Long Dark Winter of the Soul

Week four of Lent. It’s a slog.

In college I started thinking about the Lenten season in relationship to my annual desire to hibernate. It just makes sense that once a year we dial back on our activities, refocus our thoughts and efforts inward and upward, and generally chill out for a while. Yet Lent is more than that. It’s abstaining from something that would be a normal part of our every day, like comfort foods, or taking on something that we feel should be there more often, like prayer. After a while that part of our brain that courageously says, ‘may God be glorified in this small offering,’ wears down, grows quiet, and the thoughts switch to, ‘why did I choose this practice? …what am I learning, really?’ The daily frenetic strains of life continue to sweep us through calendar weeks, only to arrive at a harried landing long enough to wonder what in the world we’re doing. It isn’t Easter yet, I still can’t have that chocolate, or go on Facebook to check just one thing, or enjoy a happy hour cocktail. We have arrived at that point in winter when it seems better to give up Lent than to continue giving up our sacrifice.

After all, what are we doing this for, anyway? Why walk the road of self-denial when we’re nowhere near Jerusalem? What do I expect to glean from a season of scarcity?


John recounts a heartbreaking exchange between Jesus and Philip (14:8-9). Jesus has just responded to Thomas, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also.” So Philip pipes in, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” That phrase, “we will be satisfied” haunts me. It mimics the time when the Israelites were in the desert longing for the rations of slavery. It’s an image of the recurring moment when the people of God are utterly blind to what’s among them/us. When we’re so close to Immanuel we could touch him, and even that is not sufficient.

Hans Frei, in The Identity of Jesus Christ, writes this on the contradiction of Jesus’ presence and distance as we see it played out from Gethsemane to Easter Sunday:

For whomever it becomes the truth it does so not by imaginative obliteration of time but by hammering out a shape of life patterned after its own shape. That does not mean that we repeat the original events literally in our lives, and certainly not completely, but it means that our lives reflect the story as in a glass darkly. …Reenactment can no more make him present than the passage of time can bear him away.

Jesus’ refrain found in John, believe in God, believe also in me, is essential for Lent. Immanuel, whom we celebrated in Advent, is still with us in Lent. The way to belief is through both the zenith and nadir of winter. We believe that he was born to Mary, that he lived and walked as any human on the earth, that he faced death and was crucified, dead and buried. We believe in his presence not just for that time in Roman occupied Judea, but also for today.

As we walk through Lent, be encouraged that this is far more than a morbid preoccupation with denial and sacrifice. Now is when we ask ourselves questions of belief: has Jesus been with us all this time? How do I know? What signs do I see of his nearness? Would he ask of me what he asked of Philip? Does my life murkily reflect the great parabolic story of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection?

Peace be with you.

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