WHAT IS ALL THE FUSS ABOUT LENT?
If you were born into the pentecostal/charismatic tradition like me, and even if you are somewhat of a serious Christian, you may not really know much about LENT; the two christian celebrations we commemorate are Christmas and Easter which if you have friends from the Orthodox tradition may point out is the culmination of the Lenten season. In terms of engaging with global Christianity, that is most likely limited to reading the works and following the ministries of people like Kenneth E Hagin, Smith Wigglesworth, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, et cetera.
But even if you are not necessarily a fan of flashy American tele-evangelists and faith preachers, perhaps as early as you learn to pronounce your own name, you learn a lesson you will struggle to unlearn for the rest of your life — winning is all that matters. Even if your parents never sat you down for a pep talk, all around you are both subliminal messages and overt ideas telling you that the only option you have, in proper Naija-speak is “to make it in life” and “make it big”.
And how do we define making it big? While I cannot produce an exhaustive list, some common indicators of living the #Blessed Life will include dazzling job offers (preferably outside the shores of our nation), scholarships to study in some of the finest Universities in the world, vacationing in the Caribbean, diamond-studded engagement rings, never visiting the hospital except perhaps to pay someone else’s bills, take pictures with them and splatter those all over your social media accounts, driving around town in luxury cars, living in a mansion, getting engaged to the man of your dreams, nominations for social impact awards, and especially having enough money to make your neighbours envious. Lolzzz.
We all had parents who always came first in their exams, sometimes making us wonder who exactly were the persons who came last! Bookshops are filled with titles ranging from, “Your Best Life Now”, “You Can Have it All”, “You are Made for More”, “You are Stronger than you think”, “Become a Better You”, “You Deserve It”, “Make it Happen”, et cetera; Pastors Preach on so and so Principles of Success, How to Reign in Life, the Blessed Life, Unlocking the Secrets of Prosperity and so on and so forth. What about Life coaches who promise to help us live lives of peak performance and experience success in every area of our lives? Those are always on the horizon advertising one seminar or the other. We will not bother about quacks who advertise organic "cure-alls" that miraculously heal all sorts of ailments ranging from cancer to erectile dysfunction.
Without necessarily getting into the theological debates about the validity of these claims, or the honesty even of those making these bold claims, one thing we can all agree on is that these ideas can engender an understanding of the world where as Kate Bowler puts it, we find that we are better liked when our lives are healthy and wholesome and whole. And anything short of awesome, phenomenal or wonderful engenders an existential unease, some sort of self-loathing even.
Now, what has all this got to do with Lent?
Well, first an introduction.
Lent is the six-week period (40 days excepting Sundays) just before Easter, the most sacred time in the Christian liturgical calendar. Beginning on Ash Wednesday, it commemorates the forty (40) days Jesus Christ spent in the wilderness after his baptism by John. It is also a period to contemplate Christ’s suffering especially his sacrifice for our sins and for many, it is a period of fasting, personal reflection, self-examination, self-denial, penitence and doing good deeds.
So again, what has this ritualistic (perhaps, reeking-of-dead-formalism even!) practice got to do with tongues-talking, holy-ghost-enlivened pentecostal folk? Firstly, I think the ritual of Ash Wednesday—the imposition of ashes and particularly the priest’s sombre recital of the concluding parts of Genesis 3:19—
“... for you were made from dust,
and to dust you will return...”
is a much needed reminder of our mortality, our finitude— how that the world does not revolve around us, and a call in our frenetic pace (some will call it a rat race), trying to gain the world and sometimes losing our souls in the attempt, an important call to take some time and remember our humanity, our mortality and even more our great need for reconciliation with God.
In the last two years, contemplating the grim reality of our precarious existence is a lesson the COVID-19 pandemic has taught many world over; but in the context of Lent and as a priest makes the mark of a cross on our foreheads with the ashes of burnt palm leaves, I believe it will actually be freeing to finally accept our human limitations knowing that God is the sovereign one, we are not; and at most all we can do is our best and even if that is not good enough for others, what does it matter? After all,
"...we were made from dust
and to dust we will return..."
For others, this will help us grieve— discarding the false bravado of someone unfazed by nothing and grieve our losses. We will lament— the losses of the years, needless deaths, senseless wars, the injustice of our world, the pains man inflicts on fellow man. We will realise that as John Donne wrote in the sixteenth century,
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend's were.
Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
It tolls for you and it tolls for me because
“...from dust we cameand to dust we will return..."
But I figure that for all of us, in making sense of the anticlimactic experience of adulthood, we will be able to make peace with our many failures, our less than dazzling nine-to-five jobs, our UNIBEN Bachelor’s Degrees, vicariously enjoying other people’s vacations in Santorini (or what else is Instagram for?), potbellied husbands, raising children too smart for their own good (and perhaps smarter than us?!), and all the fun realities we experience but preachers never get to preach about for what else can we do?
"...for dust we areand unto dust we will return..."
But true Bible nerds may not agree with this, I can almost hear one disagreeing, “but we are not really dust, Ayomipo and I'm sure you know that! It’s our body that is dust, the real man is invisible and immortal...it never dies”, and I agree totally, yet I can not but wonder at how in our quest to be kings and queens of the hill and “make it big”; while we are having our best lives now, we rarely give any thought or pay attention to that which is to come or that which is really permanent— our soul, and that is exactly what Lent (and the whole of the Christian gospel) is about.