Lent begins with the sturdy words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” They’re a reminder that the world around us — and the world of care and concern we carry daily within us — is passing away. Like so much of the faith, that’s easily asserted yet difficult to imagine. Immersed in the world, it’s difficult for us to picture its passing. Admittedly, she wouldn’t want one, but if Emily Dickinson had a pulpit, she could remind us that, even if we can’t find time to think of death, it will nonetheless remember us.
Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.
We passed the school where children played
At wrestling in a ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.
We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.
Since then ’t is centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.
Yet Lent is more than remembering the transitoriness of life, a readying for the mound that is the grave. Lent is also a summons to seriousness. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” We’re told to embrace fasting, prayer, and charity, not only as instruments of self-transformation but also agents of social change. “After John had been arrested, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mk 1: 14) Our Lents should change the world, not just ourselves.
Lent begins in ashes, carrying us through the baptismal waters of Easter to the fires of Pentecost. Tracing the path of Lent’s words, we move from the commands of Ash Wednesday to the creedal confession of Easter. Paschal-tide is meant to forge our Christian identity. These are seasons to ask ourselves, again, who we are, who we want to be, who we were meant to be. Lent is thus a narrowing, a focusing upon a center. Emily Dickinson put that rather well when she wrote:
Each life converges to some centre
Expressed or still;
Exists in every human nature
Admitted scarcely to itself, it may be,
For credibility’s temerity
Adored with caution, as a brittle heaven,
Were hopeless as the rainbow’s raiment
Yet persevered toward, surer for the distance;
Unto the saints’ slow diligence
Ungained, it may be, by a life’s low venture
But then, Eternity enables the endeavoring
Is this the Lent in which we embrace our baptisms, become the saints we were meant to be? Is that “too fair for credibility’s temerity to dare?” Is it “hopeless as the rainbow’s raiment?” Yes, if Lent is nothing more than an exercise of self-assertion, but it ought to be an opening to grace, a reminder that all we are, and all that we hope to be, comes to us as gift. “Ungained, it may be, by a life’s low venture but then, eternity enables the endeavoring again.”
Lent is Spring, and Spring is love. Lent is nothing more, or less, than a readying of soul’s bridal bower. Lent is a love-making, a time to prepare ourselves for the Easter love that lifts the rest. I like to say this little poem of Emily as a post-communion prayer. It reminds me that the door of Noah’s ark opens onto a new creation, one whose joy ravishes the heart.
Come slowly Eden!
Lips unused to thee.
Bashful, sip thy jasmines,
As the fainting bee,
Reaching late his flower,
Round her chamber hums,
Counts his nectars — enters,
And is lost in balms.
Rev. Terrance W. Klein