A not-infrequent source of spiritual/religious insight for me is “The Simpsons.” I find a fair amount of truth hidden in or revealed by their generally irreverent (but not careless) approach to religion and religious people. As the Scottish poet Robert Burns observed, to see ourselves as others see us is God’s greatest gift, and the Simpson household has certainly helped me do that.
One evening while channel-surfing (an activity I may want to consider seriously one day as something to give up for Lent) I came across an episode in which Mother Marge is trying to keep her rambunctious kids amused, and goes to dig out some old board games from a cupboard. Among these was “The Game of Lent.” It was designed, of course, to look just like the board game “The Game of Life.” After my guffaw, and reversing the TV feed a couple times to watch that moment again, I got to thinking. I figured there would be something on the web about this on some Simpsons fandom page or other, and I was not disappointed.
The thing is, if you put “game of lent” into an internet search engine, you get images and links to LOTS of actual games about the season of Lent. There was Lentopoly (whose creators seemed unconcerned about trademark infringement), a number of variations on Lent Bingo—I particularly liked the ones where Easter was the “free” space—brackets for “Lent Madness,” and ready-to-print board games with, you guessed it, forty spaces. I was a bit troubled that some of these games ended at the cross on Calvary, or at the tomb, with no mention of/reference to Easter. I will confess that this internet search really led me down an Easter bunny hole, where I also discovered that there are far, far fewer games about Easter and the Easter season.
I certainly don’t object to using things like games to catechize about the liturgical seasons. They definitely have value in this regard, and it’s Human Pedagogy 101 that a way in which we learn (as children AND adults) is through games. I’ve lost count of the number of people I know with mind/brain-enhancing games on their phones. No reason, I guess, that we can’t or shouldn’t learn about Lent this way too.
Where our spiritual and liturgical formation tends to stumble is in thinking that Lent, like a board game, has two underlying realities: 1) the object is to follow the rules, and 2) it is a self-contained, temporally limited event. While neither of these are untrue, they are—in and of themselves—incomplete.
Of course, wherever the RCIA is fully and vigorously implemented, the game-related limitations given above are largely overcome. But where RCIA is still offered as “instructions” or there’s one “RCIA Mass” per weekend for five weeks, the issue remains. The disciplines of Lent are observed and then abandoned, spiritual progress gets put aside as the Easter chocolates are eaten, and the season as a whole really has no lasting impact on us as individuals, as faith communities, as larger communities, or as a church once the game is put away.
It is vital for those of us who prepare and present Lent liturgically for our communities to do so in a broader, longer-term, wholistic and connected way. We must offer formation that helps people grasp and live the reality that Lent has a destiny beyond itself. As the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and Calendar reminds us, this is first and foremost a baptismal season, it is the church’s springtime with life stirring and buds and blossoms beginning to appear, and while it is a time of restraint and even outright sorrow within Holy Week, the eternal bridegroom is still ever-present in our midst. It is a time to recall that, in Christ, we never say “Game Over.”