Lent: Public and Private Healing

Photo by Ian W Scott

Heather Walker Peterson begins ESN’s 2018 Lenten reflections with a two part series on Lent as Healing Time. Her earlier contributions to ESN, i.e., Giving Thanks, Releasing the Helm, Time Management, Writing as a Spiritual Discipline, can be found here. Thank you Heather! Note: Follow this link to explore ESN’s previous Lenten devotionals. 


Lent is a penitential season. If you’re like me, raised Protestant and still Protestant, your hackles might raise at the word penitential, which may knee-jerk translate to individual works rather than the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. But penitence within a historical context has moved me to change my mind on Lent. Lent is a time of healing.

Apparently institutionalized in the 4th century, Lent is a public fast. In origin, it was a time of publicly preparing converts for baptism. Its later delineation of forty days of fasting model that of Christ’s experience in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). We anticipate the commemoration of Christ’s death on the cross on Good Friday and the celebration of his resurrection early Easter Sunday.  While I may be fasting in awareness that I, an individual, sin, I join a great body of believers who are doing the same. In our context in which Christianity is under much criticism, sometimes for good reason, I have been longing for this season in which we publicly admit to our fallibility. In liturgical churches, we drop the alleluia, a medieval tradition, to remember that instead of singing praises, we are directing the weaknesses of our hearts toward Christ.

Lent crosses both the public and private spheres. Unlike those early converts, most of our fasting occurs at home, quietly at work or school, and occasionally together at a church service. Historical theologian Thomas O’Loughlin writes in Celtic Theology, that it was Irish monks who first envisioned private penitence in the fifth and sixth century. He claims that private penitence allowed the young church a way to attend to sins other than murder or fornication and provided forgiveness multiple times (in theory) instead of condemnation. Most importantly, influenced by the Eastern monk John Cassian, Irish monks shifted the metaphor of sin from not only crime but to sickness. Penitence was viewed as healing, and the ascetic behaviors of penitence would soften as they encountered the Irish monks’ continental counterparts.

Lent is a season of healing rather than one of works. My actions of fasting do not atone for my sin: Christ is the divine sacrifice. However, healing is something I have to be intentional about. When I am sick, I must refrain from many activities, drink plenty of fluids, and take my medicine. Choosing something to fast from each Lent is a reminder that I am never fully well spiritually without Christ. That I am dependent, and he is faithful. It is my yearly pill, which I want to quit taking because I feel fine without recognizing its gift in my life. Individually and together, by his stripes, we are healed (Isa. 53:5), as we await for Christ’s final return.

From The Book of Common Prayer 1979

Most merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against thee
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved thee with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.
For the sake of thy Son Jesus Christ,
have mercy on us and forgive us;
that we may delight in thy will,
and walk in thy ways,
to the glory of thy Name. Amen.

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Heather Walker Peterson

Heather Walker Peterson has taught in the Department of English and Literature at University of Northwestern—St. Paul, contributes to the blog humanepursuits.com, and tweets @languageNfaith.

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One Comment

  • scott.santibanez@tsm.edu'
    Scott Santibanez commented on February 25, 2018 Reply

    Thank you for sharing this thoughtful introduction to the series!

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