There's an old joke about a newly married couple whose wedding night (and the next few) are not quite what the bride had envisioned. The groom explains that it is Lent. The bride's comeback is, "To whom is it lent and for how long?" With Lent beginning this week, it seems to me to be a more than appropriate question (even for a punch line).
The easy part is "how long." Answers range from "Ash Wednesday until Easter" to "A period of time before the first full moon following the vernal equinox." It is forty days -- excluding Sundays which are always little Easters, even during Lent, -- a season of penitence and reflection leading up to the glorious celebration of the resurrection at Easter itself. Many mark the Lenten season with the custom of giving up something like chocolates or desserts or the like. Others may instead take on something like extra church attendance, Bible reading or prayer instead of or, occasionally, in addition to, giving up some particularly enjoyed activity or food. It's supposed to remind us of what Jesus gave up for us and to identify in some very small way with Jesus in his suffering. We can't really identify with the depth of Jesus' suffering because we aren't Jesus, but the giving up of something is supposed to be a sort of martyrdom by pinpricks; we have little twinges of temptation to give it up and just eat that Cadbury Egg or drink that beer. Me, I've never had any success giving up Peeps during Lent (the only time REAL Peeps are sold) until last year, but that's another story.
As for "To whom is it lent," it seems to me that that's a much deeper line of thought. Of course, the obvious answer is "the church" or "Christians" but I think there's more to it. While we're meant to use the giving up as a sign of love for Jesus, one thing that isn't always stressed is that we are encouraged to take the money we'd normally spend on whatever delicacy we're giving up and either save it to make an Easter gift at the church, to a favorite charity or toward a particular need somewhere in the world. I usually have a problem just giving up something without remembering that second part of the equation.
But there's another thought going through my head. Lent, besides being the name of the season, is also the past tense of "lend" -- giving something with the expectation of having it returned at a future time. We voluntarily give up something with the full plan to dive back into it as soon as we hear the first "Alleluia!" We can say we're doing it for our spiritual growth, or maybe for our health's sake, or even just because it's easier to give up something when there are other people around also voluntarily offering to sacrifice a personal habit or indulgence. Mutual support makes the road easier, there's no doubt. But I wonder, is it just for us that we're doing this?
What if we thought of "to whom is it lent" as putting our endeavors in God's hands, "lending" them, as it were. As Christians we believe that all that we are and all that we have is God's anyway, even though we're given the stewardship over the things we are and have, much as the servants in the parable (Matthew 25:13-30, Luke 19:11-27) were given various amounts of money to care for during their master's absence. The expectation of the master was that the servants would use his money to make him even more money, and two of the servants did that, each roughly doubling the original amount given them. The third, though, gave the master exactly the amount the master had entrusted to him. Calling him lazy and unprofitable, the servant was punished for not taking a chance, not thinking that the money was lent for a purpose and not just to hang onto with clenched fist. I wonder, do we see the small sacrifices we make for Lent as giving God back a bit more of what has already been entrusted to us and with which we are supposed to show a profit? Peeps and beer seem like a pretty poor return on God's investment.
I know the story is usually more a stewardship-drive kind of scripture, but I think we're supposed to find epiphanies in whatever we read and whenever we read it. Yes, we are supposed to make regular returns to God from our life and labors, as the exhortation goes, and so we chuck in a check or some bills and coins when the alms basin goes around. We volunteer to help tidy up the church and grounds a couple of times a year or we go and help feed the hungry at the local soup kitchen on Christmas and Easter. Those are our returns on investment to God, but during Lent we're called to do a little more. God has lent to us our lives, what we lend to God are little habits and pleasures we think we can do without for forty days (excluding Sundays). Seems like a small return on investment, no matter how much we really want those Cadbury Eggs or that cup of coffee.
I ask myself, what am I lending to God this year? How much of a sacrifice will it be to my life, and how much benefit will I accrue from it? It's like a time-limited New Year's resolution -- can I really keep the promise I make to God about this one thing or these few things? How much will it hurt, but what will I learn as a result of it? I have a feeling the answer will be both surprising and enlightening.
Originally published at Daily Episcopalian on Episcopal Café Thursday, February 14, 2013, under the title "To whom is it lent and for how long?"