include growing closer to God. While most of us start out strong, by the end of the 40 days the majority of us haven’t met our goals. We don’t spend much of that much time reflecting upon sin, brokenness, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even when lent becomes meaningful it’s in a more ‘spiritual’ sense than ‘religious’. By that I mean, we may feel we connected with a sense of the divine but not necessarily with G-d’s incarnation in Jesus Christ.
This way of approaching lent has some virtue. Sometimes we all need to purge and focus on developing discipline. But it lacks depth as it loses paradox. What’s caused me to think about this has been both listening to sermons on lent and preparing to talk about Chesterton’s chapter on paradoxes in Orthodoxy.
One particular sermon focused primarily on how the season is meant to be a time for reflection upon sin and penitence but, and this was the first time I believe I heard a Protestant pastor mention this, he brought up the significance of being able to indulge on Sundays. He said that Sunday is the day of our risen Christ and therefore we should be free to symbolize that we are set free. I thought about how significant it would be if each Sunday was a celebration with the grandest celebration being on Easter Sunday.
All day I’ve been thinking about how profound it would be if we kept together fasting and feasting, grieving and celebrating during this season. What if we participated in lent as a season in which opposites are meant to collide with no amalgamation or compromise but “both things at the top of their energy”? What if the severity of our self-deprivation and reflection during the week was countered by jubilant celebrations on Sunday? What if, most of all, we allowed the season of lent to connect us with the profound paradoxes within Christianity itself?
At the center of Easter are the most profound and meaningful aspects of Christianity: the depth of God’s love and sacrifice and the gravity of men’s nature and circumstance. Theology calls much of this mystery and most of us would call the orthodox theology on these points paradoxes. For example, human nature is a paradox in Christianity. As Chesterton phrases it,
‘In one way, according to Christianity, Man is to be haughtier than he has ever been in any pagan myth or modern ideology; in another way he is to be humbler than he has ever been before. In so far as I am Man I am chief of all creatures. In so far as I am man I am the chief of all sinners. All humility that can mean pessimism, that can mean man taking a vague or mean view of his destiny-all that is to go…Man is only sad not because he is not a beast but a broken god.” (Man here standing for all human beings, male or female).
God’s love is a paradox in Christianity because it is both merciful and just. Jesus’ death symbolizes this. He was sacrificed because, as a just God, sin/evil must be punished. It has a cost that must be paid. If this is not true, God is not just. He was sacrificed because, as a merciful God, he chose to pay the price for our sin and evil. Jesus himself is a paradox: fully man and fully God. Easter celebrates the paradox of defeat and victory as Jesus was defeated by death on a cross and victorious over it through resurrection.
These aren’t really things that most people want to focus on. Sin is a touchy issue. Like I wrote about before, our culture neuters it a lot. Who likes the idea of original sin either? Without a very deep appreciation of the gravity of sin Jesus death isn’t that meaningful or profound. It simply symbolizes how we all can conquer our personal sin/imperfections. Just as I feel we lose by taking a pettier view of sin, we lose as it allows us to take a pettier view of Easter.
Like always when I think of Jesus’ crucifixion I think of Pi’s response to hearing about it in Life of Pi:
“That a god should put up with adversity I could understand. The gods of Hinduism face their fair share of thieves, bullies, kidnappers and usurpers. What is the Ramayan but the account of one long, bad day for Rama? Adversity, yes. Reversals of fortune, yes. Treachery, yes. But humiliation? Death? I couldn’t imagine Lord Krishna consenting to be stripped naked, whipped, mocked, dragged through the streets and to top it off, crucified-and at the hands of mere humans, to boots. I’d never heard of a Hindu god dying. Brahman Revealed did not go for death. Devils and monsters did, as did mortals, by the thousands and millions-that’s what they were there for. Matter, too, fell away. But divinity shouldn’t be blighted by death. It’s wrong…It was wrong for the Christian God to let His avatar die. That is tantamount to letting a part of Himself die. For if the Son is to die, it cannot be fake. If God on the Cross is God shamming a human tragedy, it turns the Passion of Christ into the Farce of Christ. The death of the Son must be real. Father Martin assured me it was. But once a dead God, always a dead God, even resurrected. The Son must have the taste of death forever in His mouth. The Trinity must be tainted by it; there must be a certain stench at the right hand of God the Father. The horror must be real. Why would God with that upon Himself? Why not leave death to the morals? Why make dirty what is beautiful, spoil what is perfect?”
The priest answers Pi by saying “Love”. I would include “Justice.” Pi’s questions are well worth wrestling with. His shock and horror augment the profundity of the cross.
I feel that participating in lent this year as a season of paradoxes will make this time more meaningful both as I wrestle with the rich meaning of Easter and attempt to practice opposite virtues. To be honest, I’m not good at steady and consistent. At balance. I agree with Chesterton that the most meaningful way to live is between the tension of extremes (good extremes like justice and mercy, like a staggering pride and a deep humility). It’s nice to be now free to pursue extremes. To attempt severity during the week and indulgence on the weekend and for both to be righteous acts.
Also, this approach to lent frees this season from the hazards that come with the new year’s resolution type approach. Typically, slipping up during this time becomes a set back in my goal for spiritual growth and improvement. Each slip makes me feel like a failure. (OR, I’ll admit this is more often true, it’s the result of a loop hole I’ve created because I don’t really care that much about perfection as a goal in and of itself). Now, if I slip my imperfection will be a reminder of my dependence. Now, I’m attempting practicing a meaningful tension of extremes that is meant to augment the value of both.