In C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the human children who venture to Narnia discover that because of the presence of the evil witch, it has been winter for years--always winter, but never Christmas. The phrase tends to create an immediate picture in a child's mind, a picture of bleak, dark days, blanketed by snow untrod by the feet of holiday merrymakers, cold without cheer, desolation unmarked by celebration or hope.
In our world today, we face a different problem than the problem of Narnia, a problem of equally skewed priorities, and equally bereft of the spiritual balance we need. In a post-global consumer paradise, it is always Carnival, but never Lent.
The extravagant parties of Carnival or Mardi Gras will not be followed by a season of self-abnegation and sacrifice for many of the revelers who take part in these excesses, it is true; but even more to the point, our whole American economy is structured in such a way that the very idea of Lent seems almost un-American.
Willingly forgo the little consumer luxuries that make life so pleasant and pleasure itself so easily obtainable? Do without the Starbucks coffee or the daily trip to the vending machine for a cola or a snack? Give up the purchase of a new outfit, new shoes, new handbag etc. simply because you don't actually have to have them? We know the truth--we don't actually have to have any of this stuff; but that's a heresy against our current society, and the social pressure to indulge, indulge, indulge continues to grow as our greedy corporations become increasingly dissatisfied with even double-digit annual profit increases, wanting more and more.
The advertisers and marketers who work for these huge corporations play a constant and seductive song that soothes our ears and opens our wallets. The song hints that the good life can be ours, for such a small, insignificant price. It lulls us into a state where we start to believe that we should have all those good things we see before us; we start to think that the good life of materialism is our inheritance, and rather like the Prodigal Son we want it now. The new, the improved, the things we know our neighbor already has, the things we think we are somehow owed--all of these can start to crowd out our relationship with God, as we move beyond life's necessities and start to concentrate too much of our time and energy on wishing for the luxuries, wishing for everything to be of the best, letting our treasure be material goods, and our hearts be trapped among them.
But every year at this time, another song begins to play. As the raucous strains of Carnival music fade off into the distance, as the hour of midnight begins to chime, we hear the rising melody of an ancient tune that pierces through the siren song of materialism, a song of sorrow, a song of the consequences since the beginning of time of placing one's heart on a material object, even if that object was only a piece of forbidden fruit:
Remember, Man, that thou art dust; and unto dust thou shalt return.
For a brief moment of clarity we see the gauds and baubles of our earthly existence for what they really are. We see their worth, and especially how worthless they can be when instead of using them gratefully for God's greater glory we cling to them in selfish fear, half prideful of our acquisitions, half envious that what we have isn't as good as what someone else has bought.
We need this reminder. We, especially, in America need to be reminded that acquisitiveness is not at all a virtue, no matter what the clever advertisements try to tell us. We need to remember that nothing we have now will follow us into the grave, nothing, that is, of the material; only the spiritual treasures we have built up for ourselves, love of God and love of neighbor, will endure and cross the barrier of death with us.
The world is a carnival, an endless and mindless party for those who never reflect on their mortality, who know no good that can't be weighed or measured or priced or purchased. But for those of us who know that this life is as fleeting and fragile as a papier mache mask or a feathered fan, and that only eternity matters, Lent is a welcome and holy retreat from the ceaseless din of the material world, a time to look deeply into the mirror of our souls. For we are dust, and the time of our returning to the life that lies beyond the flesh is closer than we can imagine.