I was never really a big Lent guy. Advent was more my season. Who wouldn’t prefer a decorated Christmas tree to a stringy palm branch, or singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as the snow falls outside the church to signing “Dust and Ashes” on a cold and wet March Wednesday, or a crèche with angels, stars, and barnyard animals to the Stations of the Cross with Roman soldiers, thorny crowns, and lots of weeping people? Waiting for Santa Claus or waiting for a giant bunny? Yeah, Lent was just never really all that appealing to me.
And then there was this whole practice of giving something up. No chocolate. No TV. No beer! (Not sure what I was thinking that year). Meanwhile during Advent it’s all that and more—Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, and Christmas presents.
Who could possibly prefer Lent?
I do now. But it took the worst time of my life to get there.
On March 3, 2015, my alarm went off twenty minutes before it normally would. I poured a cup of tea, grabbed my Lent 2015 Prayer Book, and opened up to the daily readings. Lent was now in its second week and the rituals were in full swing. Twenty minutes of extra prayer in the morning, one or two daily masses during the week, and an extra stop at St. Anthony’s for confession. Of course, no pepperoni on my Friday night pizza, and there was the fasting when required. It was all set up for me to get to Easter, look back, and say, “Well another Lent in the books. I checked all the boxes, so time to indulge in chocolate, TV, and beer.” But is that what Lent is all about—checking the boxes? Trying to live this pristine life of following all the rules for the sake of following all the rules?
That afternoon my Dad called and told me it would be best if I came home. Mom was in the emergency room. For the next three days, I did not leave the hospital. What we thought was an innocent fainting spell was actually terminal brain cancer. Six months later, my Mom was gone.
The three days at the hospital all merged into one continuous, out-of-body experience—like those dreams where you are half-aware that you are dreaming, except I couldn’t trick my brain to change the sequence of events. By day three, I was exhausted and grabbed some shut-eye on a bench in the ICU lobby. I was still wearing the same clothes I put on for work that March 3rd morning when I opened the Lent 2015 Prayer Book. I hadn’t read it in three days, I hadn’t gone to mass, and I had been eating the same assortment of pre-made deli meat sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria, even on Friday. I hadn’t even prayed. So much for Lent. All the boxes were left unchecked.
What came next was a feeling of utter desperation. Not only was it Lent, but my family was in crisis. Shouldn’t I be in prayer overload? I felt completely overwhelmed spiritually. I felt this need to go on a rosary binge to save my mom. Here she was facing death and it was up to me to pray seventy times times seven. I kept replaying Matthew in my head, “Ask and it will be given to you.” I was faced with this monumental task—to pray my mom back to health. How? Ten Our Fathers every hour? 100 Hail Marys a day? Shouldn’t I leave the hospital immediately and go sit in a church and light a million candles?
My thoughts were interrupted when my sister came out to the lobby. It was my turn to go sit with Mom.
Fr. Michael Himes, a theology professor at Boston College, emphasizes the importance of remembering that we are made “like God,” but we are not God. It is not up to us to decide life and death. And that is not only ok, but dignified in God’s eyes. God so loved the idea of being human that God became one. In Himes’ opinion, there is no more radical ratification of the dignity of being human than the concept of the Incarnation. Himes calls our attention to the fact that “the Christian tradition does not say human beings are of such immense dignity that God really loves them. It does not say that human beings are of such dignity that God has a magnificent destiny in store for them . . . No the Christian tradition says something far more radical: human beings are of such dignity that God has chosen to be one.”
Himes encourages us to keep going. So what, God became human? What does that mean? It means that it is in the human life of Jesus, a human life marked by the pain and suffering of a crucifixion, where we learn who God really is. He explains, “The Christian tradition claims that absolute agape (which is the least wrong way to think about the Mystery that we name God) is fully, perfectly expressed in human terms in the life, death, and destiny of one particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.” Himes finishes the equation with this—if God is agape, and God became human in Jesus, then the life and death of Jesus teaches us who God is and how to experience God’s presence.
And that is what Lent is all about—experiencing God in newer and deeper ways than we have before. How do we do it? By being authentically human, even when that means confronting brokenness.
Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, challenges us to re-envision how we encounter God: “We tend to think the sacred has to look a certain way . . . cathedral spires, incense, jewel-encrusted chalices, angelic choirs. When imagining the sacred, we think of church sanctuary rather than living room; chalice instead of cup; ordained male priest instead of, well, ourselves. But lo—which is to say, look—right before your eyes, the holy is happening. . .”
I slumped into the metal chair next to my Mom’s hospital bed. She was fast asleep, recovering from brain surgery, with a dozen tubes and wires connected to machines. The room was peacefully quiet, filled only with the white noise of the ventilator humming in the background. She looked so frail.
There was only one thing to do—I gently placed my hand over hers and squeezed softly. It was that simple. God did not want me sitting vigil somewhere in a church, fasting from meat, with a sack cloth of ashesGod wanted me HERE. Right in that hospital chair. Doing nothing more than holding my mother’s hand. Because lo—right before my eyes the holy was happening.
It was not up to me to save her. It was up to me to embrace her pain and suffering, embrace the limitations of humanness, and to say “I’m not here to cure, I’m here to hold it with you.” It is in these moments when we find God and encounter the holy. Because, as Boyle reminds us, “in Bethlehem, the words are printed in stone on the ground: ‘And the word became flesh . . . HERE.’”
In His final moments, Jesus embraced not only His own pain and suffering and limitations as a human, but embraced the pain and suffering of those around Him. In one of His final lessons, Jesus reminded His disciples—and us—what was most important: finding God on the margins of human limitation by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and accompanying the sick. Not only did Jesus preach it, but He lived it. During His final meal, amongst the chaos and uncertainty, He knelt before His disciples and washed their feet. The next day, in the midst of His own suffering, He offered His comfort to the prisoner crucified next to Him.
Lent is winding down. Holy Week is here. Let us remember that to understand who God is, to find God, to encounter the holy, is to follow the life and death of Jesus—who took on humanity. All of it. Even its pain and suffering. Let us focus on encountering God this Holy Week.
How? Try finding God and holiness outside the church, don’t worry about that turkey sandwich you made for lunch on a Friday, and hold the hand of someone who needs you. Maybe it’s taking a walk with your spouse after a tough day at work. Maybe it’s buying a coffee for the man who sits outside your office wrapped in a blanket. Maybe it’s stopping by your grandparents’ house just to say hi. Maybe it’s picking up the phone and calling that friend who really needs that phone call.
Lent is not about trying to be perfect. It’s not about checking the boxes. It’s about being authentically human. Don’t run away from the brokenness, the pain, and the imperfections, because in those moments we encounter God. As the women along the climb to Calvary learned, when we wipe the face of those in need, those suffering, those in pain, we see the face of God.
And that is why I love Lent. It’s the perfect time to be human…together.
Patrick Nevins, J.D. (a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School) works for the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts and resides in Natick, MA with his wife Jennie.