In the nineties, every student of religion in Hyde Park was aware of the work of the recently deceased University of Chicago professor Mircea Eliade. Often associated with Orthodox belief and social conservatism, he was more known by those I associated with for his concept of eternal return, the idea that mythic time and events occur and continue in the present through ritual, a thing which is not about remembrance, but a believer’s active participation in events that exist in eternal time.
This brings me to this time of year when we celebrate the lengthening of days that lead to the cross and resurrection, events “re-created” and ever continuing every first day of the week.
Once one comes to understand the “fantastic”, it is easy to live in the eternity of the real presence of Christ at his sacred meal that becomes this continuing re-creation. Lent however is another matter altogether.
We treat this time of year as if we are in a holding pattern. The snow disappears from the ground, but it is not warm enough to celebrate the full vibrancy of spring. Icelandic writer Halldor Laxness calls this “the killing time,” when the winter stores of food are gone and the first yields of spring are not yet present. It is an easy time of year ”to give something up,” and yet not see this as anything about participation in anything other than in a superficial way. This sells Lent short, though the reasons are understandable.
We are want to share in the passion of our Savior, though we know the accounting creates no real balance. Knowing our efforts are feeble, we concentrate on being a little more religious or cutting carbs in the hope of some payment on the divine books without giving much thought to what real participation in the eternal Lent may be inviting us to.
We make our way to prayer and fasting and come in a small way to understand sacrifice. This is fine and well, though it is a sacrifice that can easily become “our sacrifice.” The problem here is not what we do, but the understanding. Our sacrifice is hardly eternal. It will end on a Saturday night in early April. With that we can move past the hunger of personal fasting and our penitential cries to forget that Lent began with a reminder of our mortality and finitude and begin the celebration that permits us to taunt death and celebrate Christ victory over this “vile” thing.
The problem with this thinking is it can easily forget eternal time. Lent is not a holding pattern. It is not a time to make personal sacrifices so that we ease some of our culpability for the cross. It is rather a time to know that our participation in penance, fasting, prayer, and sacrifice is one that not only remembers, but knows the cross and resurrection is ever present and these are truly eternal. That being the case, our sacrifice and penitential cry is never diminished, but is replaced with the understanding that for these things to be eternal, they are not about us. If they were we would not have Ash Wednesday to remind us of our rather limited participation in the sweep of time. What then do these signs of Lent become then if not our own endeavors…..it is the realization of the great event of the cross fulfilled with his rising and let that become about true participation….a hunger not about us, but for the day when the poor will be fed and have good things and a penitential cry that not only centers on our frailty, but also proclaims loudly that being overcome in the telling of the Good News.