A Lenten Leap of Imagination

This season celebrates the divine compassion

By: Carol Luebering

This article first appeared in the March 2003 issue of Celebration

The young woman behind the desk in my doctor’s office wasn’t happy. By some quirk of the calendar, it was both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day. “My husband always brings me a box of good chocolates for Valentine’s,” she explained. “But I always give up chocolate for Lent. Oh well,” she shrugged, “it’s supposed to hurt, isn’t it?”

Well, yes—according to the theory I grew up with. Sharing in Christ’s sufferings was an important spiritual exercise in those days. The Lenten fast was strict. Unless dispensed for good cause, everyone over 21 and under 59 was allowed one full meal every weekday and two meatless meals that did not together equal that meal. And, of course, every Friday of the year was meatless.

We’ve come a long way! Now we realize that this season recalls Christ’s passion less than it celebrates the divine compassion that led him to Calvary. That’s why one woman still fasts during Lent--as a reminder that most of the world goes to bed hungry. “It’s not the same as enduring famine,” she admits. “But it helps me make a leap of imagination.”

A fellow parishioner once helped our outreach group make such a leap. A stroke had left him with a numb and useless arm. He brought short two-by-four pieces to our meeting, and attached them to our arms and legs with large rubber bands. After a few minutes, the only leap left to us was to imagine living with unresponsive limbs the rest of our lives.

Let your imagination carry you into the world of the aging this Lent. Mentally inventory the contents of your home and decide what would fit in a small apartment or a nursing home room. Thumb through the latest photo album and imagine how you’d feel if you buried the dear friends pages in it or lost all memory of significant events pictured there. (At the end of her life, my mother knew my sister and me, but she confused her grandchildren with one another and her great-grandkids were strangers—a loss beyond the reach of this grandma’s imagination!)

Foreswear the use of your car for a week or limit your driving to daylight hours and see how it feels to depend on others for transportation. Get out of bed slowly, as though trying to convince stiff joints to move. Lift the coffeepot with both hands because they ache badly and ask yourself who is going to take down the storm windows come spring. Put a little cotton in your ears and try to follow a conversation or hear the readings in church.

Watch an elderly person fumble to find bills at the checkout counter and slowly put the change away with stiffened fingers, noting the impatience on nearby faces. Imagine those looks directed at you. (In a graced moment, I watched a warmly smiling young woman at a checkout counter wait patiently while an elderly woman groped through her purse. “I hope you will be as patient with me when I am that old,” I told her a minute later. “I hope so, too,” she replied, “and that someone will be patient with me.”)

No, imagining is not the same as being there. None of us can manage a leap into the human condition like Jesus made. But all of us are capable of a small hop. Before services began in church last Sunday, I watched a young man approach an elderly woman in a wheelchair. With the easy agility of youth, he dropped to one knee beside her and chatted for several minutes. For the first time I realized that, like a small child, she always had to look up at the people she talked to—a position most of us would find demeaning. In one graceful movement, that young man restored her dignity.

Jesus asks us constantly to strain our imaginations, to conceive of a world where all peoples live in peace and no one suffers any kind of want or pain. God’s realm, we call it. And we know we are charged with helping to bring it to birth.

No human effort, however divinely inspired, begins without the use of imagination. Even the world Jesus helps us envision first must set our imaginations soaring before we can begin to grasp the problems we face and start to find solutions. Meanwhile, our elders are waiting.