As I stated in my sermon last week, the season of Lent is a time that speaks to me. Though I don’t practice it myself, I am always inspired to dig deeper into my own faith as I witness friends walk the forty-day journey. And so I share this story, which takes us a bit deeper into the meaning of Lent than I was able to get on Sunday.
One day, a colleague with two young children was working in her home. Suddenly, my friend was interrupted by the shrieks of her 6-year-old daughter, incredulously trumpeting a particularly egregious transgression committed by her older brother. “He said the ‘A’ word!! He said the ‘A’ word!!!” she cried.
My friend, assuming the worst—that her 8-year-old had learned to swear—prepared to reprimand and punish, since the pastor’s children really ought not cuss like sailors. And then her son arrived on the scene, equally incredulous, ready to defend his own honor.
It turns out that the ‘A’ word he said was not the one we all assumed. The ‘A’ word he had, in fact, said, was “Alleluia.” You see, the week before at an Ash Wednesday service, the children’s time had included a ritual packing-away of the word “Alleluia,” in preparation for the fasting and reflecting time of Lent. The 6-year-old had taken a literal reading of this particular children’s sermon, and elevated the word “Alleluia” to the level of the worst swear she could imagine.
I didn’t understand the purpose of Lent until I went to seminary. That first year I attended a Christian theological school, I watched my friends live—actually live—the forty days of Lent. I had only ever known Lent as a time during which people gave things up, like chocolate, or hitting their brother, and nobody had ever explained to me why they were doing this.
It always seemed kind of strange, and didn’t make much logical sense to me un-churched as I was. And when we did become churchgoers, I did not learn much about Lent in the humanist congregation my family attended.
I participated in an Ash Wednesday service that first year, in which we were encouraged to use the forty days of Lent to repent. Usually we think of repentance as pejorative—when we do something wrong, we must repent of our sin, we feel regret about something we have done, sorrowful or penitent. But in Greek, repentance is most often translated as metanoia, which has a much deeper and more complex meaning.
Meta means after, with, or outside of, and noia means to perceive, think or observe.
Theologically, metanoia is used to refer to a change of mind, a turning, a fundamental shift in consciousness. Further, in the Ash Wednesday service, it was explained that in ancient Greek culture, the soul was thought to reside in the head, rather than in the heart, as we might think today. So, if the soul resides in the mind, and repentance is a change of mind, we can really think of metanoia as a change of heart.
I think of repentance, or metanoia, as a turning. It is the fundamental shift in my consciousness that comes with deep self-reflection, with self-awareness and engagement with my own life’s journey. Lent, a time of repentance, self-denial and fasting, which is meant to bring the Christian penitent closer to God, can be relevant to us as well. We may be humanist, atheist, Christian or non-Christian Unitarian Universalists, but ultimately the practice of observing Lent is meant to bring us closer to the truth that resides in our own hearts.
We pack away the “Alleluias,” not to be morbid or arbitrarily give up a vice, but because taking time to reflect deeply on who we are and what is important in our lives is a good practice. This is not about random self-denial, but about clearing away the things that distract us from our larger purpose, from our deepest thoughts and highest purpose.
Whether or not we are waiting to commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ in a literal sense, the season of winter is not over yet, and as we live in the chill air of a February afternoon, we wait for the time when green buds will appear on trees and the crocus will peek its tender green bloom from a crack in the still-frozen ground.
When Easter comes, when the spring begins, what will you have turned away from? What old habits and sadnesses will you have left behind? How are you preparing the garden of your soul for the growing season ahead?