A new book published by Upper Room has a most intriguing title: The Awkward Season.
The book concerns Lent, the period of fasting and prayer that many Christians and congregations observe this time of year. Think of it as a form of spiritual spring cleaning—getting rid of some of the old stuff to make more room for God.
That said, Lent is an awkward season, even for those who observe it. Trying to explain it to those who don’t observe Lent proves just how awkward.
Lent begins on a Wednesday and ends on a Thursday. Its 40 days are spread over parts of seven weeks, but you don’t count Sundays.
Sundays are always reminders of the resurrection (since it was early on “the first day of the week” that the women discovered the tomb was empty). That is the reason we say, the Fourth Sunday in Lent as opposed to the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Awkward.
That is also the reason that, for example, if you have given-up chocolate for Lent, you can eat a Hershey bar on Sunday. Since our Lord is not dead but alive and with us, and since Jesus himself said that his disciples cannot fast when the Bridegroom is with them, we don’t, you know, fast on Sundays. (From personal experience, though, I must tell you that going against the vow on Sunday makes things harder on Monday.)
So Sunday’s are not a part of Lent. Still, we preachers drape our sanctuaries in purple and offer somber sermons. Every Sunday in Lent we pray long prayers full of deep confession and contrition, invite our people to lament and bewail their manifold sins and wickedness. Except on the Fourth Sunday in Lent, when, as we do on the Third Sunday of Advent, we take a little break from our gloom and fasting (assuming we have started to fast), to rejoice in our (costly) redemption. Oh, and this time it was Girl Scout Sunday, too! Really awkward.
But then we are back at the lamentation stuff for a couple of more weeks until, on the last little Easter before Big Easter, we wave palm branches at the first of the service only to shift gears and read the entire crucifixion narrative before leaving the service in silence. Awkward.
The weather doesn’t help, either. Outside there are buds and blossoms, green on the trees, but inside, in our sacred places, we try to keep our attentions onto a barren cross, dead wood, lashed, a reminder not of new life but an old death. Awkward.
There is yet one more awkwardness—most of the rest of the year, preachers expend considerable energy telling their people not to think so much about themselves. In Lent, though, we encourage people to think about themselves—their own sins and shortcomings and no one else’s. That we are mostly unable to do the former means we are mostly ineffective at the latter. That makes Lent very awkward indeed.