Lent 2024, Day 11: Beloved.

From Jodi Belcher at Building Faith:

That Christians before us—and probably among us today—would need to hear that God does not despise them indicates to me the struggle that people have experienced before a portrait of a vengeful, hate-filled, or domineering God. That people would need to hear this as they enter Lent suggests that this portrait has held particular potency in Christians’ imaginations during the Lenten season.

I can understand why. In a season cast as penitential, in which people are called to worship with recitations of “Thou shalt nots” and confessions of sin and then sent back into the world to fast, the line between sin and sinner can grow thin in Christians’ minds. Grace can seem fleeting, penitence never done or satisfied, and God reluctant to forgive or have mercy. When narratives like these shape Christians’ Lenten journeys, we can become mired not only in guilt, but also in fear and shame.

I do not believe that the Lenten journey should be a shaming one. I believe that the invitation into a holy Lent is an invitation into a shame-freeing Lent. While Lent is not devoid of shame, this season provides several liberating ways of dealing with shame. In this article, I want to highlight these shame-freeing sites for Christian formation in Lent with the hope that the prayers of present and future generations may rise without fear to our unconditionally loving God.

Understanding Shame

In Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.” It is an emotion that is part of being human, Brown indicates, but one that can compel us to turn against ourselves or our neighbors in an effort to alleviate rejection, isolation, and estrangement. Brown describes shame as a “social emotion” that needs “empathy” and “compassion” to loosen its grip and debunk its untruths when we would rather hide, bury, and not breathe a word of it to another soul.

When an empathetic response is not guaranteed, though, showing our shame to someone else can feel like a serious risk. Because shame gets attached to who we are rather than to what we’ve done or what has been done to us, as Brown notes, it puts a lot on the line in simply naming it to another person. Additionally, because empathy requires facing and acknowledging our own shame in order to meet someone in theirs, it can also feel too costly to give.

A Shame-freeing Lent

How might we let go of stories of a shaming God and of shame-inducing practices in the Lenten season? How might we experience a shame-freeing Lent instead? I see three key sites in our Lenten tradition where we find stories and practices that can meet us in shame and dispel its power: Jesus’s death and resurrection, baptism, and reconciliation.

1. Jesus’s Story: A Counternarrative to Shame

The primary focal point of Lent, according to the Ash Wednesday liturgy, is the Triduum, “the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 264). Lent is designed to draw our attention to the story of Jesus’s death and resurrection, and in this story, we find an amazing counternarrative to shame.

In the death of Jesus, we find a God who experiences the profound shame of Roman imperial crucifixion. As Raquel St. Clair notes in Call and Consequences, “[the cross] . . . symbolizes perhaps the most extreme example of dishonor to be found in ancient Mediterranean society.” The crucifixion of Jesus shows us, therefore, God identifying with human beings in our shame rather than keeping Godself at a distance.

In Jesus’s resurrection, we find a God who unravels the shame of the crucifixion by issuing a resounding “No” to the Roman imperial condemnation and dehumanization of Jesus. In Enfleshing Freedom, Shawn Copeland says, “In his [the lynched Jesus’s] raised body, a compassionate God interrupts the structures of death and sin, of violation and oppression. A divine praxis of solidarity sets the dynamics of love against the dynamics of domination — recreating and regenerating the world, offering us a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self.” God disrupts Jesus’s shame story with rehumanizing new life and invites all people into that new, rehumanizing life with Jesus.

Read the other two key sites here.

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