Where Lent Does Not Mean Spring

Daffodil with spring snow
Licensed by Creative Commons (ForestWander)

Lent means Spring,” Lutheran pastor-blogger Diane Roth reminded readers recently. “It means lengthening days, opening the windows, letting in life and death, the things we can’t control. It means going to the cemetery and standing in the mud and snow and grass, where the pain and the hope are all mixed up together.”

It’s a lovely reflection, but the phrase that I found most important was parenthetical, embedded in a bit of etymology:

Lent is short for “lengthen.” Someone, somewhere noticed that (at least in this hemisphere) the season of Lent was accompanied by the lengthening of the days.

Having spent the past week revising for publication my paper on the need for American religious historians to recognize that Christianity’s demographic center has shifted dramatically southward, it struck me that Christian writers in North American and Europe should probably have a macro set up that lets them easily insert “(at least in this hemisphere)” into any essay, blog post, op-ed, or other piece in which they’re tempted to make the grand claims that came so easily back when their regions lay in the middle of Christendom’s map.

So let’s practice reorienting and recognize that the vast majority of the world’s Christians live in the Southern Hemisphere, where Lent does not mean spring at all. In particular, consider Christians living in tropical regions, where there is hardly any seasonal variation in temperature.

Half a billion Christians, for example, live between the equator and the 10th parallel north of it, in countries like The Philippines (87 million Christians), Nigeria (81 million), Ethiopia (53 million), Colombia (43 million), Uganda (29 million), and Venezuela (26 million) and cities like San José, Freetown, Singapore, and Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala, the most Christian state (20% of the population) in India. Here’s the average high temperature (Celsius) for the typical months of Lent and Eastertide in just a few of the cities in this zone:

City February March April May
Lagos, Nigeria 33 33 32 31
Singapore, Singapore 31 32 32 32
San José, Costa Rica 27 28 28 28
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 24 25 24 25
Bogotá, Colombia 20 19 20 19
Map showing which parts of Africa are most vulnerable to desertification
Vulnerability to desertification in Africa – U.S. Department of Agriculture

There is variation, of course: the months of Lent in much of this zone — particularly in Africa — find Christians, Muslims, and others exiting the dry season and preparing for the rainy one. Only the rains have been coming later and ending earlier. Just last week, Nigerian meteorologists predicted — for a country that’s already facing substantial risk of desertification — that the rainy season wouldn’t begin until June and may finish before September, leaving open the possibility of a food crisis exacerbating the existing political and religious strife in that country. (And that’s just one part of the Global South where climate change endangers the food supply; that’s a central warning in a new UN report released today.)

The combination of climate change and religious tension in this part of the world is at the heart of Eliza Griswold’s 2010 book, The Tenth Parallel. The book starts on Easter Sunday, in a village on the border between Sudan and what’s now South Sudan. In the preceding weeks, hundreds of Episcopalian families had fled, in anticipation of impending attacks by northern soldiers just waiting for nomadic cousins to move on and out of the way as the rains returned.

In such a context, Lent is very much, as Roth says, about “the things we can’t control.” But while it isn’t paired with the lengthening of days, the melting of snow, and the blooming of spring flowers, Lent does offer a different kind of hope amid pain. Consider how Fr. John O’Connor discusses the season in this Food for Faith clip:

Of course, in New Zealand Lent means autumn, a slow, elegant transition into the darkness of winter. But I think the closing thought from O’Connor might fit in other places where Lent doesn’t mean spring or fall, but — because it walks us back to the Cross, and then to the Empty Tomb — does bring hope in the midst of strife and anxiety:

…in the place of our greatest struggle, this is where we most need God, and therefore God is able to enter our lives most fully. This is the point of our greatest capacity for the God who loves us and is waiting for every opportunity to enter our lives fully. In this Lent, let’s invite him to that place of greatest struggle in our lives.

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