Here in Boston, the record snowfall has buried our little apartment in drifts that go past my husband’s shoulders. We have spent most of our winter staring out our kitchen window, watching sheets of snow wind themselves around lampposts.
We wait for school cancellations, for reports on how many inches have accumulated. Our news feeds are crammed with photos of grocery stores with checkout lines stretching down the aisles.
There is a frenzy that feels unnatural, but also unavoidable. My grocery lists are stamped with an almost panicky desire for what I’m afraid to be without: chocolate, bacon, butter, beer.
It’s laughable. But it’s also Lent, and for now, those items get taken off the list.
In the heart of winter, Lent arrives as a season of expectation and denial, our abstinence from meat and social media coupled with our yearning for melted snow, for reprieve from winter’s cold grind. We long for a bit of lightness in these days but are hard-pressed to find it, burdened as we are by our waiting.
And what do we wait for? What is it that burdens us? In our weeks of snow and stillness, what I feel is inertia. I am bound in my place by the wind and the limits of icy sidewalks and lentils for dinner.
Now that I am Orthodox, the requirements for Lent are straightforward -- no meat or dairy or alcohol for the 40 days preceding Easter, or Pascha, the greatest of feasts, the triumph of Christ over sin and death. It is a practice that Orthodox Christians have been keeping up for hundreds of years, and like any hand-me-down, it did not fit me well at first.
That has been true for most of my experience being Orthodox. When I met my husband, who converted to Orthodoxy in college, I was part of a Protestant denomination that loved both sola scriptura and the rituals of the liturgical year.
I became Orthodox two weeks before our wedding, because the words of Ruth to Naomi were words that I had for my husband: Where you go, I will go. I left the household of my loving Reformed family and bowed before an altar that invited me, but that also confused and terrified me.
What confused me was the strictness of Orthodoxy’s practices. I liked their communal nature -- for example, how everyone would cross themselves at the same time during a service. I liked watching the Greek women rolling cookies in the downstairs kitchen of the parish, the air laced with English and powdered sugar.
There was something romantic about the fasting and the long prayers from a distance, but when I came closer to them, I balked. I had spent most of my Christian life choosing the ways in which to measure my spiritual growth, and the restrictions of Lent in particular felt arbitrary.
What was I fasting for? What was the purpose of this way of approaching Lent, and why couldn’t I continue as before?
Three years into being Orthodox, I get it. Perhaps it is because the observances have grown on me, or rather, into me, like my hand sweeping the sign of the cross over me before I’m even aware that I’m making it. The distance between my heart and Orthodoxy’s spiritual practices is shorter, and because of that, I can see my heart more clearly, its wounds and passions laid bare.
What I see these days, quite honestly, is fear: fear of ISIS, of student loans, of my husband or son dying in some mysterious, accidental way. I scroll through my news feed and read articles about Syrian refugees and prison rape and the unrest that plagues Ferguson and keep clicking, my anxiety another force in the inertia that holds me still.
But perhaps I can see this stillness, not as a prison or an existential crisis, but as a space to ready myself. For what is Lent, after all, but a place to keep vigil? And how desperately do we need the image of vigil keeping in the midst of all our anxieties and troubles?
In Luke’s Gospel, Christ says:
Be dressed in readiness, and keep your lamps lit. Be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. Blessed are those slaves whom the master will find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, that he will gird himself to serve, and have them recline at the table, and will come up and wait on them. Whether he comes in the second watch, or even in the third, and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. (Luke 12:35-38 NASB)
Blessed are those whom Christ finds waiting. So many of us are in the third watch, the wicks of our hearts flickering low. As we make our bows before the altar -- even if all we can manage is a silent, speechless prayer -- this is the work of Lent: to watch for a new day, and to prepare for it with what we have.
For what does Christ promise us but a table where he himself serves us, he the master who, as Henri Nouwen writes, is “coming -- not tomorrow, but today, not next year, but this year, not after all our misery is passed, but in the middle of it, not in another place but right here where we are standing.”
At my kitchen window, the snow presses against the glass. It is evening. While my husband bathes our son and gets him ready for bed, I clear the table, load the dishwasher, light another candle. I stand at the window and watch the snow fall, wordless, waiting.