Personally, I am not in the habit of observing Lent in any formal way. I do not give up chocolate or coffee or anything else—at least, not intentionally. But willy-nilly I always end up surrendering something, because that is what Lent does: it drives us, as it did Jesus, into the wilderness.
On Ash Wednesday I may begin the Lenten season bravely enough, setting my face toward Jerusalem, as it were. But the reason I do not deliberately fast or make resolutions is that I always experience Lent as a difficult time anyway. I know this. As Lent progresses, all too soon I’m out of my depth, buried under a bewildering barrage of struggles, difficulties, darkness, all of which rush into my life of their own accord. Not until I’m a week or two into Lent do I begin to understand what Lent may be asking of me—not only what it asks me to give up, but what it asks me to take up, as in “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Thus, while I do not observe Lent, it has a way of observing me. And never moreso than this year of COVID-19.
While the media seem bent on using the term “coronovirus” for the scourge that is terrorizing the world, I prefer the name bestowed by the World Health Organization, “COVID-19.” For ‘Covid’ suggests to me the word ‘covert,’ meaning ‘concealed’ or ‘not openly displayed.’ A ‘covert operation,’ for example, is a clandestine plot seeking to undermine or disrupt the status quo. While it may take place in peace time, it is essentially a tactic of war, or guerilla warfare, and as French President Emmanuel Macron said of the current crisis, “Nous sommes en guerre”: We are at war.
This is not—or should not be—news to Christians. For those of us who side with a disgraced, crucifed rebel, we are always at war, and the present situation is merely another instance of this, another battle, albeit a dramatically blatant manifestation of the ever-present, hidden conflict. The fact that our enemy in this case is so covert, operating so perfidiously under the radar, only underlines the situation in which Christians always find themselves, struggling to the death against an invisible, lethal, utterly unprincipled foe.
This is what drove Jesus into the wilderness for forty days, deliberately to flush out the Devil, calling him into the open to confront him. Or rather, to allow Himself to be confronted. For Christians do not fight evil aggressively, as in worldly warfare, but instead we counter evil’s aggression with the only weapon we have: the Spirit-filled Word of God. As Jesus answered Satan in His first salvo, “It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
Lent, this wilderness season, is a gift. Among all the conflicting feelings we may have about Covid-19, perhaps one feeling we might consider indulging is gratitude (to be distinguished, one hopes, from shadenfreude). Gratitude that for once the world has knowingly been driven into the wilderness with us, and for once is having to wake up and fight a battle that for Christians is (or again, should be) business as usual. For once the world is being called into an acute awareness of the brevity and preciousness of human life and of the sentence of death that continually hangs over us all. For once the world is in a position to appreciate the message of Ecclesiastes—“All is vanity and a striving after wind” (1:14)—or of 1 Peter 1:24:
All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.
For once the whole world is being reminded of the foolishness of trusting inordinately in money, material possessions, medicine, or human expertise. For once the needs of the weak, the elderly, the medically challenged are taking precedence over those of the strong. For once the world has a little dose of the fear of God thrown into it, as it hunkers down in the trenches against this insidious enemy. And for once the world, not just the Church, is being brought to its knees for Lent. In view of all this, let us hope that the world will also hear and respond to Lent’s glorious invitation to “repent and believe the good news.”
One word that gets bandied around these days is “unprecedented.” A shorter word for the same thing is “Lent.” The nature of Lent is to face us with unprecedented challenges. Thus Lent is the one special time of the year that has no appropriate greeting attached to it. We do not go around jovially shouting, “Happy Lent!” or “Merry Good Friday!” No, only one greeting is appropriate for this occasion: silence. Nor do we ‘celebrate’ Lent but rather ‘observe’ it. Or allow it to observe us.
This Lent the whole world is being observed by COVID-19. The ugly virus is stalking us, tempting us, isolating us, challenging and shaming and bullying us. At such a time the only answer, the only real defence or recourse, is the Word of God. Everyone will have their own treasured scriptures, words of God that hold the darkness at bay. For me right now it’s 1 Peter 5:7: “Cast all your cares on Him, because He cares for you,” and Psalm 118:17: “I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.”
The Trappist monk Thomas Merton died of accidental electrocution. His autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, ends with this paragraph which was read at his funeral, in which he imagined God speaking to him:
“You shall taste the true solitude of My anguish and My poverty and I shall lead you into the high places of My joy and you shall die in Me and find all things in My mercy which has created you for this end and brought you … to the monastery of the poor men who labor in Gethsemani: That you may become the brother of God and learn to know the Christ of the burnt men.”
By the “burnt men” Merton meant those who have been so seared by the world’s outrageous vanity that they have deliberately chosen to take a higher road, the one to heaven. Because Merton died by burning, many people have read the final words of his autobiography as prophetic. Covid-19, which comes with a fever, is also a kind of burning. Let us observe well this burning season. As Blaise Pascal wrote, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Whether we’re spending these days cooling our heels at home, or suffering the disease ourselves, or busily working on the front lines of health care, may we all get in touch with how deeply we desire something we might not normally have in our everyday lives: a sense of reality.
Next Post: Good Friday: A Meditation on the Cross by Thomas Traherne