For Those Who Failed at Lent

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By Benjamin Capps

For those of you who have already failed on your Lenten commitments, I want you to know, I’m with you.

By now it is probably evident, even to the most occasional of church attenders, that we have thoroughly entered into the long, somber, and glorious tunnel of Lent.

For some, this season came upon us like a long-awaited and welcomed intervention. Lent offers a reboot and a chance to evaluate the ways in which the many trappings and vices of life have taken up residency within the fragile folds of our hearts. This opportunity is often longed for.

Lent offers a reboot and a chance to evaluate the ways in which the many trappings and vices of life have taken up residency within the fragile folds of our hearts.

For others, the season may have arrived on the radar by seeing a co-worker wearing an ash cross on their forehead, or hearing the particularly somber tone of the opening liturgy on Sunday mornings, or noting the absence of a friend on social media…or observing the presence of a Filet-O-Fish sandwich wrapper in a neighbor’s trash can.

The season of Lent is nearly as cultural as it is religious.

Business Insider recently wrote about how the phenomenon of Lent provides an incredible catalyst for McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sales. The Filet-O-Fish sandwich is available year-round, but 25% of the sandwiches sales come in March. The company credits this swell to the many Christians that abstain from eating meat, with the exception of fish, on Fridays during Lent.

The popular financial website Marketwatch also wrote about the influence of Lent, this time on social media websites, writing that during this season of Lent, “…it seems that time-sucking internet platforms are high on observant Catholics’ Lent hit list.” The article was shrouded in cynicism, coyly titling the article, “Americans are giving up social media for Lent—or at least they say they are.”

These examples, and many more, point towards our obsessive desire to commercialize even the most somber of occasions. But they also point to something else—they point towards a certain kind of devotion that grips the hearts of those that want to be made new by this season. We give up meat on Fridays or social media on Sundays, not because we hate ourselves, but because we desperately want to be rescued.

We give up meat on Fridays or social media on Sundays, not because we hate ourselves, but because we desperately want to be rescued.

And yet Lent, for me, has on many occasions digressed into either a series of compromises surrounding my devotional act of asceticism, or a self-righteous and rigid attitude around my ability to “win” Lent. My fasting is, after all, better than your fasting. The first of these approaches has led to complete and utter apathy, and the second has led to a hard fall off of my proverbial high horse in the wake of crushing failure. Both of these postures have landed me in a similar place—alone and ashamed at my inability to fight off my own demons, embarrassed by my inability to conjure up a rescue.

How then, ought we to approach this season? Should we scrap the endeavor altogether? Should we give up on the idea of spiritual practices and devotions? Not at all.

The reason that Lent captures our imaginations and compulsions in the ways it does is not because it leads us on a path of spiraling into ourselves. Lent has never been about “winning” a personal victory. Rather, the gravity of Lent spirals us through our own brokenness and inability to save ourselves, and into the image of a resurrected Christ. This resurrected Christ shines at the end of the long tunnel of Lent as a glorious reminder that we do indeed have a rescuer. That despite our disordered loves, there is a true love that has defeated death. There is a location for our hope that will not fail.

The problem is that the tunnel of Lent can often become like hiking through a rocky terrain. We become so focused on our feet that we forget about the mountain vista toward which we are marching. We become obsessed with our own ability or inability to walk the path. We forget what’s at the end of the tunnel.

Theologian Alexander Schmemann describes Lent like this:

“A journey, a pilgrimage! Yet, as we begin it, as we make the first step into the ‘bright sadness’ of Lent, we see far, far away-the destination. It is the joy of Easter, it is the entrance into the glory of the Kingdom.”

Schmemann describes well what we miss at the end of the tunnel by only looking at our feet.

I have often said that an important part of the season of Lent is failing at our Lenten commitments. In our failures we are reminded of our own human fragility and, having stumbled and fallen along the tunnel of Lent, our eyes are turned up. And there, staring at us at the end of the tunnel, is not a finger of condemnation, but a cross. The embodiment of love and grace, beckoning us back to our feet to continue the journey.

…having stumbled and fallen along the tunnel of Lent, our eyes are turned up.

For those of you that have already failed on your Lenten commitments this year, I’m with you. Now: let’s brush ourselves off, keep our eyes on the cross, and keep moving forward towards a devoted life that is not marked by our own piety, but by our reception of the love and grace that rescues us and continually makes us new.

Benjamin Capps is an ordained priest in the Episcopal Church and serves with the Pastoral Staff at Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, PA..

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