Even I ask myself: How can someone who lives with depression like such a depressing time of the church year?
Lent is my favorite liturgical season. I’m not exactly sure why.
I did and did not grow up understanding that many Christian churches follow something called a church calendar. My early years were spent in black Baptist churches that celebrated Easter and Christmas as holy days, but large swaths of spirituals, Sunday school and a row of black-suited deacons in-between.
In Catholic elementary school, I learned about Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Trinity Sunday and All Saint’s Day. I thought these were Catholic-specific things. Like confession and rosaries and the puffy white dress for first communion in second grade. Things I learned about, but couldn’t be a part of. Because I wasn’t Catholic. My parents said that I didn’t have to “give up” anything for Lent, if I didn’t want to.
This is how many people think of Lent. It’s this season before Easter where we focus on the sacrifice that Jesus makes for us on the cross. To honor this sacrifice, we too should experience a measure of sacrifice. Many people deny themselves of something. The proverbial chocolate. A bad habit. Foods filled with butter and sugar – that must be eaten up on Fat Tuesday (aka Mardi Gras). Some people understand these sacrifices as a kind of spiritual practice. These are ways to focus our energy and intent more upon our relationship wit the divine.
Other people decide to “take something on.” By picking up a good habit, being more who they are called to be, giving a good service to the world around them, they develop a spiritual practice that engages them more deeply in the world around them.
Either way, it is a time of spiritual introspection that is traditionally focused on the events of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.
Do people who live with depression really need more introspection? I mean, isn’t that part of our challenge? That we are too internal. That our thoughts turn in on themselves – sometimes betraying us, or making us think the worst things about ourselves. If we struggle to make it from one day to the next, need we sacrifice any more of our selves? Can we give any more than we are currently giving? Should we really spend forty days focusing on sacrifice and death?
I think I’m into Lent for Ash Wednesday. I like the ashes. Not because they remind me of my mortality. I’m well aware of that. I like them because of the verse in the 61st chapter of Isaiah. The first verses are repeated by Jesus in the 4th chapter of Luke. Words of a calling to liberate others. The third verse indicates that God also calls Isaiah to comfort those who mourn and “give a crown of beauty for ashes.”
I like this song that comes from these verses:
I understand a life of ashes. I understand grief that lasts long past the time of mourning. I understand how it is to feel as if everything I touch is crumbling. I understand the constant readjustment of expectations and abilities based on a crippling I-can’t-do-this-right-now state of being. I understand ashes.
In my early days in ministry, I discovered beauty in them. The ashes for Ash Wednesday services are traditionally burned from the palms used on Palm Sunday. Members of my church brought in the single palm strip they had saved from nearly a year prior. My pastor, decked in barbecue style apron and oven mitt, placed them in a large foil tray and lit them on fire. He tossed them until they became ash and used them to place a cross on our foreheads. Soon enough, the service was over, the congregation had left, and the ministered cleaned the sanctuary. As we left, my pastor whispered to me. “Come back early in the morning. Trust me.” Using my key, I returned at 6:30 am Thursday morning to a strong sweet pungency that hung invisible over the chairs, altar, hallway and musical instruments. All those ashes, given time, smelled amazing! It was … beautiful.
And I like that there are openings to find beauty in ashes. Lent gives me the chance to look for those opportunities. It gives me a season – every year – to turn over rocks, crouch down and look under the bed, sweep together the remnants of my last year, of my life, of the current day in search of whatever beauty may be there. It’s my chance to look for the life that can be found in the midst, or something after, death.
Last Lent, I led an online reading group through my book Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression. I decided that this would be my Lenten practice. Every year, I hope. By sharing my own frustrations, struggles and small victories, I find flashes of grace. I invite you to join me on this journey.
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Note: Monica A. Coleman is hosting an online reading group this Lent through her book, Not Alone. Participation includes the eBook of Not Alone, daily inspirational emails, vegan recipes (for those who may give up meat), a resource list and a weekly conference call with the author. Learn more information. Readers of this blog are eligible for a raffle for one FREE participation. See the information below to enter. This giveaway runs from midnight to midnight on February 28th. Winner will be chosen randomly and notified with 48 hours of the end of the raffle.
Monica A. Coleman is Associate Professor of Constructive Theology and African American Religions and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies at Claremont School of Theology in southern California. An ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Coleman has earned degrees at Harvard University, Vanderbilt University and Claremont Graduate University. She has been featured as an expert in religion and mental health on NPR, blogtalkradio, BeliefNet.com,PsychCentral.com, Huffington Post and HuffPo Live. She blogs on faith and depression at www.BeautifulMindBlog.com. She is the author or editor of five books, including Not Alone: Reflections on Faith and Depression – a 40 Day Devotional.