Sometime in my mid 20s, I learned that if I tell myself something is off limits—bagels, wine, reruns of Law & Order SVU—the pressure to abstain actually brings out my inner hedonist. Without fail, I end up worse off than where I started. That’s why I’m not one for observing Lent through self-denial.
However, the Lenten theme of atonement is a practice I feel incredibly familiar with. As a wife, I am constantly atoning. As a daughter and a friend, I am constantly atoning. On the day I wrote this blog post, I’ve had to atone for mucking up a client presentation, forgetting to return an important phone call and feeding my children corn dogs for lunch and dinner. These are trivial examples, and to be sure I find myself atoning for much bigger offenses. But somehow, it’s this unceasing falling short that collects and weighs me down. And my penance? I seek forgiveness from others when I can. But often, it is an inward contrition that rarely finds absolution.
And yet, I could add up all of this worldly atonement, and not come anywhere close to the kind of amends we’re talking about during Lent. As Christians, we are preparing to celebrate the single greatest gift we’ve ever been given, but not before we spend time owning up to the fact that we have done absolutely nothing to deserve it.
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? Romans 6:1
In his book, Atonement, Ian McEwan writes, “It wasn’t only wickedness and scheming that made people unhappy, it was confusion and misunderstanding; above all, it was the failure to grasp the simple truth that other people are as real as you.”
That is the key difference between the toxic atonement I practice in isolation and the liturgical atonement that I choose to experience with my church family during Lent. Right now more than ever, we are united in our shared realness and human imperfection. During Lent, I am not making amends for something I did. We are making amends for something we did.
Together we sinned and together we atone.
How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Romans 6:2
There is a reason Lent happens every year. In my tumultuous love affair with God, I am always the lover who has done wrong. And whether I realize it or not, I collect and hold onto the moments I am unable to love God as perfectly as he loves me. It reminds me of the Gram Parsons’ line, “Love is like a cloud, it holds a lot of rain.” And what better time to reflect on the dark and stormy side of my relationship with God than Lent? It’s reassuring to do this at a time when I can see the bright sun of Easter ahead, when I know that my heavy, cloudy heart will open up and find release.
Just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. Romans 6:4
—What differences do you see between worldly atonement and Lenten atonement?
—What is dark and stormy in your heart right now?