“High tech” is not always best. Things that are personally delivered from living breathing teachers can be—and frequently are—far more effective than cyber technological tools. Christian discipleship during Lent is a good example of the importance of physical togetherness for spiritual growth. Is it possible to take a cyber approach to the season of Lent? I don’t think so.
In my Lutheran tradition, Lent is the liturgical calendar season of forty weekdays before Easter, consisting of repentance and fasting, devotion and anticipation. Lent stretches from Ash Wednesday to the Saturday of Easter Vigil. Forty-day periods in the Bible are always associated with trials of temptation, affliction, fasting, repentance, and suffering, while entreating God for grace. One thinks of Moses (forty days on Mount Sinai, Exod. 34:28), Elijah’s journey of forty days (1 Kings 19:8), and Jesus himself fasting in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2). One also thinks of global judgment for forty days during which Noah’s family and the animals found safe harbor on the ark (Gen. 7:12), as well as the Hebrews who experienced the Exodus when they spent forty years wandering, never entering the promise land (Num. 32:13).
Maintaining continuity with the Old Testament, and especially holding Jesus’ wilderness trial as the paragon, the church enters the season of Lent. Since the third century, countless congregations have participated in the drama of Lent that reaches its high point on Good Friday when the Messiah was crucified for us and for our salvation, only to give way to corporate relief on Easter morning with Christ rising from the dead. Lent was a church affair. We repented together, we mourned together, we celebrated together. It was all decidedly low tech: personal presence, Word, Sacraments, brotherly consolation, encouragement. Christians touched and ate and celebrated together in 3-D.
Today, however, Lent seems to be suffering at the hands of a technological society. There are indications that Lent is being recast as a personal, private experience, evidenced by rarely attended midweek Lenten services. What was once a parish exercise is now more frequently referred to as an individual experience, enjoyed from the comforts of home where you can WiFi a 4G network for your online, quiet-time devotional, and omit that chocolate in the cupboard.
But social media and Christian individualism are quite unlike church. In church, those from whom you might otherwise decline an invitation to be your Facebook friend sit down next to you, hold your hand during the Lord’s Prayer, and may even share a common cup with you during communion.
The church walking together in the rhythm of the church year—marking the calendar with the events of Christ’s life—gathers as the body of Christ to repent of sin and strive for spiritual renewal. Lent is a season where one’s spiritual life is seen to be truly part of the entire church. Lent, then, is unaccommodating to “Lone Ranger” Christianity, because Facebook cannot substitute for a fellowship hall, let alone the communion meal.
When there is no governing event or overarching story to persist with us throughout the weeks and months of the year, such as the communal experience of journeying through Lent to Good Friday and Easter, then each day is a struggle to be oriented to the church. Keeping time according to Christ’s life, however, gives us a compass on our journey “to that city whose designer and builder is God” (Heb.11:10).
I never want to go back to the days without modern plumbing, dentistry, or smart phones. But given the way Christ built the church, we have to acknowledge that there is no “spiritual discipline” app. True penitence and Christian devotion require work with difficulty, which is why, historically, the church met together more frequently during Lent than any other season of the year—we were preparing for resurrection life together. As members of the body of Christ, our lives are intertwined, and we need the mutual support and encouragement we offer each other as we personally reflect on our sin and seek God’s mercy in Jesus the Son for relief.
When we live in a world where we have the opportunity to digitally project our ideal self on a website, admitting our own need can make us feel vulnerable. But that’s what Lent is all about: expressing our need for a Savior and the work of the Holy Spirit in the midst of this life and the support of the people of God.
In a Facebook world where social networks exclude and preclude, it’s time to once again consider something decidedly low-tech: the church, where God’s Word and Sacrament bond us together as the people of God making our way through life and even death. Jesus made us more than “friends” in the church; he made us family. So now let us move beyond the nominal associations of virtual friendship to the communal relations of a family who actually see and touch one another; and we find this honest, vulnerable community in the season of Lent.
Today’s technology (as wonderful as it may be) is ill-suited for the devotional life of Christians for Lent. That’s why I’m logging off social networks for Lent and taking up more time with the Lord who is personally present in his church.