Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which I pray they are received; in a spirit of life and love emanating from that which you find most holy.
Growing up Catholic, my family paid close attention to the passing of the seasons. Not just the transition of winter to spring and summer to fall, but the movement of the liturgical seasons of the Christian Church. Like the natural seasons, they moved from birth to death to rebirth. A spiritual cycle marking the steps toward the kingdom of God. One of my favorite holy times, that is, time set apart from the ordinary, is the season of Lent.
Lent is the liturgical season of sacrifice, preparation and repentance. It begins on Ash Wednesday, roughly forty days before Easter Sunday. We would begin this season by coming forward and being marked with the ashes of burned palms gathered the year before. The priest would say the words found in Genesis chapter 3 of the Hebrew scriptures, “Remember, thou art dust, and unto dust you shall return.” Reminding us of our mortality and our origin in and of the earth. He would dip his thumb in soot, and then make a cross on our foreheads.
The ashes were a physical marking of sin and repentance. And tradition calls for Catholics to fast in preparation for the celebration of Easter. As a child this would usually manifest in actions like giving up candy or refraining from TV, and as a teenager I remember giving up swearing or talking-back to my parents. To be honest, I was never good at the fasting.
But as I came into adulthood, I found that Lent called to me in a way that other parts of church life didn’t. It was a time of reflection. Of turning inward. Of apologizing. Of asking for forgiveness. It was an invitation into forty days of intentional transformation.
Womanist theologian and activist bell hooks writes: “Forgiveness and compassion are always linked: how do we hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?” I eventually found Lent to be a seasonal spiritual practice of holding myself accountable for wrongdoing along with the audacious hope that come Easter Sunday, when the community would gather at dawn, I would, like Jesus, share in a kind of death and resurrection. Now an adult, my fasting took the forms of sacrificing time at the food pantry or shelter, or using money I would spend on takeout or happy hour and investing it in organizations like Kiva or Heifer International. But while my sacrifices in Lent had evolved, my idea of sin hadn’t.
It took a long time to move away from my Catholic notion of sin; that of an angry God living into those famous Police lyrics: “Every breath you take, every move you make, I’ll be watching you.” My notion of sin reflected my spiritual anthropology. I was a fallen, broken human being in need of mercy, grace and forgiveness for everything from skipping church on Sunday because I was too lazy to go, to being sexually attracted a woman, or even more egregious, a man. There was nothing I could do to be perfect enough for this god of judgement; but at least Lent gave me a season of trying. Year, after year, after year.
Now in the Unitarian Universalist tradition, I have changed my relationship with god and my notions of sin. The Christian god of my parents was eventually too small for what was calling my spirit. My understanding of sin moved from the acts of disobeying god and His commandments, toward integrating what it means to break covenant with community and creation. My journey into our liberal religion shifted my anthropology toward inherent worth and dignity where I was no longer broken from the time of my conception.
However, in my conversion I still haven’t changed my honoring the tradition of Lent. Unitarian Universalism emerged out of liberal Christianity, I emerged out of Christianity, and I believe we Unitarian Universalists have a right to claim this spiritual season because it holds something we yearn for as a religion: an intentional call to accountability and transformation.
And just as my understanding of sin moved away from god toward community and creation, I also shifted my understanding of accountability. It became more than just the dictionary definition of “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility for my actions.” It now comes with a commitment to pay reparations forward. To commit myself to the difficult work of education, relationship and transformation so that my sin, whether it is in my complicit destruction of the holy environment of the Earth or my entrenchment in and support of racist and prejudiced systems like gentrification and police violence.
I understand accountability as not just my willingness to say what I mean and mean what I say in the words “I am sorry.” It requires the painful and abrasive act of conversion of spirit; the sanding down of the cracks and ruptures in relationships that my sin has caused so they may be repaired. The sandpaper being my sacrifice of time and resources, a commitment to listening to and learning from the individuals and communities with who I have broken covenant, and a letting go of comfort and privilege.
And just as accountability works outwardly into the world, it also turns inward in the forms of grief, mercy and healing. The spiritual season of Lent isn’t about sin. It is about repentance. Author and prophet Aldous Huxley writes: “Chronic remorse, as all the moralists are agreed, is a most undesirable sentiment. If you have behaved badly, repent, make what amends you can and address yourself to the task of behaving better next time. On no account brood over your wrongdoing. Rolling in the muck is not the best way of getting clean.”
For this season of Lent, the internet actually produced something useful. In a blog by Emma-Claire Martin titled “What Happened When I Gave Up Self-Harm for Lent.” I read about a nuanced kind of repentance. Instead of the old giving up of chocolate, and in addition to doing the outward work of paying it forward, what if Lent was used for letting go of the ways in which I hurt myself?
Instead of getting up in the morning and looking in the mirror and thinking “I’m too fat” or “I look horrible,” thanking my body for giving me another day to live and move and breathe in the way I am able. Instead of giving into destructive thoughts of being an imposter, and fearing the discovery of my actual incompetence, I begin practicing a gentleness? Of seeing myself as wonderful and fabulous and beautiful and worthy of friendship and love. A living into an idea of myself as “enough.”
Lent could be forty-plus days of eating enough food, getting enough sleep, and learning how to say “no.” Of actually practicing self-care, and committing to learning healthy boundaries in work, school and family. This spiritual season could be set aside for learning how to listen to my body, with all its aches and pains, and remembering what it was like before “imperfect” became part of my vocabulary. A catalyst for a true conversion of heart; healing my brokenness so that it is transformed before it is transmitted out into the world. The act of repentance and redemption is not just outward works, but truly is also an inward grace.
Which is why I believe the season of Lent can speak even to Unitarian Universalists. It is a special time set aside for doing the hard work of transformation. It asks for an engagement with the self and with the world. It demands accountability. And it inspires action. Which is everything I fell in love with when I first learned about this faith. With its powerful love and principled freedom, its constant call to holy covenant with each other and with creation, where we believe in one love, and that nobody is left behind in this love.
Siblings in spirit, we are still a few weeks away from Easter Sunday. I invite you all to consider in these last days of lent, how you might live into this season of repentance and transformation? What are the ways of love and justice that call you to live in gratitude, into the world and into your heart? For those who come from Christianity, I invite you to reclaim this time if you are called. If this is not your tradition, do not be afraid, for it is part of our communal inheritance as human beings. Lent is certainly a most holy season, a time set apart, that only asks that we cultivate our most authentic human selves; to ourselves, to each other, to creation, and to that which we find most holy. Amen.