Lent in a Year of Wilderness

I heard some people say last year that Lent 2020 was the ‘Lentiest Lent they’d ever Lented’. Our world was turned upside down, and I think we would all have had our doubts if we’d been told then that by Lent 2021, life would look much the same – physical distancing, rising death counts, and endless, endless, zoom calls! It feels like we’ve been wandering in the desert for far longer than the recommended 40 days, which has made me struggle to know quite how to approach Lent this year. In a whole year of wilderness, going without the familiar comforts of family and community and presence, how do we encounter a season of penitence?

The Lent story begins with Jesus’ baptism, and John the Baptist calling on the people of Jerusalem to repent. The idea of repentance always fills me with a slight dread – it puts me in mind of men with sandwich boards shouting vague things in the city centre, whose eye I try not to meet. I think there may well have been people in Jesus' day having a similar reaction to John the Baptist, with his camel hair outfit and insect diet, calling on his fellow Israelites to walk through the water and repent. This was a call back to their ancestors crossing through the Jordan, an intention to start a new, liberated way of living, and to set right their relationship with God.

This is a relationship that had been turbulent since the beginning. The lectionary reading for the first Sunday in Lent this year, from Genesis 9, tells us of the first covenant we see between God and her people. After the classic Noah's ark animals-two-by-two story, God remembers that we are beloved and forms a covenant, signified by a rainbow, never to have a destructive relationship with creation again.

What I find interesting is that the sign of the rainbow that God places in the sky is not just a covenant reminder for us, flawed humans who are as quick to forget God’s mercy and blessings as we are to ask for them. God says in verse 16, ‘Whenever the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and all living creatures of every kind on the earth’. If the eternal, unchanging creator and sustainer of the universe needs the occasional reminder to be loving and gracious, perhaps we can be forgiven for needing regular reminders of how to live too.

So Lent is that regular reminder for us to set right our relationship with God, to trust in God when we’re being led through the seas and wildernesses of life. The pattern of the liturgical year is a monastic practice of repetition and ritual, setting up regular points of rainbow reminders that, since our last spiritual encounter, we have probably gotten a little too comfortable, and forgotten to look for the gifts of grace present in each moment. Often within an hour of a renewing taize service or an inspiring bible study, I’m right back where I started, getting annoyed at little inconveniences or caught up with anxieties and falling into old patterns. The call of Lent is a yearly call to re-set our intentions, to remind ourselves that we rely on God’s grace. It’s a call to set right our relationship with the divine.

So how should we approach this Lent, after what feels like a whole year of penitent wandering the unfamiliar new landscape we’ve found ourselves in? The heart of Lent is the true repentance of a renewed trust in God, not a grand act of conversion but the quiet monasticism of turning again and again back to our Lord, of setting for ourselves rainbow reminders of love and grace, and of discovering God in the unexpected and the unknown. Lent is where we learn to live with the wilderness, and seek daily connection with the God who calls us to rebirth. Usually these reminders are in foregoing our usual comforts, and the Lenten wilderness is found in breaking old routines by giving up something we enjoy. But I wonder whether, in this seemingly endless wilderness of lockdown and pandemic unease, perhaps we shouldn’t see this Lent as an obligation to give up the few comforts we are able to enjoy. Instead, let’s set up for ourselves whatever small rainbow reminders we need each day to bring us back to the God who loves us, and calls us, even in the wilderness, to be people of the way of Jesus.