Professor of History
Chair of the Division of Humanities
I grew up in a conservative Protestant church which didn’t really mention Lent. Lent was that thing Catholics did. And, in the small rural town in which I grew up, that was not a recommendation. I had friends whose parents forbade us from dating Catholics. Why that was, I’m unclear, as none of us knew any.
But as an adult I’ve come to appreciate Lent (and Catholics) more and more. Which makes the fact that the pandemic emerged during Lent hard.
I now belong to a Presbyterian church. We worship at a service which is intentionally low church. We sit around round tables. We collect our offerings in green velvet bags, which children then drop in a brown wicker basket. We exchange the peace of Christ with “a handshake, a hug or a high-five.”
But in our church, we make a big deal of our Lenten rituals. We have small dinners for community and study. We incrementally raise black curtains in front of our stain glass windows. And we change the way we end our services.
For the vast majority of the year, whoever preaches that day offers a challenge and benediction. Then they look at the congregation and conclude with the words “Alleluia Amen,” The congregation then dutifully (or joyfully, depending on how the sermon was) responds with the same words. “Alleluia Amen.” Amen, because it’s an ending. Alleluia, because it reminds us of the joy we have in Christ.
But during Lent, we don’t say Alleluia. I’m told there’s a complicated theological reason for this. I’m sure Prof. Papsdorf can explain. But I don’t worry too much about the official theology. Instead, I remember a song by Plumb (or, if you need extra credit for Prof. Fox’s class—a saying of Blaise Pascal). Both the singer and the philosopher remind us that we have a God-shaped hole in our heart, a hole that only God can fill. By omitting the Alleluia, we create a small hole in our service. And that small hole reminds us of the God-shaped hole in our hearts.
We’re living in a time where we constantly notice the holes in our lives. We miss walking into the classroom with our cup of coffee and complaining about having to wake up early. We miss seeing the regulars at the Y or Dillons or QT. We miss the routine of practice or rehearsal or even just going out with friends. We even miss going to work (maybe).
We shouldn’t minimize these holes. They are real and troubling. We don’t know how long they’ll last. We don’t know if they’ll be filled once life is ‘normal’ again. And they remind us that the ordinariness of our days often brought us joy.
But I think we can use them to make this Lenten season, so strange and hard, more meaningful. Next time, when there’s a space that would ordinarily be filled, be reminded of the God-shaped hole in your heart. Next time, when you have to decide you can’t justify getting groceries or seeing your friends, remember that it is Lent. Next time, let the holes point not to emptiness, but to God.