A different kind of Lent

London, W1
12/04/2020  •  737 words

Listening to: The Sower's Song by Andrew Peterson

Among the strategic errors that I made in February was to commit to giving up Netflix for Lent without first considering that a deadly pandemic might contain me alone in my flat for much of the season.

As I’ve dwelt in relative isolation for the past few weeks, I’ve had time to think about what is the same and what is different in these days. The choices many of us make during Lent – of what we might give up or take up – have been superseded by official mandates from government. We have had imposed upon us a way of life few of us would adopt even at our most zealously ascetic, even during Lent. I had wondered whether one of the small blessings to emerge from these otherwise bleak circumstances might have been the stretching of our collective imagination of what hope might look like.

My imagination was stirred, therefore, as I read an article on exactly this theme. Writing in the London Review of Books, Thomas Jones gave a diary report from the Italian city Orvieto. He described the growing horror of the Coronavirus crisis in that part of the world, framed through the language of Quaresima.

Quaresima is the Italian word for Lent, deriving its root from the Latin for ‘fortieth’ – the forty days of Lent (from Ash Wednesday to Easter, not including Sundays) reflecting the forty days Jesus spent facing temptation in the wilderness. And, though it almost needn’t be said by this point, sharing a root with our word ‘quarantine,’ pertaining to isolation. And, perhaps we might now add, trial.

Word studies alone might be interesting, but hardly imagination-stirring. What provoked me about the article was the haunting tone of its conclusion. Jones reflected that “the lockdown will be extended, to Easter and beyond.” He explained why the distancing measures will need to continue for the foreseeable future. And then, in a blunt sentence, he summed up the mood of these present times: “Indefinite Lent.”

Indefinite Lent. What a phrase. That is exactly what it feels like. A season of self-denial – of going-without – with the added sense of exclusion and what we have come to know as ‘social distance.’ But as we celebrate Easter today, and the traditional method of Lenten withdrawal draws to a climactic close, the “indefinite Lent” of the pandemic continues unarrested.

Jones goes on:

The Bible says that it rained for ‘forty days and forty nights’ (Genesis 7:12), but we know the number isn’t to be taken literally. It’s a way of saying that it rained for a very, very long time. Long enough to flood the earth. The last verse of Genesis 7 is less famous, but more ominous: ‘And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.’

I might quibble over his biblical interpretation, but I cannot fault his observation. The story of the arc was not over until the waters had receded and dry land was revealed once again. As the news reports discuss how close we are to ‘the peak,’ one can almost hear Noah and his family urging us to pace our expectations for recovery rightly. Hope is conceived early, but it often has a long gestation period.

Easter has arrived, now, and with it comes the surest hope the world knows. Easter is God’s declaration of life into a world marked and marred by death. Easter means the tide has turned, decisively and irrevocably. Yet it feels wrong, somehow unnatural, to celebrate Easter alone and locked down. I feel this isn’t how it’s supposed to be.

But then I remember the tears of Mary at the graveside, and the despondency of Cleopas and his friend on the Emmaus Road, and the disbelief of Thomas in the house with the disciples. And maybe, just maybe, this is what I need to learn about hope. Hope has its decisive moment: a fixed date in history, in an empty tomb just outside Jerusalem. But hope also builds and grows and expands as its implications are known and its effects are felt.

This has been a different kind of Lent. Perhaps this will also be a different kind of Easter – these seven weeks until Pentecost at the end of May being marked by an advancing hope in the life that broke down death’s door in a garden tomb just outside Jerusalem all those years ago.