It’s that time of year when many Christians declare that they are giving up sugar, soda, snacking, swearing or social media. Or maybe, they choose to forgo chocolate, beer or fast food.
These are typical sacrifices for Lent, the 40-day period before Easter that symbolically connects to Christ’s fasting 40 days in the wilderness and his journey to the cross.
This time around, though, many wonder: Haven’t we given up enough during this COVID-19 pandemic?
This past year of global suffering adds a new poignancy and depth to the practice of what Christians see as a time for discipline and penance.
And lots of jokes about giving up “meet” — as in getting together with others — playing off the tradition of meatless Fridays for Lent.
The Rev. James Martin, a writer for the Jesuit magazine America, quips: “Most of us feel [Lent] began last March and never ended.”
Since many Christians have given up “health, financial security, and seeing friends and family, how about a new Lenten practice?” he says on Twitter.
Martin proposes three practices all based on kindness:
• Don’t pass along your misery to everybody else.
• Don’t denigrate others behind their backs.
• Always give people the benefit of the doubt.
“It’s a lot harder,” the affable priest says, “than giving up chocolate.”
Marie Mischel, editor of the Intermountain Catholic, had already chosen an alternative approach to Lent during this extraordinary year.
“More than fasting from food, I’m also going to take a suggestion from Pope Francis and fast from hurting words, from anger, from bitterness,” Mischel writes in the paper, a publication of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City. “Instead, I’m going to be intentional about saying kind words, about being patient not only with others but also with myself, about focusing on reasons for joy rather than excuses for resentment.”
Because of social distancing, the editor now realizes how much she depends on friends and the Catholic community.
“Facebook posts and texts just don’t restore my soul in the same way as in-person conversation and liturgy,” Mischel writes. “Therefore, I’m going to make the effort to call my friends, not just text; to mail a card rather than post on Facebook; to take advantage of attending a liturgy in person when it’s safe to do so.”
None of these acts “is a grand sacrifice, but I know from experience that trying to be a zealot during Lent only makes me tired, not holy,” she writes. “Instead, my prayer is that these small steps will lead me closer to God, so that on Easter Day my soul will rejoice that he is risen.”
How Ash Wednesday is different this year
The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, whose date is tied to Easter, which changes based on the lunar calendar. This year, Ash Wednesday was celebrated at various Utah churches Feb. 17.
Even this ritual had to be adapted to avoid spreading the virus.
In Catholic Masses, instead of the priest or pastor marking parishioners’ foreheads with a cross of ashes, the ashes were sprinkled on their heads.
“The new method is actually more ancient,” says the Rev. Martin Diaz, at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City. “We didn’t want the priest touching anyone.”
Many mainline Protestant churches also celebrate Ash Wednesday, but this year most did it virtually.
In the Episcopal Diocese, participants “had the option of coming to the church following the [virtual] service to receive ashes,” says Bishop Scott Hayashi. The ritual does not have to be celebrated by a priest.
“The Imposition of Ashes is always a choice that a person makes to receive or to not receive,” he says. “A person can also make his or her own ashes and impose them on him or herself at home.”
Some Episcopalians “do give up things for Lent,” Hayashi says, “but in recent years we have encouraged people to take on a discipline of prayer, meditation or service.”
The Rev. AJ Bush of Salt Lake City’s First United Methodist Church says because of being separated by the pandemic and so many facing illness and death, “Lent 2021 may feel more like an extended season of wilderness that we have been walking in for quite some time.”
Some may wonder, Bush writes in her pastor’s blog, where God has been in all of this.
Bush’s sermons during the six weeks of Lent will focus on this and similar questions: “Where is God in the wilderness? Where is God when we cannot worship together? Where is God in our broken world?”
Those questions have a profound resonance for Bush, who became the pastor at the historic downtown church in July and has not yet been able to meet her congregants in the pews (though she did take selfies with some of them outside their homes during the summer months).
“It has almost been a year since we were last able to gather in our sanctuary for worship,” the pastor writes. “Yet we believe that God is not just in the sanctuary but is also with us in the world. Or it might be tempting to doubt God’s presence when faced with the terrible, unthinkable death that this pandemic has brought. Yet we believe that not even death can keep us from God.”
How to mark Lent this year
These questions have reverberated through all branches of Christianty this year, says the Rev. Steve Aeschbacher of First Presbyterian Church near the city center. “All of us have suffered losses in various ways this year, which implicates unanswered prayer.”
There are “no tidy answers,” he says, but his faith makes him hopeful.
“Our basic thought about Lent is that it is a chance to intentionally reset our rhythms/habits to include Jesus in a special way for these 40 days,” Aeschbacher says. “So it isn’t so much about suffering as about redirecting our attention from our endless wants to our endlessly loving God and Savior.”
Christians often use this time “to subtract things from their routines (’fast’ from food at certain times, reduce TV or social media consumption, etc.),” he says, “and to replace them with activities that help us connect with God (prayer, scripture reading, acts of service, etc.).”
For his part, Diaz urges Catholics to focus on what they’ve learned from the pandemic and to meditate on all they’ve missed in the past year.
“It’s been six months, nine months or more since many have hugged their grandchildren or been with extended family or friends,” Diaz says. “Lent would be a good time to reflect on those losses, since they are the most important things in our lives.”
It can be a time to prepare for new life, symbolized by Easter.
“We need to spend the time of Lent praying that the [COVID-19] numbers continue to go in a good direction and that we come out on the other side,” he says. “It could be so easy to forget the lesson we learned that the people close to us are the most important.”
The Rev. Elizabeth McVicker, superintendent for the Utah/Western Colorado District of the United Methodist Church and a former pastor at Salt Lake City’s First United, calls herself an optimist.
“Maybe a lot of churches will be open by Easter, and coming back together would be the most memorable celebration,” she says. “None of us will ever take for granted again being able to worship together.”
And the churches may emerge from their coronavirus cocoon, McVicker says, with “a new vibrancy” and “a sense of spiritual well-being” unlike any they’ve ever known.
After all, she says, that’s what Easter is all about.