Celebrating Easter Like a Cubs Fan: An Explanation and Defense of Lent

I Love tradition. As a teenager I used to get into fights with my parents about things like buying a fake Christmas tree, or going out to eat for thanksgiving. I especially love church traditions, partly because I grew up with them, but mostly because they have deepened my understanding of God. Lent is one of these traditions; it starts on Ash Wednesday (March 1st) and continues through Holy week to Easter. What saddens me is the way Lent is misunderstood and forgotten in the church today. While some modern churches may still celebrate Advent, Lent isn’t very popular. It’s sort of like Advent’s less adorable cousin- similar in purpose, but moody and morbid. The beautiful candles and wreaths are replaced with grubby ashes and uncomfortable sacrifice. Instead of ending with a cute baby we end up with a cold, dark tomb.

So why do we need a season like this? It’s important because it prepares us for Easter- the holiday that defines us as Christians. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV). In fact, Easter is so important people regularly compare it to the Super Bowl. Just as the NFL and network spend lots of time and money to create an extravagant celebration to reach millions, so do Church leaders. The analogy weakens, however, if you take it any deeper. Most people who tune in for the Super Bowl aren’t even watching. Many aren’t even football fans at all, they just like the party that comes with it and the commercials. And although it’s the most watched sporting event on television, it doesn’t convert many of those casual observers into regular season football fans. I don’t think this is what we want to be saying about Easter.
If we have to use a sports analogy, Easter is more like the Cubs winning the World Series. After 108 long and horrible years, the Curse of the Billy Goat was finally broken. People watched that game with complete focus, because they knew baseball history was in the making. And in the end, who wasn’t rooting for Chicago?

But the elation we felt was not just from the Cubs winning the last game. It was a celebration of their endurance to win their division after 6 months of regular season games, about their focus and drive during the post season, and about the nail biting drama of the seven game championship. If you only saw the very last game you missed the depth of their final victory. You weren’t one of those people throwing things at the TV when they almost blew it in the 8th, or screaming loud enough to wake the kids when they finally won. That passion came from preparation: from having spent time following the team and knowing the players, their stats, and their history. This is why we need Lent, so we’re prepared to appreciate the victory.

dsc_1358

Ordinary Time

To begin with, the regular season of baseball is far more like Christian life than football because it’s played all week long. Players toil day after day, going through streaks and slumps, working against a handful of pitchers who know their every weakness. Last year, the Cubs had a great regular season; with a stellar line-up and bull-pen, they were exciting to watch. Everyone on the team proved their worth, and they finished with the best record in baseball, 103-58. But even in their awesomeness, that means they still lost a third of their games. It’s impossible for a team to always play at 100 percent of their potential day in and day out for six months straight. That much work and stress takes a physical and an emotional toll on the players. It’s one of the things that makes baseball so relatable and lovable to its fans, because our lives are like that too.

According to the church calendar, the seasons between big holidays are called Ordinary Time, and it’s our regular season. We struggle through embarrassing slumps, and shine when we’re having a hot streak. Temptation is like a pitcher that throws at us relentlessly, and even when we’re doing our best we’ll still only beat it 3 times out of ten. While we may feel like we have a winning record, subtle sins creep in and weaken our relationship with God. We develop bad habits and hurt people we care about. We start turning to things besides God to numb our worry and pain. Our daily tendency to sin makes it impossible for us to consistently act out our devotion.

dsc_1360

Lent 

Last fall, all baseball fans feared the Cubs. Our attention focused on the teams that would make it to post-season, analyzing all of their stats, trying to guess who might be able to beat Chicago in their bid for the World Series. In the regular season, teams focus on their division standing; but in fall ball, every game matters. A single win or a loss could mean the chance for a wild card. Three or four bad games in a row will kill a team’s hope for the championship title. When the Cubs made it to the post-season, they had to be smart. The staff began strategizing on how they could keep their star players rested, healthy, and playing strong. They adjusted their pitching rotation to optimize everyone’s performance. They looked at their regular season losses to find weaknesses, and thought how they could avoid them. It’s important to note again that these things were happening daily.

This is Lent. It’s 40 days (plus Sundays, which are like the rest days) for self-analysis and repentance, and it lets God rid us of the ordinary sin that settles in our lives during the year. It’s not about giving up something to prove devotion, or about doubling up efforts to follow all the rules. The fasting of things dear to us means the only place we have left to turn for comfort is to him. But we’re so bad at giving these things up; even our weak will reminds us we need God’s mercy every hour. If we’re like the team, then God is like the manager, molding us into something stronger, getting us back into our best possible shape.

The actual season of Lent is not a biblical commandment, but a ritual based on biblical principles and examples of repentance, prayer and fasting. My favorite example is in Daniel, when the 70 prophesied years of Jewish exile was ending. Daniel wants God to redeem the Jews, but he knows the importance of confessing how awful they’ve been, and how they don’t deserve it. In Daniel 9:3-4 it says, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord God and confessed… ” The prayer that follows (9:4-19), admits the shame and the destruction the Jews brought on themselves because of their sin. He laments the choices they have made, and recognizes how desperately they need God’s salvation. Yet the prayer is still laced with worship, proclaiming that God’s awesome power is in his ability to love above all else. He ends the prayer with the attitude we should all have during lent, saying, “We do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies.” (v.18)

DSC_1366.jpg
Holy Week

By the end of October, the Cubs had won the pennant, and there was massive excitement because it was the first time they’d gone to the World Series since 1945. The odds were that they would easily win, so who could have expected the heartbreak fans felt midweek when defeat seemed inevitable? Only five teams before them, in a history of 112 World Series, had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit before. Defying all odds, the team continued to hang on in the series until it all came down to the seventh and final game.  In that last chance,  the Cubs scored in the first inning, and our hope began to surface. When we got through the seventh and they were still ahead there was excitement that this hope might actually survive. But in bottom of the eighth, when game was almost over, the Indians scored three runs. Suddenly the game was tied, and stayed that way through the ninth. The Cubs were now facing extra innings, and announcers were rattling off numerous statistics about how many times the team had lost in extra innings, and how many times over the last century they had buckled under pressure. Their bull-pen was spent, and morale was as low as could be.

Little did we know, God is a Cubs fan too, and the miraculous timing of a 20-minute rain delay saved the game. Jason Heyward saw the despair on his teammates’ faces, so he pulled the team together in the weight room behind the dugout.  He told them, “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.” (WORLD SERIES-It Happened) Then other players began to chime in and the theme was, “We won’t quit.” When the team retook the field in the tenth, people started hitting again. They averted disaster with brilliant base running. Ryan Zobrist batted in the winning run and Miguel Montero another after that. To everyone’s relief, the Cleveland bats had no response, and in an instant, 100 years of baseball fans were finally vindicated. All of Chicago ran out into the streets celebrating; their joy and excitement so contagious, they made Cub fans of us all.

While it was probably the best week of baseball ever, Holy Week is even more grand and grueling a journey. In this last week of Lent, scripture takes us with Jesus through Jerusalem- reliving His entry, last supper, death and resurrection. Each event is marked by a holy day on the calendar.

Palm Sunday starts the week with the triumphal parade into the Holy City. People cheer, and throw their coats and palm branches in the street for a King they think is so holy, not even his donkey’s feet should tread the dirt. There is finally hope in the dull roar of the Passover festival- after 7,000 years of promises, there’s finally a Messiah. But this King and the celebration of him infuriates the establishment. They grumble in the shadows, plotting how they can be rid of him.

On Maundy Thursday, the gracious Savior knows what’s coming and tries to warn his followers. He washes their feet, breaks bread and pours wine as a metaphor, but they just can’t fathom what He’s saying. After dinner they drift off to sleep in the garden while prays and His sweat becomes like blood. He offers up a desperate plea for mercy, but the cup is His to drink. When they come to arrest Him, He submits peacefully (much to his friends’ dismay) even though the soldiers are ready for war.

The high and mighty continue to flaunt their power over him on Good Friday, battering Hope, ridiculing it, and strapping it to a cross to die; a public warning displayed for anyone who might try to rekindle its flame.

On Holy Saturday we mourn while the King we thought would save us wades through the depth of hell on our behalf. The only people who haven’t walked away from Sunday’s parade entirely hide themselves away, confused and terrified.

Just when everyone thinks the story is completely over, at Easter Sunrise on the third day, a miracle occurs. It’s more extravagant than anyone dreamed- the man who had the power to raise the dead has actually raised himself. Finally, the cryptic prophecies begin to make sense to His weary followers, who emerge from their despair barely understanding the implications. The victory is so outrageous that when they try to repeat what happened, even their best friends don’t believe it.

dsc_1355

The story is world altering. It changes the way we tell time. It reforms our laws and morals. We shouldn’t miss out on even one part of it. I hope that regardless of what your church chooses to do, you and your family will observe lent. Being able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond is a long, rigorous, daily journey that takes discipline and resolve. But focusing our attention on it strengthens our love and faith in Him. People who just show up for the last game of the season don’t care much who wins or loses. If you are going to be as passionate about Easter as a Cubs fan was last fall, then be prepared, so you can fully appreciate the magnitude of the victory.

Advertisements

Promising Winter

My children’s only complaint about our old house was the lack of snow. All winter we would read books like The Snowy Day and The Snowman, or sing about a white Christmas, and the children would pine for those experiences. They counted down the days until the winter solstice, and then were angry with me when they woke up to green grass.  I felt sorry for them, being born in Virginia where winter is so unreliable. When I was their age we lived in Colorado and Wisconsin, and the amount of shoveling you would have to do was the deciding factor when choosing a house.  I never dreamed there were places where you would have to refinance the house in order to take the whole family snow tubing, or sign your kids up for the hockey team. Being unable to provide the beloved weather related memories that I had as a child is the suckiest type of mom guilt.

dsc_0305

Last year, the boys weren’t keen on the idea of moving to the mountains. It was far from their friends and our church.  They loved the farmland we lived in the middle of, with all the tractors and cows and flat, empty dirt roads for bike riding. Compounding their grief, I also decided that moving was the perfect excuse to finally take all of their tacky, moldy plastic yard toys to the dump.  So, to make up for their hurt feelings, I promised them  snow.  I reasoned with them that they wouldn’t miss their icky wagon or cracked slide because they would be so busy sledding and having snowball fights. It was irresponsible of me, since our winters are prone to menopausal style hot flashes. In this instance, however, I was lucky and either their prayers were answered or I was punished for my foolish promise. Last winter we had more snow than I have ever had in all my life. We went sledding so much the kids were almost sick of it…and then we had a blizzard that dumped three more feet.

dsc_0334

Snow is the best AND the worst when you live with little kids on a mountain. I despise the 30 minutes it takes to help everyone find and put all their snow clothes on, and the other 30 minutes it takes to get them all off again. Their slushy boots leave tracks all over the house, despite my constant barking to take them off on the door mat. Their playtime always ends in shrill, panicked screams that echo throughout the neighborhood- all because one tiny snow crystal touched somebody’s wrist or ankle.

Despite all of that, the time we all get to play together in the snow is all the best parts of motherhood. Games, adventures, cooperation, and smiles, all occurring with all four children,  simultaneously.   It almost feels like an injustice, that my husband is off hard at work while I’m home sledding down the biggest hill ever, taking turns with my little ones so they don’t crash into a tree.  Even the older boys, who don’t want my help as much anymore, will still invite me to help finish their igloo or create an Olympic bobsled track. I’m allowed to relive the innocence of catching snowflakes on the tongue, and the sweet, thawing relief of a cup of hot cocoa.

dsc_0350

dsc_0351

dsc_0352

In the backdrop, the beauty of the mountain soothes the stress that has built up from playing the never ending game of “where is my boot/mitten/sock/hat/glove?” Without snow, the Shenandoah forests are menacing in the winter. The leaves disappear and all that’s left is a tangled mess of gray brambles and vines. Somewhere hiding (hopefully) deep within that mess are sleeping bears and snakes. The whole thing is regularly shrouded in a thick fog, (https://myapplemountainlife.wordpress.com/portfolio/misty-mountains/) dampening the air and our moods. But the snow masks the foreboding appearance by covering it in the color of purity and innocence. It reflects sunlight into the shadowy gloom, clearing the air and scaring away thoughts of danger.

dsc_1599    dsc_0523

Even though our elevation is only about 2000 feet higher than our friends, our house is usually about five degrees colder. This year we’ve had a freakishly warm winter, but my promise to the kids still keeps. Most of the snow we’ve had this year is ‘special snow’- when our house had snow but the lowlands did not. If you ever wondered why school was cancelled when all it did was rain, it’s probably because of neighborhoods like mine. It hasn’t been much, but enough to justify the purchases of boots and snow pants for everyone. We’ve been savoring it, mostly because it’s so warm and the experience is fleeting.  I’m glad that even with the weather fluctuations, I ended up not being a total liar.  The kids still complain that we haven’t had a white Christmas, but I don’t dare make promises on that one.  Maybe we’ll just road trip to Grandpa’s house, instead.

DSC_0489.jpg

dsc_0381

dsc_0365