How can Lent be here already? It seems we were just celebrating Christmas. But Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13, signals the beginning of this solemn season of 40 days.
On the High Holy Day of Easter, we will join Christians around the world in celebrating our Lord’s Resurrection. But first we must prepare ourselves. How will you do this?
For centuries, Lent has been a period of fasting and repentance, as Christians devote time to prayer and other spiritual disciplines. We express deep sorrow for sins we have committed since the previous Easter—deeds that were offensive to God, and grievous to our neighbors, friends and loved ones.
Lent is also a time of searching, of looking at the soul and spirit. A time to bring to mind those misdeeds and thoughts long forgotten that may have injured another. Moments when stubbornness or just plain mean-spiritedness would not allow a simple, “I’m sorry, forgive me,” to fall from our lips. Perhaps a broken relationship needs mending. A hurt place is waiting to be healed.
I am often intrigued by interviews with prominent personalities as they near the end of their fabled careers. Some journalist or biographer poses the question: “Looking back, do you have any regrets?” And so frequently, the answer goes something like this: “No, I have no regrets. If I had life to live over, I would do it all the same.”
In fact, a popular song by one of my favorite vocalists contains the line, “Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.”
Lent, however, is not for such persons. While I am glad there are people who live in such a way that they have few regrets, my own list of regrets is more like an endless stream—or so it sometimes seems. That is why I welcome this season of confession and repentance. Lent is tailor-made for people like me.
Far more often than it is easy to acknowledge, I have missed the mark of a truly exemplary Christian life. As I reflect on so many experiences, a wiser, more informed outlook reveals much that was not as good, or right, as I thought at the time. I recall occasions when I could have been a more caring husband, a more attentive father, a more effective bishop. A more loyal friend.
Such hurts do not always come from a long-ago place. I have letters and emails that serve as reminders of my more recent failures, words that were sometimes intended and sometimes merely careless. Though my shepherd’s heart wills to bring hope and healing, at times I have caused the opposite. And when I am the object of harshness from others, I too often respond in kind—at least in my mind, if not in action. It comes too easily, even from a spiritually nurtured center.
Like Paul, what I don’t want to do, I am prone to do. And what I know I should do, comes with great difficulty—whether that means turning the other cheek, or forgiving, or not rejoicing in the misfortune of those who wish and sometimes do me harm.
Then comes Lent, and I can join a company of Christians from every station, place and race, who like me know that somewhere, sometime, they have missed the mark. A community of people who can share their times of stumbling and failure, and seek to express their deep remorse, not just to God, but to others who have suffered as a result.
There is a need to cleanse the spirit, and make whole that which is broken. But, however important the season, cleansing and reconciliation cannot and must not wait for only one time in the year. The need for grace and mercy is too great for that.
Retired Bishop White is bishop-in-residence at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, in Atlanta.