Winter and Lent have at least one thing in common, and that is that the experience of both is a matter of duration as well as intensity.
Winter gives us no choice or chance for input. The official duration of winter is strictly marked out on the calendar as three months, whether by astronomical markers (winter solstice to spring equinox) or so-called meteorological ones (December through February). The problem is that the subjective, experienced duration is not fixed, but similarly thrust upon us. Whether it be harsh cold, or unrelenting sunlessness, or frozen precipitation that closes roads and schools, winter weather spreads all over the calendar without regard to official boundaries rather like old schoolbook maps of the expansion of the Roman Empire. Some years autumn ends in a matter of weeks, or it seems as if spring will never come at all.
Similarly the intensity of winter, which takes no requests and respects no preferences. Remember that long blast of arctic air that settled over us for so long in January? Nobody requested that; at least nobody I know.
Lent also has a fixed duration, from Ash Wednesday through Passiontide, until Easter breaks the penitential setting. There is a particular genius to this aspect of Lent. These forty days, no more no less, can seem quite interminable, but because we know precisely when they will end, we can bear almost anything, undertake almost any penance, with confidence that we shall at least survive.
It is the intensity of Lent that is open to our preference, and our input. Oh, sure; the Church sets an official baseline: two days of fasting – two whole days!! And abstinence from meat on Fridays (seven days, but two of those were already in the first group). Beyond that, what? Unlike winter, the intensity is up to us. I have undertaken intense Lents, and I have allowed myself easy ones.
When it comes to winter, I long ago determined that I am much better able to withstand and even enjoy intensity than I am duration. Bitter cold is bracing, a challenge to my Boy Scout preparedness, and makes me feel vigorous when I get used to it. Plus, I get to wear my Russian rabbit hat. A long, drawn out winter reduces me to a quivering heap, discouraged, forgetful of what daffodils actually look like.
So, what about Lent? The pinpoint precision with which its duration can be predicted should give me confidence to measure out a right proper level of intensity; but no. It is the duration I can stand, and the intensity which fluctuates with my so-called resolve and fortitude.
This weekend we have reached the limit of my tolerance for winter’s duration, so rather than try to change the weather, we have simply changed the bulletin cover to do away with the snow. But Lent is moving into the home stretch now, the hardest part: Passiontide. We have veiled the statues and crucifix to remind us how grim our lot when God’s face is covered over.
Spring is coming, but it will pass into the endless cycle of seasons. So, too, will Easter come, but the Resurrection that great festival brings will endure forever.
Surviving winter til the sun’s warmth break through brings us joy and fills us with a feeling of having overcome adversity. Making it through Lent leaves us confident not in our strength or achievement, but in the mercy and great love of God. Other than that, they have a lot in common.