For most people, saints only "live" in stained glass, oil paintings, and statuary. Sure you might bury a statue of St. Joseph upside-down in your front yard to facilitate a house sale. Or perhaps your children get ramped up waiting for the arrival of St. Nick on Dec. 25. And in the midst of a winter cold snap who wouldn't want to, as Jimmy Buffett sings, "fly to St. Somewhere?"
Yet so often we trap and immobilize and trivialize the saints we honor by holding them hostage in works of art or the pages of musty tomes. We forget these spiritual heroes were human beings just like me and you. They had blood coursing through their veins; they were passionate about their faith even as they struggled with it; they experienced the wide range of human emotions -- including the "unsaintly" ones; and they were far from perfect. In other words they weren't born with halos and saintly auras and perfect skin.
The Church's season of Lent is the perfect time to reencounter and meditate on the lives of the saints. Learning about those who have come before us in the faith is enriching for us "ordinary people" -- not because their lives guilt us into more "saintly" behavior but because their humanity itself offers inspiration and spiritual bread for the journey of life. These holy men and women were all complex, three-dimensional individuals who lived with and among us rather than eternally imprisoned in beautiful environments like the Louvre or Westminster Abbey.
Lent itself is based on the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan River. It is a time of spiritual fasting for Christians as they prepare for the Resurrection feast of Easter that immediately follows. Though it's true that for many, Lent is most closely identified with giving up chocolate, which is odd since Scripture never mentions the devil tempting Jesus with a Hershey bar. And if that's all there is to it, we're giving Lent, Jesus, and even chocolate short shrift.
Yes, Lent is a time of penitence and spiritual self-reflection; it is a time to grow in our faith and practice disciplines that bring us closer to the risen Christ. But that doesn't mean our Lenten disciplines must be dreary or grim or that the entire season must be full of doom and gloom. After all, what could be more joyful than a season specifically set aside to get closer to God?
As a big sports fan, I love the excitement of the NCAA Tournament -- it's the only thing that gets me through the sporting doldrums between the Super Bowl and baseball's Opening Day.
But a couple years ago I thought, why should college basketball fans have all the fun while we Christians sit around giving up chocolate? Thus Lent Madness was born as a unique online devotion that allows people to learn about the saints in a fun, engaging manner.
Passions run high when you place 32 saints in a single-elimination bracket and let people vote for their favorites. You might encounter Mary Magdalene clashing with Joan of Arc or Dietrich Bonheoffer squaring off against James the Apostle as they compete to win the coveted Golden Halo.
Of course the whole concept is absurd -- all these giants of the faith have already earned their own personal "golden halos." But what they all have in common is a unique and single-minded approach to serving Jesus Christ. Ultimately only one saint will prevail in Lent Madness; the rest will taste the bitter agony of defeat. Which, if they were martyred in the first place, merely adds insult to injury.
As this year's Lenten season winds down, I encourage you to engage with the saints through reading and prayer rather than simply staring at them. I guarantee you'll be inspired and surprised by the stories you encounter. Plus it's good for the soul.
The Rev. Tim Schenck is Rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts. Visit him on the web at www.frtim.com where you can access his blog Clergy Family Confidential.