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5 days ago

The Observer: Lent in the time of corona – Seacoastonline.com

Ron McAllister

Ash Wednesday was last week, signifying the start of the most holy season for Christians. Lent can be a useful time-out for observation, reflection and reform. Who would not benefit from that? When I was younger, people always asked: “What are you giving up for Lent?” There was a presumption that everyone would be sacrificing something, often giving up foods that were not good for them anyway.

“Sacrifice is good for you,” people would say, and they weren’t just talking about the health benefits of dietary limits. I think the people who said this were right — if you were had the right intention. Intention is key. Giving up something that isn’t good for you kind of misses the mark. What you intend by your sacrifice is what matters. 

Weight loss? Okay, but that is hardly noble. Being more mindful of where your food comes from, how it gets to you, who prepares it for you and your dependence on these people, on the other hand, can be transformational.

The main goal of sacrifice is more often spiritual than physical. Sacrifice points to what the Greeks called metanoia: a change in your consciousness, the conversion of your heart and mind. Lenten sacrifices are opportunities to think about how we are living and what it means to live among others. This Lent — Lent in the time of corona — opens other doors to everyone regardless of their religious identity or congregational membership.

Who could not become a better person this year? Less frenzied? Less anxious? Less isolating? More patient? More forgiving? More concerned about others? Many of us might be better off eating less, but more of us would benefit greatly from making deeper, non-material changes in our lives. Opportunities for change have been forced upon us all because of Corona.

I have been struck by parallels between traditional Lenten themes and new pandemic realities. Most obvious to me are death and dying. Reminders of death abound in Lenten rituals and are prominent in the global pandemic as well. Last week Christians were told: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return,” while the pandemic offers the most stark reminders of death. The U.S. reached 500,000 fatalities this week from the coronavirus. Worldwide, we have seen almost 2.5 million die in the last year.

There are other interesting parallels as well. We’ve all had to cut back on or eliminate eating out. We’ve been forced on a diet of reduced social contacts. We’ve had to isolate, giving us time away from crowded venues. We all display the sign of our membership in the same social group (our ubiquitous face masks).

When I was young, just about everyone I saw around town on Ash Wednesday displayed the same sign of their common creed. These were my people; my co-religionists. Going out today, I am able to see my people again. We are members of the same tribe — regardless of differences with regard to religion, politics, heritage or sexual orientation. We are wearing on our faces the sign of our commitment to one another. 

Wearing a face mask, keeping your distance, displaying your solidarity with others are the signs of your membership in our common tribe. This raises in me a sense of gratitude, an appreciation of our common values, shared concern, collective welfare. This is who we are — the people we live with and sacrifice for. This recognition is both intentional and important.

The word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word for spring, suggesting that Lent is about preparing ourselves for the approaching season. The pandemic may be preparing us for something else: perhaps a deeper sense of community.  If there is one thing Corona has shown us it is our interconnectedness. The ways the disease spreads and the ways contagion is prevented make that point eloquently. 

Most people I know are eager to be vaccinated in hopes of improving the quality of their own life as well as of protecting the lives of their neighbors and friends. Spring and Easter are coming. Vaccines and immunity are on their way. It’s enough to make you think that sacrifice just might be good for us after all.

Ron McAllister is a sociologist and writer who lives in York.

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