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Despite having gone to church my entire life, I realized recently that I had no idea why we call the period we embark upon today “Lent.” 

I surveyed a number of other folks who resemble me—and they, too, had no idea. We all knew about its length of 40 days (and how the 40 is counted or not, depending on your tradition). This makes sense when you think of the Latin term for this period, Quadragesima–which is not only a pretty cool word but is also echoed in the forms that many other languages use to describe the season, all of them emphasizing 40 somehow. 

But not English. 

It turns out that, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, Lent comes from the Old English “Læncte,” which originally referenced spring, but which also contains a form of “long” or our current word, “lengthen.” In other words, a season of lengthening days. 

I love what this etymology suggests. Every year, I hear people give advice on how to navigate this time. Ignore it, say some, especially this year. Or give something up as a spiritual sacrifice. Or take up a spiritual discipline. Or both. Do something. Perform somehow. 

Instead, I wonder if we might think more about what “lengthening days” bring: literally, more light. What if rather than prescribe what we do during Lent, we cultivate a spirit that every day is open to—welcomes even—a tiny bit more illumination? Certainly, that might come through a practice, if that seems useful, but it needn’t be a grand gesture of renunciation, either positive or negative.

In a good deal of British poetry (particularly in the medieval and early Modern periods), there is a tremendous amount of punning on Sun/Son. Easter, then, celebrates the risen Son—the ultimate en“lighten”ment, if you will. Thus, our Lenten preparations can, in some ways, best be thought of as helping our eyes learn to adjust to the coming radiance. Whatever the way one proceeds, our simple aim might be to open our eyes a little wider, see a little more. Our prayer, “just a little more light today.” 

Of course, that is easy to say and difficult to do. When I was in high school, I scratched the cornea in both eyes. I have seldom felt so much pain. In even the darkest room, I felt overwhelmed by the tiny bits of light that seemed to be emblazoning it, and I struggled to open my eyes at all. That seems an apt metaphor for our lives, too. Adjusted to the darkness—our own and the world’s—that surrounds us, any bit of light can seem like a lot. It hurts—much easier to keep our eyes shut. Or as T.S. Eliot puts it in Four Quartets: “humankind/Cannot bear very much reality.” We resist the truth about ourselves, including the reality of our death and the ultimate dusty quality of human endeavors. Ash Wednesday, by contrast, forces us to willingly open our eyes to our limitations by making them visible right there on our foreheads. A small shaft of light breaking through the darkness, indeed. 

The Eastern Orthodox rendering of Lent (χαρμολύπη), translated as “bright sadness,” captures this paradox beautifully. The more we acquire the eyes of Christ, the more we begin to see ourselves and Christ clearly, both lamenting our condition and the world’s, but celebrating the brilliant, cleansing Light that will bring everything into focus some day. Thanks be to God for every lengthening day. 

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? I also now chair the department. And along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

6 Comments

  • Beverly Vander Molen says:

    What a great invitation to becoming! Thank you. This day, this season has a fresh start!

  • lee tanis says:

    “just a little more light today”. thank you, Jennifer

  • Janice Zuidema says:

    Thank you, on this Ash Wednesday. I will begin to live with the paradox of ‘bright sadness’ in this season.

  • Ann says:

    oh my goodness… I LOVE this.

  • Thomas Bartha says:

    Jennifer. My wife & I have been bandying about various disciplines and ideas for Lent, but none were clicking or feeling quite right. Your thoughts today on lengthening bring a fresh perspective to the season ahead. Thanks so much!

  • Jim Brink says:

    Jennifer, as Marjorie, my brighter half, has exclaimed to you before, she would loved to have had you as her professor at Calvin. Well, this morning we both were glad to “have” you. Thanks so much for such a fresh look at the Lenten season which this year we need.

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