This reflection was delivered as part of an ecumenical worship service on campus to reflect upon the season of Lent. The latter section was written by a wise friend, Joey Allaire, as we reflected together.
A passage from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 12:
35 ‘Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit; 36 be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them. 38If he comes during the middle of the night, or near dawn, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 ‘But know this: if the owner of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he* would not have let his house be broken into.40 You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.’
As we join together for the first week after Spring Break, Joey and I would like to take time to reflect upon the season of Lent and its meaning to our lives as Christians. To begin our reflection, I would like each of you to close your eyes. Begin by envisioning yourself in a small, darkened room during the night. You are sitting on a wooden floor, and the only light you have is given by a candle in your hand, flickering and holding fast to a small amount of wax. You are left waiting, silent and alone, and you cannot sleep. You see the candle’s shadows on the wall and experience tremendous fear, but you have been told to stay awake and wait for your master to come home, to keep the flame alive in the meantime. Alone, in the darkness, and silence, what do you do?
Now open your eyes. Around us, in reality, we see that we live with electricity available to us as often as we desire. We have cell phones to find company when we feel alone in the night. We are also deeply fortunate to have food available to us most hours of the day. This gives us illimitable choices as to where to turn in the darkness, when we are most vulnerable and afraid to wait.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that Christ comes to us in unexpected times, in the middle of the night, when we may be inattentive or distracted. Yet when he comes, he desires to be welcomed by us. He desires for us to be awake, waiting, so that we may open the door, feast, and share life with him.
The season of Lent is this time of waiting in the darkness. For these forty days, we journey into a time of expectation, marked by fasting and sacrifice, as a way to renew our love for God and our solidarity with one another. Lent is designed to be a time of struggle, of confronting our shadows, that we may welcome Christ with a more illumined heart. In this time, we are preparing and anticipating the Light of the Resurrection that comes on Easter Sunday. From this lens of hope in the Risen Christ, we find the strength to renew our faith.
From my experience, I have found that Lent can become disfigured as a time to practice self-punishment or empty piety. When I was young, I saw Lent each year as a challenge to be good. I would give up one thing that I never think I could do without, just to prove how faithful I was. Yet once the forty days ended, I often found myself slipping into the same patterns that I had before, and I am not sure that I ever grasped the joy of the Resurrection.
The reason that my Lenten practice did not have a profound impact upon my life is that I did not know the true purpose of discipline. I saw Lent more as an exercise in pride or proving myself, rather than surrendering myself to God’s intention for my life. As one of the brothers of the Taize community shared with us, fasting is not to pity yourself or to struggle to be faithful, but to open yourself to the joy of coming back to God. It is about redistributing our time in a way that reflects God’s desire for us to live joyfully and charitably, and to create space for Christ to enter our house.
How do we approach this time of waiting? Lent has three pillars that I believe are central to our understanding of its practice. The first is solidarity: the practice of sharing what we have, discreetly, with one another, as a way to embody the Kingdom in our society. Because God is relational and especially cares for those who are marginalized, solidarity is about paying attention to those who we may not have seen before – and opening our doors to receive them. We become candles who sacrifice part of ourselves in order to shine more brightly and light a clearer way for those around us.
The second pillar is prayer, a deepened commitment to listening and speaking with God. Prayer during Lent is more communal, so that we may find courage to discern and follow God’s will together. We do not need to wait and pray alone in the darkness, as the light of Christ becomes stronger as we wait and gather with others.
Lastly, Lent is a time of fasting. We sacrifice what we once clung to that has held us captive, and turned us away from God. We relinquish this false light and discipline ourselves out of love so that we may open our inner darkness to God. At Davidson, I spend most of my day avoiding my own poverty and emptiness. I eat, drink water, check my email, fill my schedule – all to stay busy and avoid my deepest dependence on God. Yet if my stomach is full, how can I experience my human hunger for God’s love? If my schedule is too crammed, how can I dedicate myself to devoted prayer? If I am only thinking about myself and how to fill my desires in life, I am living in the shadows, and never create space to obey God’s commands. Lent offers us a time of repentance, or metanoia, a word signifying the turning of our vision, our hunger, and our thirst toward God. There, we find a joy at the essence of our Being, and our waiting becomes a time of deep and long-lasting fulfillment.
From Isaiah 48:
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8 Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10 if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12 Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
As Elizabeth said, our Lenten sacrifices are about more than disciplining our bodies or punishing ourselves for bad habits. She has encouraged us to look at fasting in the many forms it takes during Lent as an act of love towards God. When we do something for Lent we should be acknowledging what extinguishes our fires and transforming those things into flames of passion and adding little sticks of kindling wood each day for these 40 days. Do as Isaiah says. Throw off the yoke of what oppresses you. God promises to meet us there and turn those yokes into firewood to light the darkness.
This Lent I am giving up alcohol. This is more than a simple aesthetic denying myself something I enjoy because it can be destructive. It is not a sacrifice of harsh discipline of my body and mind—though it might seem that way. Here is why not: I have allowed myself one drink a week. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but I have a real reason. By allowing myself one drink a week, I am allowing myself to reimagine what it is to drink. I am inviting God into my Lenten promise not as a punisher, revelling in my withdrawal, but as a gentle force of creative transformation. I have chosen to step out to the edge of my limitations and have asked that God meet me there and transform me through the 4 drinks I will have. I will be intentional about where I have these drinks, in what moods, and most importantly, the people with whom I will share the drink. God will not transform me through the drinks I will not have that I might have had. In some small way, God will consecrate the drinks I share this Lent, endowing them with new meaning. I hope that this transformation will extend past these spring weeks and 4 drinks.
This is not to say that I intend to only have a drink a week for the rest of my life. The transformation is deeper than numbers. God will lead me to a new understanding of social life through this Lent. The 4 times I clink cups with friends this Lent will contribute to making Lent a kind of Kairos. In Greek there are two words that mean time. Chronos is the word used for the times of day or of the year, the word used to schedule and plan. In general it is how we think of our days. Conversely, Kairos is God’s time. It is the limitless, divine-filled time in which we are not concerned with the chronos of the world but with the infinite creative possibilities of God, it is the time when things change. I think the theologians of Apartheid South Africa sum up Kairos perfectly and profoundly calling it “the moments of grace and opportunity, the favorable times in which God issues a challenge to decisive action.” They knew that if they grasped Kairos they could break the chronological history of oppression and change their nation forever and build a community based on equality.
I think it is easy to think about Lent as Kairos. It is set apart already, it precedes the most important event in the history of our salvation, it ends at the feet of the Risen Christ, we are constantly thinking about our Lenten promises. But Elizabeth and I want to encourage us all to make a Lent of our Lives.
In my high school, and many other Catholic high schools, students travel into the woods for a retreat called Kairos. During the first three days of my retreat, we shared with each other the details of our spiritual lives and built a community based on deep goodness of heart. On the morning of the last day of the retreat, before piling on a bus for a long ride home, the rector of the Kairos gives a talk called the 4th Day. The purpose of the talk is not to introduce a new theme for that last day of the retreat, not to ask some final reflection questions to be completed by the end of the day. The talk throws open the windows of the retreat towards the future; it extends what we learned about our passions during the retreat into every subsequent day. The Kairos retreat asked me and every student to let Kairos overtake chronos in each day of our lives. In the same way, Lent should become the 4th day. Will you make a lent of your life?
Simply put: When we know what extinguishes our fire and how to kindle a greater one, our lives change. Rob likes to talk about the Kingdom goggles: the vision we get when we invite Kairos to stamp out reductive chronos. I’m not only bringing this up as the obvious inverse of the beer goggles I might have on otherwise but as a way to look at the future. The channelling of fires we pursue during this time should not fizzle out when they join the great light of the Risen God, they should be encouraged to burn brighter after Easter, to help channel the flames of passion in our friends and in the world.
Imagine yourself alone in that darkened room, sitting on the floor, waiting with the small candle flickering in your hands, keeping the lamp lit as Luke encourages us. Imagine that Jesus—freshly risen from the tomb—comes up behind you, touches your shoulder and begins to speak with you. As you speak, see your candle growing brighter until all the shadows disappear. Look around and see the illuminated room, immense and filled with people raising their candles.
From the words of St. John of the Cross:
O living flame of love That tenderly wounds my soul In its deepest center! Since Now you are not oppressive, Now consummate! if it be your will: Tear through the veil of this sweet encounter!