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Lent: Forty Days of Penance and Truth

by Samantha Lin, Chicago ’14
Georgetown University ’14
Refugee Volunteer Coordinator, Catholic Charities Chicago

The season of Lent is a drag. I hate giving up potato chips and swearing (my two perennial vices) and the general air of depression that dogs the celebration of the Eucharist.

I’m much more a Christmas person. Joy in the air, lights on trees, bursts into song and random acts of kindness are the norm. But Christmas is only twelve days long. Lent, to my disappointment, is nearly four times the length of the Christmas season.

I’ve often perceived Lent as forty days of mourning, but perhaps it is better understood as forty days of truth. From the get-go we are reminded that at one point we simply weren’t and at some point we will not be: “Remember thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.” It’s heavy stuff, but it is real.

Let’s face it: The world is suffering. In Syria chemical weapons are used against children, in the Congo rape is used as a weapon of war, and in Chicago gun violence is destroying a generation of young people. Death is very real.

During Lent we contemplate that. But that’s not all we focus on, because while Lent ultimately ends with our Savior hanging from a tree, we still smell the lilies and eat stale Peeps on Easter morning. Death is not the end. “In the world you will have trouble but take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

But still, why spend forty days in penance? I don’t have a theology degree and I admit I skip mass sometimes, but I do believe that in Lent we are given an opportunity to take part in redemption. We examine ourselves, realize that we are broken but lovely human beings, and, most of all, recognize we are not alone in our brokenness. Jesus has given us all a part in redemption, to live it everyday. Lent shakes us from our complacency and asks us, “Do things have to be this way? Do we live in silence knowing our brothers and sisters suffer?”

Joel answers in the first reading for Ash Wednesday: “Rend your hearts, not your clothes” (2:13). We cry out to God, “Break our hearts for what breaks yours!” and we are moved to action. We follow in Jesus’ footsteps as we seek to bring redemption to one another.

I serve refugees, some of the most vulnerable people—denied citizenship, buffeted around according to the whims of a powerful few and subjected to international apathy. Forced from their homes and unable to return, a few are given the opportunity to resettle in Chicago. They come with nothing; we meet them at the airport with boots, coats and a “culturally appropriate” hot meal. They too have faced death; many have lost family members in years of war, all have faced the death of their former lives in their home countries. They begin again here in Chicago. Theirs is an obvious lesson in the pain of redemption.

I will surprise no one with this next declaration: This Is Hard. It is hard to sit in silence on a bus with two angry toddlers just to make sure that their mom knows how to get to the clinic (not speaking Kinyarwanda prevents much conversation). It is hard to see Rohingya kids without any formal education thrown into the Chicago public school system. It is hard to know that even with this chance at redemption, despite our best efforts, some of our clients will fail.

This is all Lent; pain and redemption, death and resurrection, the chance to show each other redeeming love and then to have our vulnerable love rejected. It is hard. But the end, the Easter lilies, the stale Peeps and, of course, God’s everlasting love, is worth it. So we go on in agonizing hope, looking for those small, daily moments of redemption.