By Rachel Syens
February 10, 2021
I have a tradition with my friends. Every New Year’s Eve, we choose a new word to define the coming year. This word sets the tone for our year, a way to frame the coming 365 days and live them with intention. On New Year’s Eve in 2019, I picked the word “hope.” Reflecting back on this—in the worst days of the pandemic—it felt almost like a cruel joke. In 2020, life as we knew it came to a screeching halt, shattering our sense of normalcy and forcing us to grapple with the emptiness left behind. Where did “hope” fit into a scenario like this? Words like “grief” and “lonely” and “empty” felt more appropriate for the year 2020. But that’s the thing about choosing your word at the beginning of the year—you don’t know what’s coming. You choose your word based on what you want your upcoming year to be, and not based on an examination of what your previous year was. Lent is about preparing our hearts to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This often includes a time of prayer, fasting, and reflection on our broken world’s need for redemption. How can we approach Lent this year, in light of the collective trauma we experienced in 2020? We can approach it with hope. We can remember that the grief and emptiness, the lament and loneliness are all redeemed through our risen Savior Jesus Christ.
The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc upon the world, leaving a trail of grief behind. Families and friends grieved the loss of loved ones, taken too soon by disease. We grieved lost jobs, lost time, lost hugs. Grief became an integral part of 2020. As we use this Lenten season to reflect, let grief become a part of that, too.
Theologian and author Rachel Held Evans wrote on grief: “What I loved about the rituals of grief—the viewing, the flowers, the stories, the songs, the laughter, the sobbing, the burial—was that they forced me to keep moving, to avoid getting stuck in a place of despair.” Grief is a difficult emotion—we so want to quickly move beyond it, to reach acceptance. But in order to get there, we must cycle through each stage. Be gentle with yourself. Go through the rituals of grief this Lenten season, and focus your heart on God’s redeeming love for us. Remember that he promises to wipe away our tears and rid the world of death and mourning (Revelation 21:4).
If you’re like me, 2020 may have left you feeling empty. You may feel devoid of hope, joy, and love. You have lost without gaining, you have given without receiving. What do you have that you could give up this Lent? If your tank is empty, use this Lenten season to refuel. Reframe Lent to pray and reflect on why God is the only one who can fill us, how he saw our great despair—our great need for redemption—and sent his only Son, Jesus Christ, to die for our sins.
Though Lent can be a deeply personal season, it also reminds us that we’re not alone. As I have been preparing for Lent this year, Psalm 23 has been on my heart. This is the first full psalm I remember memorizing as a child, a psalm that’s taught early and quoted often. But it’s taken on a new meaning for me this year. Psalm 23:4 says, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” We are never expected to suffer or grieve alone, because God is always with us. As we use this season of Lent to reflect on our grief, to repent, to pray for new mercies, we are assured that God is always with us.
“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen!” (Mark 16:6). This is the good news at the end of Lent: after suffering and death, Jesus has risen. Because Jesus has risen, our sins are forgiven. We are given eternal life, an opportunity to “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6). The word “Lent” means lengthen, and comes from the lengthening days of the spring season. When we think of spring, images of budding flowers and green leaves come to mind. The cycle of life is renewed. Thawing winter grounds lead to new growth. In the emptiness, we find hope. Irish theologian and poet Pádraig Ó Tuama writes, “[W]e allow emptiness to create hope.” In the emptiness of giving up, in the emptiness of grief, in the emptiness of loneliness, we find a thread of hope. An empty tomb. A risen Savior. Rachel Held Evans framed her 2019 Lenten season as “Lent for the lamenting.” This analogy struck me, particularly in light of 2020.
This Lenten season may feel unlike any other because we are all lamenting. We experienced a collective trauma and communal grief. But this is also a season for us to rely on the shared hope we have in Jesus Christ—and at the end of these 40 days, we can celebrate redemption and an eternal spring.
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