Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell used to tell a story about a mission he flew in his F2H Banshee off the coast of Japan in 1950. He had missed the rendezvous point when his instruments mistakenly picked up a signal leading him away from his aircraft carrier. Lovell felt hopelessly lost as he flew circles in the dark over the stormy Sea of Japan. As he tried to use his map light, suddenly all of the electronics in the cockpit shorted out and everything went black. A bad omen he thought, until he began looking down at the water below. With the absence of light in the cockpit his eyes began to adjust to the dark, making it possible to see the faint trail of phosphorescent algae which had been churned up by the propellers of the carrier. He began to follow the trail which lighted the way home to the carrier where he landed safely. Were it not for the failed light and the resulting darkness, Lovell might have been forced to ditch his plane. The darkness saved him.
This story is a great metaphor for the observance of Lent. Lent is officially the forty days after we’ve stuffed ourselves eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday through to Good Friday excepting Sundays. It is meant to be a season in which Christians fast from something as a means of preparation for the celebration of Easter. Fasting — giving up sweets, coffee, cola, television, or meat on Fridays — are meant to help us see things in a new light. When we fast we voluntarily short out the cockpit lights in our daily routines, hoping that in the self-induced darkness we might actually be able to see our way forward a little better. And if ever a people needed to turn out the lights and sit in the darkness for awhile, it is us – right now.
Lent can be the antidote to our usual pursuit of self gratifying experiences or things which never bring as much pleasure as we thought they would anyway. We can unplug and actually see the way forward while everyone else is flying in circles over the Sea of Japan. Lent is our way of killing the lights that hide the way home.
Come on — give something up for Lent! Make it something tough. Challenge yourself a little bit. For forty days, give up your satiation, turn out the lights, sit in the darkness, gaze up at the night sky, and let the North Star lead the way home.