On the Sunday following the Feast of Epiphany, the celebrant of our community Mass alluded to the fact that we had only a few weeks left before Lent began. At once, the golden glow of Epiphany was gone. The exotic smell of incense was gone. The wise men had, as T.S. Eliot had reminded us, returned, bewildered, to their own country. And now Lent was upon us.
Is it too much to say that something like death came over me? Something dark. Something that stifled my energy. What had happened? This was not how I used to approach Lent. (Or better: how Lent had approached me.)
When I was young, I loved Lent. I ran to it. I embraced it as though it were my homeland. Lent was where the heroes lived. Lent called me. Lent called me to fast, to pray on my knees, to pull myself from sleep. Lent cried: Give no quarter! I would grow during Lent. I imaged myself as an athlete. I would be tall, lean, muscular. Like St. Paul I would win the race. I would be an Olympian for God! . . . When I was young. . . .There had been a joy in it all. A fierce joy in the striving, the victory, the control. . . . When I was young.
What have I lost? Or gained? In my bewilderment I began to sort out what Lent was all about. There was material aplenty on the early history of the word, the later changes, the significance. The earliest reference, I learned, had come with St. Irenaeus in the second century. After that were the various canons of the Council of Nicea. Interpretations differed with the country and the century. Some things were constant: The number forty was always involved, though variously. Four days? Four weeks? Four as symbol, four as reference to its use in the Old Testament, four from the original Latin. As time passed, Lenten regulations became increasingly detailed until, by the time of my youth, one needed a chemist’s scale to determine how much food could be consumed without sin.
Uninspired, I closed the books, returned the magazines, put the encyclopedia back on its shelf, but not before my eyes caught a word I had not seen before: lengthen.
“Lengthen,” the text explained, was an Old English word meaning Spring or Springtide. Lent, then, was not grim winter. Lent was not a sheet of regulations nor a call to self-immolation. Lent was not the land of heroes. Lent was Springtide, and Springtide was not a call to asceticism but a call to life. The call would come in its own time. And my part was simply to wait. To be present. To be aware.
Every year—every Springtide—I had waited. I had watched while small green shoots appeared, pushed themselves upward, spread their leaves like wings and in good time became a crocus: yellow and purple and white across our campus.
They had been called and they had responded. Out of darkness and silence and unknowingness they had been brought to life. Lent. Springtide.