In our secular-minded society Lent can mean anything or nothing at all. I once tried to explain it to my doctor and drew a complete blank. I later found out that he had graduated dead last in this class of 421. Well, someone has to. The point is that even the well-educated simply don’t get Lent. Evangelical Christians are equally clueless. They are already busy chasing Easter eggs on Good Friday. And who can blame them? Seasons of preparation are unknown in our “just add water” world. Nothing is ever coming, everything is already here. Holidays–there are no “holy days”–just sort of happen in response to the impulses of commerce. So Christmas begins immediately after Halloween and drags on until all the presents are opened. Then come The Twelve Days of Sale which morph seamlessly into Heart-Shaped Box of Chocolates Day. Universal Studios in Orlando is hosting Mardi Gras with beads and night parades, right through Lent, and that will continue until Imaginary Rabbit Day, when something else will be forced into bloom only to wither and vanish overnight. One damned thing after another.
Oh, well, beloved, this moment in history is where God has put us. And here, like The Dude, we abide. The nice thing about living in this cultural dog’s dish is that you can observe our holy days and seasons any way you want to and no one cares. And for us Resurrection People, the season of Lent still retains some of its ancient power—even though we have trouble sometimes explaining exactly why. In the midst of general indifference it goes on making its gentle, insistent demand of us, a deep racial memory inherited from all those generations of people who devoutly kept it as if Lent really mattered.
Which is does. It matters because Easter matters—more than anything else. But Easter doesn’t just happen. It demands a time of preparation. So for us there must be Lent. But even those of us who still keep it too often regard Lent in strictly negative terms, as a season of privation—a time for giving up sugar or meat on Fridays. My wife and I currently worship among Greek Orthodox Christians most of the time, and they take “Great Lent” very seriously. There are complicated rules about Lenten fasting, which we don’t fully comprehend. Some days you may have wine and oil; on other days you must abstain from fish or cheese. We do our best, but take a latitudinarian point of view, knowing that in fasting it is an awareness of fasting that matters. Abstinence is an outward sign that something more important is going on within—there must be some transformation of the soul. Otherwise Lent simply becomes a diet.
And it is infinitely more than that. The real meaning of Lent lies in its ancient past, in the Jewish preparation for Passover, their “pesach.” Passover is the background of the Christian commemoration of Good Friday and Easter, our “pascha.” It is within the contest of Passover that that suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus takes on its deepest meaning. The traditional way with which observant Jewish people prepare for Passover is with a thorough housecleaning. The intent is to make absolutely certain that no leavened bread, “chametz” in Hebrew, remains in the house to pollute the feast. So from the cellar to the dome, everything is swept clean, every rug turned out, every drapery shaken, because even crumb of “chametz” will prevent the household from celebrating a truly holy Passover.
And this ritual cleansing of the house must certainly be the source of what we call “spring-cleaning,” a rite which my mother observed each year with religious fervor. Spring cleaning lasted for roughly two weeks before Easter and nothing was spared that blitzkrieg of scrubbing and dusting. Spring-cleaning was entirely my mother’s business. She was entirely in command of it, and she used it as an excuse to demand the help she needed to turn things over and inside-out. She used spring-cleaning as an opportunity to get broken things fixed and to get rid of things she didn’t want to see around anymore. You had to keep close watch upon your neglected possessions during spring-cleaning. My brother and I—and my father too, I suspect–dreaded it, but mother loved it. It was her favorite season of the year, and after it was over she when off to church on Easter Sunday with a smile of satisfaction. She had a clean house.
So Lent, which began as a season of housecleaning, is still best observed as a time to get rid of the bitterness that hides in the corners of our lives and rolls itself up into those dust bunnies of resentment that hide under our beds. Any crumb of anger that remains hidden in our lives will prevent us from celebrating the Resurrection of Christ as our own rebirth.
In the lesson for Ash Wednesday Jesus speaks to us directly and forcefully: “If you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Those words cannot fail to make us uneasy. And they should, because Lord knows all of us are slower to offer forgiveness than to receive it. It is always easier for us to excuse ourselves than to forgive others. But the Lord makes our being forgiven by God contingent upon our willingness to let go of our anger against those who have harmed us. It sounds like a threat, but it is actually a warning given with a kindly intent. To forgive means everything. Without forgiveness nothing else matters. It is an explicit command, and it is entirely nonnegotiable.
There is a lot of anonymous self-confession available online. If you go there you probably already know that. I found this under the caption “Forgiveness is for suckers,” and I am passing it along to you exactly as I found it:
“What do you think about forgiving those who have wronged you? I think it’s a stupid waste of time and pretty much a guarantee that you’ll let them do it again.
I don’t know if I’ve ever really forgiven anybody. I don’t understand why people change. Why they act nice sometimes and then out the blue, big-time jerks. So I zero in on the jerk times and say, ‘Jerk’ and never forgive.
I have to be prepared for them to be jerks, because at least one time they were. If it happened once, it could happen again.
I wouldn’t expect people to forgive me either. Not for being a jerk. I could forgive people for mathematical errors, grammar mistakes, errors in their work, etc., but not for being a jerk.”
Now I can’t justify the self-righteous—and fairly jerky—tone of these lines, but without a doubt they represent someone’s honest feelings on the subject. I certainly would not care to cross paths with this person. But he or she is right on one score–forgiveness is a choice. You can choose—to your soul’s great peril—not to forgive. And forgiveness is indeed for suckers. But some of us choose to be suckers, simply because we know we have been jerks. And if you and I want to be forgiven for those many times we have been a jerks, we have to be prepared to be suckers. And here again we have the example of Jesus to follow. On the cross he became the greatest sucker of all, even though it is never recorded that he acted like a jerk.
Of course not everyone who doesn’t forgive necessarily despises forgiveness. Many of us struggle hard to forgive and find ourselves having to do it over and over again. It isn’t easy—no one said it was. And even though the Lord never commands us to do the impossible, he certainly does not hesitate to ask us to do what is difficult. Still on the cross Jesus proved that whatever human beings can do human beings can forgive. He told us to do likewise, and by grace we can obey. But forgiveness is our cross. It is by far and away the most challenging thing we are called upon to do as followers of Jesus.
Forgiveness is made a little easier, however, by what it is not. Forgiving is not forgetting. In fact, a full and honest remembering is the first step in the process of forgiveness. People say, “I can never forget what happened to me.” And that’s true. You can’t just decide to forget. Memory doesn’t work that way. And as for the past, if God is able to change it, he doesn’t seem willing to do so. Forgiveness starts with recalling—though not necessarily recounting– exactly what happened.
People say, “I can’t just pretend that what happened didn’t.” And no one is asking you to. The Lord is not asking us to hide the depth of our pain and anger. He does not ask us to deny our hatred. We ourselves do that. I watched a character on the television show the other night say, “I don’t hate anyone.” She was, incidentally, at that moment plotting to poison the person to whom she said those words. (That’s the sort of trashy thing I watch on television, I’m afraid.) But I have heard those words many times before—“I don’t hate anyone”—and often it is from persons whose lives are being painfully distorted by their bitterness and anger. They just don’t like the word “hate.”
And a great many of us—I include myself—were brought up to avoid that word, as if it, together with all those other nasty four letter words, wasn’t something that “nice” people said—or felt. We don’t want to admit that we actually hate someone who has hurt us badly, even though hatred is as human an emotion as love. We are not all mastered by it—thank God!–but we all experience it. Hatred is nothing more than sustained anger. And if the first step in forgiving is a complete remembering, the second step is to admit to God and to ourselves the power and depth of our bitterness.
In a former parish I knew a woman whose daughter had been murdered by the man with whom she was living with at the time. The daughter was murdered brutally and in cold blood. If that were not terrible enough, the couple’s four-year-old child was witness what happened. Then it was left to the mother of the murdered woman to make a decision—to raise the child or allow her to go into foster care. She took the child, but the tension her choice created was awful.
“How do you manage?” I once asked her.
“It has been the hardest thing I ever tried to do,” she replied without missing a beat, “because she looks like both of them. Every time I look at that child I can see that louse who murdered my daughter and a part of me hates what I see. But at the same time I can see my daughter in her too, and my whole being aches with love. I can’t live divided like that, so I had to decide to forgive him for my own sake, to keep myself from going crazy. And now I am better.”
Now I am better. Forgiveness is a decision to be get better. It is as clear and simple a choice as any of us are allowed to make in this life. We don’t have to forgive anyone anything. But if we do decide to forgive we have to be prepared to be a sucker, a dupe, an easy mark, and to continue to be a sucker, because we know whatever happened could well happen again. And no one likes to be thought of as gullible. It is an affront to our natural pride, and forgiveness means surrendering our right to revenge, the almost biological need to get some of our own back.
So why should we do it? Because hatred is a disease fatal to the soul and forgiveness is the only medicine for it. And somewhere in us we know we should. If we feel the need to forgive, it is because the Holy Spirit is at work in us. The Holy Spirit is the will of God that we should be healed and saved—in the Bible the same word serves for both. When our souls are afflicted and disordered, the Holy Spirit goes to work on us and does not rest until we are made sound and whole. We cannot heal ourselves. But when we are able say “I wish you well” to those who have harmed us, we take the step necessary to be truly well ourselves. That is all we can do. Then it is up to the Spirit to do the rest.
But if you think it is easy to say,” I wish you well,” to your enemies, then you haven’t really been hurt. Nothing about forgiveness is easy. But when we have succeeded in that, the Lord does not ask anything more. If further reconciliation is possible, his Spirit will affect it. All we have to do is say in our hearts, “I wish you well,” and behave as if we mean it. Then others have to attend to their own healing. No one can be healed for another. We don’t need to debase or demean ourselves. When we have already been hurt, God is not interested in further shaming us. He desires humility, but not humiliation.
Here as always Jesus shows us the way. One of the last things he said before he died was, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” He said this in full awareness that those who crucified him did know what they were up to—at least in part—and they would almost certainly try it again, given the chance. But none of that mattered. Jesus made a conscious decision to assume that those who framed him and contrived his death did so in ignorance, and to let go of any anger or bitterness he could reasonably expect to feel against them. “Father, forgive them”—he said this as a mortal man and not as God. And following his example we have to learn to say, “I have to assume that you did not know what you were doing when you hurt me like that. I can’t forget it, but I have decided to wish you well.”
I wish you well. Those four simple words are the narrow door that leads to Life. If we are ever to find that Life, the only Life that deserves the name, we have to get through the narrow door, sooner or later, either in this life or the next. For all of us it is a tight squeeze, beloved, but it is passable.