The discipline season of Lent is a lot of things to a lot of Jesus followers; that’s how it should be, there are a lot of us. But one thing it is for me, and I know for many others this year: it is sad. I’m grieving my personal losses, but we are all grieving societal losses: 955,000 Covid-19 deaths – a death for every 33 U.S. citizens, two lost years, the lack of accountability for the attack in which Breonna Taylor was killed, the madness in Ukraine, the lack of climate action; it all goes on. I keep Kasey Musgraves close at hand, but it sure feels like it is going to keep raining.
It is not unusual for one of my clients to tell a very sad story with a stone-faced look. I often tell someone, “That story makes me very sad. How about you?” We often discover their sadness has been put away in some far corner of their unconscious because they have never trusted anyone enough to tell the story. Or very early on in their lives, they gave up on sadness because it was useless to feel it. One said, “I did not learn to trust and they did not learn to teach me.” Two said in one week, “I learned to laugh to keep from crying.”
“I had to laugh to keep from crying.”
My prototypical Oklahoma peasant, racist of a father used that phrase as a proverb during my youth. He did not cry much and neither did I. So I can relate to my clients who might not be well equipped to recognize sadness, even if it could manage to get through their defenses against being overwhelmed by it. Oddly enough, but not so odd Heather McGhee can’t name it in her amazing book, my poor father was a strange bedfellow with Tyler Perry’s economically oppressed family, who also used the phrase so much he could turn it into a play. A lot of us laugh to keep from crying.
If you are doing that laughing on purpose, like I think Perry is doing, it might be a good discipline. Laughter is good medicine. If you are laughing, or amusing yourself to death, because you are terrified of feelings that might overwhelm you, then Lent might be a good time to be sad for as long as you need to be, sad until you have passed through it. If you aren’t the sad you are, you might become depressed until you let it pass through.
As with so many human experiences, someone studied how we inappropriately laugh, or display other unexpected behaviors, when we are overwhelmed with emotions. The scientist told the Atlantic author “If you get into a very high or very low emotion that you’re almost to the point of being overwhelmed, you become incapacitated so you can’t function well.” Your emotional regulator will kick in because, “Emotional homeostasis is important for people so they can be in control of their cognitive, social, and psychological functions.”
We laugh to keep from crying because feeling and expressing the overwhelming sadness is too much. We also laugh to moderate our nervous feelings and cry to tone down our ecstasy. A big laugh (or punching the wall) is also a social signal we’re over our limit and need something to stop.
How about an honestly sad Lent?
Many Catholics are still hanging on to Lent as a season of mortification to purify themselves of earthly desires so they can be more like who they think Jesus is (at least these people are). Traditionally, that means mourning the death of Jesus and the sin that killed him. That’s why there were ashes last Wednesday and people are “fasting” chocolate, or “giving up” things they love but don’t need (don’t give up water). Lent can be like a spiritual boot camp with Jesus in the wilderness. Like I said, there are a lot of variations. I am a long-time practitioner of Lent, to very good ends.
This year for Lent, I am disciplining myself in some typical ways but I am also following the example of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Specifically, I am remembering when God called her out for disguising her despair with a secret laugh. There is an amazing little story about her in the Bible. Three strangers come to Abraham’s compound and he welcomes them as “the Lord.” Many interpreters see this as a rare Old Testament revelation of the Trinity. But I am more interested in Sarah hiding in the tent, listening in, than I am in philosophizing.
The Lord appeared to Abraham at the sacred trees of Mamre. As Abraham was sitting at the entrance of his tent during the hottest part of the day, he looked up and saw three men standing there. As soon as he saw them, he ran out to meet them. Bowing down with his face touching the ground, he said, “Sirs, please do not pass by my home without stopping; I am here to serve you. Let me bring some water for you to wash your feet; you can rest here beneath this tree. I will also bring a bit of food; it will give you strength to continue your journey. You have honored me by coming to my home, so let me serve you.”
They replied, “Thank you; we accept.”
Abraham hurried into the tent and said to Sarah, “Quick, take a sack of your best flour, and bake some bread.” Then he ran to the herd and picked out a calf that was tender and fat, and gave it to a servant, who hurried to get it ready. He took some cream, some milk, and the meat, and set the food before the men. There under the tree he served them himself, and they ate.
Then they asked him, “Where is your wife Sarah?”
“She is there in the tent,” he answered.
One of them said, “Nine months from now I will come back, and your wife Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was behind him, at the door of the tent, listening. Abraham and Sarah were very old, and Sarah had stopped having her monthly periods. So Sarah laughed to herself and said, “Now that I am old and worn out, can I still enjoy sex? And besides, my husband is old too.”
Then the Lord asked Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Can I really have a child when I am so old?’ Is anything too hard for the Lord? As I said, nine months from now I will return, and Sarah will have a son.”
Because Sarah was afraid, she denied it. “I didn’t laugh,” she said.
“Yes, you did,” he replied. “You laughed.” — Genesis 18:1-15 GNT
I can relate to Sarah laughing about having a child. Gwen and I will surely not be having one unless God visits us! Even more, I can relate to her laughing “to herself” as part of the internal dialogue she was having about what was happening outside the tent.
When the three strangers arrived, she was an old woman who never had a child. She was supposed to produce an heir to be the favored wife she was. There was no son. Her sadness about her infertility had long ago turned to shame, I think. She probably laughed at herself in the way she suspected other people scorned her. She probably tried not to feel sorry for herself the way she did not want others to pity her, because then the sorrow she carried alone would be out in the conversation, not hiding in the tent.
I think when the Lord asked Abraham “Why did Sarah laugh?” she was still lurking inside. She only came out to defend herself, “I didn’t laugh (I only did it in my head).” But the Lord looked her in the eye and said, “Yes you did. You laughed.” He could have added, “You laughed to keep from crying.”
I am going to try not to laugh off Lent, although I admit I have been trying to keep from crying a bit, so far. I’m writing this because I think you might want to consider what you are doing, too. Lent is not for being sad just because we’re supposed to be sad. It is not a yearly revival of unexperienced guilt, unless you need that. It is certainly not a fast to hollow us out when we already feel hollowed out, unless you need that, of course. It is not for laughing at the fundamentalists, or the superstitious, or oppressed, who tend to do Lent big. It is certainly not a time for the present, popular derision for Lent-observers from people trying to experience their Nietzchean self-creation in spite of “God” — so don’t drink that poison.
I think Lent is a time to open up, however we need to, in order to welcome the risen Jesus — as surely as God came to visit Abraham and Sarah that day. Lent is the story of the crucified and risen Jesus in my own back yard. With Sarah’s help, I am noticing how God zeroed in on the person in the scene who was hidden in the tent with her secret sadness. I suspect the Lord is searching for you, too. That might make you laugh.
I’m uncomfortable being sad. But I have to note that it is the very sad Sarah who receives a miracle baby. It is a truly sad world that will kill the miracle Baby Jesus who then rises as the Lord to visit us again and again. On this year’s Lenten visit, the Lord comes to my sad country, which tried to deny the pandemic and almost a million have died. This time, the Lord comes to the sad me and the possibly sad you, maybe the sad baby you. In that fertile place the seed of resurrection is planted.