There is a trick employed by many a horse owner that helps them keep their show horses looking sleek and shiny year round. When the days begin to shorten as winter approaches, horses will naturally grow longer, thicker, and courser coats to protect them from the coming cold. But leave the lights on in the barn just a few hours longer everyday, maintaining the long days of summer despite the weather outside, and a horse will keep his shiny summer coat, making it another’s responsibility to blanket him now that his body can no longer recognize the season. The same can be done to a chicken to keep her laying year round, if you don’t mind shortening her life and weakening her product.
I learned this early on in my many years as an equestrian and have thought about it quite a bit since. I was a plague to my college roommates, insisting on dim lighting after sundown, convinced that so much artificial light could not be good for us if it was such a powerful force in nature. Now, I have no idea if that particular extrapolation is true, but of one thing I am convinced: we are all meant to live in seasons.
The dark and cold of winter is a natural reset button, preparing the earth for spring. Lent seems to me to work the same way, reminding us that the spiritual life is not all summer time. Our forty days of fasting from certain comforts and conveniences echoes the time when Christ himself felt the importance of denying his body in preparation for ministry. We spend the forty days before Easter—a celebration of the penultimate triumph of Christianity—reminding ourselves that in us the battle is not yet over. We still must experience the long winters, the extended dark. We are still seasonal creatures and some seasons are harsher than others. There are different lessons to be learned, different habits to be employed in these spiritual winters, and I am afraid that we weaken ourselves in our constant pursuit of the summer.
In the Evangelical community I grew up in, Lent wasn’t observed or even mentioned. And though I understand that it was just not a part of our liturgical tradition, I wonder if it isn’t just a little bit indicative of the Evangelical prerogative to relentlessly pursue good times with Jesus. I worry that in ignoring the harder realities of lifelong faithfulness—that there will be times of absence, doubt, unfulfilled hunger, and unmet spiritual longing—we weaken our ability to follow Christ in times of darkness.
Perhaps by giving ourselves to Lent we avoid the mistake of the over-zealous farmer, who is willing to sacrifice the life and health of his animals to avoid an ugly coat or a little down time. In giving ourselves to a season of less, we can learn that personal consolation has little to do with greater love of Christ. Lent is short and ends with a resurrection, a reminder that hard times do not last for long. Spring is coming.