Lent has started, and the only reason I remembered is because of Facebook. I blame Japan. Or to be more accurate, I blame Japan’s lack of pancake day, which used to be my way of knowing that Lent was about to start. That and people debating out loud whether they would give up chocolate.
I, of course, made pancakes, but it didn’t feel like the start of Lent.
Partly because I didn’t have to do the ironic shopping trip to buy ingredients, but mostly because I knew that Lent wasn’t going to be a thing in Japan. Marking the beginning of a season when you’re the only one you know about to enter it is a bit sad.
Easter has gained popularity in Japan in recent years, but unsurprisingly the parts that have been picked up are those that are either cute or chocolate, or both. A drawn-out fast, it seems, is not quite so easy to commercalize.
I’ve always been ambivalent about Lent. Done well it’s a great way to encourage each other to refocus priorities and increase our appetite for God; done badly it’s a self-foccussed, guilt-ridden, people-pleasing legalistic marathon – and either way you can’t talk about it without causing debate along those very lines. Since coming to Japan, however, I feel more keenly the desire to do Lent well.
I felt the same thing during Advent, and as I’ve reflected on why, I’ve come up with two main reasons.
The first is a, I hope honourable, desire to keep sacred what is otherwise a purely commerical event. I want, for me at least, to keep the heart of Christmas the coming of Christ, and Easter his death and resurrection. Advent and Lent can help do that.
Second is the stability that the church calendar provides. I wonder if it’s not so much the traditions I miss as it is the periods they mark. A day dedicated to eating pancakes is brilliant and a day to remember Jesus sucker-punching death in the teeth is even better, but it’s easy to miss a day. And a general sentiment of, ‘We should always be grateful for what we have, aware of our need for God’s grace, and nice to others’ is too vauge to be helpful. A period of time such as Lent and Advent allows for the kind of focussed reflection that keeps me, if not sanctified, then at least sane.