Teach us to care and not to care. Teach us to sit still. – T. S. Eliot, “Ash Wednesday”
Lent begins today. 40 days of preparing our hearts and minds and lives to walk the road to the cross with Jesus on Good Friday. 40 days of giving something up or taking something on, stepping back from our regular routines to pause and let God in anew.
Lent feels a little different for me this year since I’ve already given up quite a few things over the past months. I’ve given up roller coasters and sushi; I’ve given up my favorite shirts and jeans; I’ve even given up bending at the waist. That’s right – I’m pregnant.
So I’m not giving anything up for Lent this year. Let’s be honest – you really shouldn’t ask a pregnant woman to give up chocolate during Lent if you value your safety! She’s already given up quite a bit. Decent sleep, days without heartburn, her normal exercise routine, immunity from receiving constant comments on her appearance (“Are you sure it’s not twins?!” Always a perennial favorite…), and sleeping on her stomach or her back. She’s given up living in her body as if it’s her own to direct, to control.
I grew up in the Evangelical Free Church tradition, one rich with history and beautifully centered on Scripture. I was a Sunday School regular, an AWANA kid who memorized Bible verses from preschool-age onward. We did the Jesus thing. But we didn’t celebrate Lent. Lent was something my Catholic grandparents practiced. It involved fasting and giving up meat and other habits that were as alien to me as a foreign language.
In college I landed in an Anglican church that did Lent. There were daily prayer services, weekly reminders, and seemingly everyone fasted from something. You could scarcely find anyone eating sweets or meat or not abstaining from alcohol during the 40 days leading to Good Friday.
So I decided to buy in. I’m an all-or-nothing person, and if I was going to do Lent, I was going to do Lent. So I attended to morning prayer, started a new daily devotional, and gave up sweets. I was also about as miserable as I’d ever been in my young life. The morning prayer was lovely. The devotional was food for my soul. But giving up sugar?!
At one point I got into a serious fight about absolutely nothing with my then-boyfriend (now husband) Daryl.
“What are we fighting about?” he finally asked, truly exasperated.
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed, bursting into tears. “I just need a brownie!!!”
Yet at the Easter service that year, as we loudly shouted our “Alleluias,” proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the triumph of life over death, the joy of the morning after the darkness of the night, I felt the richness of the Easter celebration in my soul in a way I never had before. And not just because of the giant bag of gummi bears waiting for me in my backpack. Though the prospect of downing that as soon as the worship service ended certainly didn’t hurt.
C.S. Lewis once called people “amphibious creatures,” made up of both body and soul, mind and spirit. For this reason, physical practices impact our souls, and spiritual ones affect our bodies. The small, small act of suffering I endured in giving up sugar–sadly and truly one of my great loves–drew me closer to God. It put me face to face with my own weakness and his great love. It made me realize my own frailty in a truly startling way for a 22-year old who felt generally pretty invincible. Who knew I was so dependent upon creature comforts? I had no idea until the great brownie fast of 2004.
My encouragement to you this Lent is to take whatever constraints your body has or whatever disciplines you are taking on this season and to give them to Jesus as spiritual practice. If you’re pregnant, bear the burden of heartburn and backaches prayerfully. If you suffer from an illness, take your lowest moments to Jesus, acknowledging your anger, your hurt, your exhaustion, your fear. If you struggle with the aches and pains of aging, acknowledge this Lent your dependency upon the God who gives life and strength, even as your strength changes. If you are a caregiver for a spouse or friend or children, a task that can wear you out physically and spiritually, look for Jesus’ hand in the minutia, the pile of dishes, the mountain of laundry, the nose wiped for the 8,000th time in a single week, the meals prepared, the floors swept. If it’s a difficult exercise routine, find prayers that fit with the pounding of the pavement, the lifting of the weights, the achingly difficult yoga position.
In your physical sufferings, big or small, Jesus will meet you. He bore our sins in his body. He knows what it is to ache, to hurt, to hunger, to thirst, and he walks with you this Lent. Our bodies can be one piece of what Bonhoeffer called “God’s slow work of grace.”
In 40 days’ time, I might have a newborn in my arms, or I might have two more weeks to go. I might have already passed through the waters of labor, my body beautifully and painfully scarred once again by carrying and delivering a little one. I might still be in the throes of the third trimester. Either way, I know that the big and small aches of my body will not go unnoticed by my God.
And I’m thankful that, in some small way, my changing body will be a constant reminder of what Jesus physically went through for me–giving up his own heavenly comfort in order to to give his life for mine.