by Jennifer Hurd.
The season of Lent is over and Easter is here. Once again we celebrate God’s truth that death and destruction will never ultimately triumph, and life and love reign supreme. In spite of everything that seeks to give an impression to the contrary, the resurrection is a resounding divine ‘No!’ to all that threatens to destroy us, and God’s universe-echoing ‘Yes!’ to everything that brings joy, peace and wholeness. It means hope and faith in place of despair and doubt.
On Ash Wednesday I began a long-anticipated Sabbatical period, planned to continue until Pentecost Sunday. As the COVID-19 outbreak escalated, I seriously considered curtailing it, and prayed and sought wise counsel. In the end, confident in my colleagues, I decided to continue, and changed my programme accordingly. My objective in planning the Sabbatical for this time was as an opportunity to enter deeply and intentionally into the Lenten and Easter journey in a way the general course of ministry doesn’t usually allow. Originally, I had a demanding bootcamp of a Lent in mind, with plenty of self-denial, self-discipline and spiritual and physical rigour. I intended deliberately to take myself off into the wilderness, metaphorically or perhaps even literally. Then I listened to the 3rd April 2019 Lenten session on pray-as-you-go.org, the Jesuit daily devotional website. I was already aware of the etymological roots of the word ‘Lent’ being in the Old English for ‘to lengthen’, reflecting how the days grow longer with the onset of spring during the season. However, some words from that online session expanded this idea and struck me deeply:
‘Perhaps we’d do well to think of Lent as the greening time of the year – in the Northern Hemisphere at least – something new beginning in the natural world, life reappearing and blessing us again with springtime and hope.’
Lent not as a season of negativity but of positivity? Lent not as a season of denial but of ‘greening’ – of creativity, renewal, new life, hope and flourishing? Lent not as a spiritual bootcamp but as a spiritual springtime? This seemed to call for further consideration for a Sabbatical Lenten journey, leading into a celebration of new life at Easter.
The ‘go-to’ theologian for the concept of ‘greening’ or ‘greenness’ is Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century German abbess, mystic, musician, poet, teacher and healer. ‘Viriditas’, her Latin word for the idea, is subtle, nuanced and difficult to translate (just for a change!), but it includes inferences of vitality, fecundity, lushness and growth, reflecting the divine nature. Its opposite is ‘ariditas’, with its inferences of drought, aridity and dryness. The latter might touch on a self-denying understanding of Lent as wilderness or desert, but I was beginning to sense the possible tension between Sabbatical and Sabbath – intended as a ‘greening’ time, if ever there was one! – and my original thinking about Lent. Which way to go? Self-denial or flourishing? Giving up or taking up? And was there actually a tension between the two? During the weeks leading up to Ash Wednesday, as time allowed, I pondered how to approach my Lenten Sabbatical.
In the end, I went with Lent as ‘the greening time of the year’. I decided to try to use the season to cultivate some much-needed ‘viriditas’ in my relationship with God and with others, as well as with myself. I didn’t give anything up, as I usually do. Instead, I spent more time appreciating less – less chocolate, wine, cheese. I consciously and deliberately expanded my devotions and reading and intentional time with God. I offered voluntary help in our local . I didn’t just fill up the garden bird feeders and rush away – I watched the birds emptying them as well. I noticed the new shoots in the terracotta pot that holds the indestructible lily on the patio; early on, I went to the theatre, cinema, art galleries, and reflected on what I saw. I slept; I walked; I continued knitting the cardigan intended for summer 2014. I baked for the first time in years and I tried my hand at calligraphy. Was I wrong, especially in the context of COVID-19? Should I have gone with my original idea of Lent as a bootcamp? It’s too late now – obviously, I didn’t. Easter has dawned; the promise of Pentecost awaits and in the meantime, we celebrate the potential of newness of life, its ‘greening’.