For many Christians, these 40 days before Easter are something we call “Lent.”
Maybe you know it as that time of year when you try to give up something like sugar, or, if you’re a former student of mine, homework. But if we’re getting studious about it (unlike my student), Lent is the time of year when Christians focus on two words that start with F (please note the pastoral care I took with phrasing that): finitude and fallibility.
During Lent, we focus on our finitude, or limitations — the fact that our abilities are finite, and even our lives too. We can’t do it all, certainly not on our own. And even if we could, we’d have only one lifetime to do it — a lifetime that, during Lent, we remember is just one speck in the vast sands of time.
Fallibility’s not much different from finitude, but it may be even more honest. Whereas remembering our finitude means remembering our limitations, remembering our fallibility means remembering that we actively screw things up.
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Not only can we not do it all, but even when we try, we can fail. Oh, and also, we’re so fallible that often we don’t even try at all. There’s that too.
Why spend 40 days being bummed out on finitude and fallibility? Based on how Christians have sometimes talked in the past, you might think we do it to beat ourselves up — that we do it because we worship a God who has to punish us, and so we hope that maybe that God will punish us a little less if we take care of some of it ourselves.
Thankfully, that’s not the only way to see it, or to understand God. As the lead-up to Easter, Lent is also the lead-up to Jesus’ death. Lent is the lead-up to God’s ultimate participation in our brokenness.
Lent is God saying, “Even though I am God — so I really could take a pass on it — I am still going to be with you in this broken world. I will join you fully in this world of finitude and fallibility. Where you might think I will bring only punishment, I am instead bringing you my loving presence.”
In Kate Bowler and Jessica Richie’s new book, “The Lives We Actually Have,” one of the authors admits that “(f)rankly, Lent is my favorite part of the church calendar because it is a time when the whole church is on the losing team. A time when we all get a minute to tell the truth: Life is so beautiful and life is so hard. For everyone.”
The gift of Lent is that it helps keep us Christians from that tendency we have to smile all the time and act like we’re so joyful in the Lord that nothing ever hurts. It also helps keep us from that (nearly opposite) tendency we have to beat ourselves up all the time and act like we just feel lucky that God hasn’t yet turned us into pillars of salt.
Lent takes us on a path through the middle of that. It’s a path that allows us to admit that we’re failures — that, more often than not, the scoreboard shows that our finitude and fallibility are winning.
But it’s also a path we walk with Jesus, and so it’s a path where we find God’s presence with us while we’re losing. And, of course, it’s a path toward Easter, where we know we’ll be assured that our finitude and fallibility won’t get the last word.
But that’s Easter. This is Lent. And for 40 days, we can just be honest about what is. And then, we can feel God with us in that too.
Peter J.H. Epp is the pastor of Albany Mennonite Church, where he; his spouse, Shanda; and their childlren, Ollie, Ru and Sophie Lu, live out all their finitude and fallibility before God. Before moving to Albany to become a pastor, Peter taught at Mennonite Collegiate Institute and Canadian Mennonite University in Canada.