Sometimes, when it comes to ancient traditions and rituals of Christianity, I feel like I am playing a slow game of catch-up. Though I grew up in an extended family of faith, in the deeply religious Bible-belt of the American South, it was a community that eschewed any vestige of ritual practice. Words like advent, epiphany, Ash Wednesday, Shrove Tuesday, and Lent, among others were not part of my religious vocabulary, nor personal experience. My first experience with Lent was connected to Mardi Gras. As a young mom, living in New Orleans – my first experience outside the rural confines of the panhandle of Florida, was as breath-taking as it was terror-filled. Lively music and raucous celebrations, the excess of Mardi Gras’ celebrations, followed by penance and fasting on Ash Wednesday, beginning the forty days of Lent. These expressions, though rooted in Christian ritual was so far removed from my context, that I found it hard to understand or appreciate them in any way as true religious expression.
Almost two decades later, I found myself in Canada among churches for whom the Lenten time of the Christian calendar was one of deep introspective reflection on Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, intertwined with consideration of one’s response, as faith communities seeking to engage the world around them in ways that honored Jesus’ love and sacrifice. A deeper personal reverence for the rituals of my faith began to take hold.
Last week, I had one of my final physical therapy sessions. I have indeed been blessed with two incredible physical therapists during my recovery from double knee replacement. Both are named Dan; I have affectionately dubbed them “Dan the elder” and “Dan the younger,” though they are both much younger than me. Both Dans are incredibly gifted at challenging their patients to actively participate in their own healing. Beautifully integrating the softer side of physical therapy, namely, the ability to be tender, compassionate and nurturing, while at the same time combining that with pushing you to do your best, often leading you to experience pain in ways and at levels you didn’t know were possible. During those times when they are forcing my muscles to wake up and do the work they were intended for, we talk. The conversations are often as enriching for me as the physical therapy. At this session, Dan the younger and I talked about my plans for the weekend. I shared that my only plan for the weekend was to make King Cakes for my neighborhood family and for my office. That got us into a conversation about Mardi Gras and Lent, specifically the practice of giving something up for Lent. His oldest is just reaching the age of understanding and being able to actively engage in family rituals and practice. We talked about the ways we decide what to give up, the silly practices we, and others, engage in to legally meet the requirements of Lent, without making the fasting from something too stringent. He talked about what he wanted to teach his children, particularly his oldest son and mentioned the idea of doing rather than giving up. His comment sparked a recollection of one of my pastor’s sermons about Lent that highlighted the connection between service and sacrifice. Dave offered the idea that rather than limiting our Lenten ‘sacrifices’ to merely giving up something, a deeper meaning might be found in giving to others, which ultimately compels one to give up something. The apostle Paul, in Philippians offers us an image through Jesus’ giving up:
If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care -then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. (Philippians 2:1-6, emphasis added)
Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. Just maybe that’s the thing to focus on during Lent. It’s not about me – it’s not about what I give up; it’s about what I give and how I love.