J.R.R. Tolkien and the Season of Lent

Jon JordanJon R. Jordan

Dean of Students

Coram Deo Academy, Dallas, TX

One of my favorite bits of dialogue in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring confronts us with an age-old debate about spiritual disciplines in general, and the Christian season of Lent in particular. Before embarking on their Journey to Mordor, Elrond—the Lord of Rivendale—shares a final message with the Company that is to join Frodo on his quest: Frodo himself is bound to complete the journey, while the members of the Company are “free companions” that may “come back, or turn aside into other paths, as chance allows.” Gimli—the renowned Dwarf warrior—gives a response that begins the dialogue in question.
‘‘Faithless is he that says farewell when the road darkens,’’ said Gimli.
‘‘Maybe,’’ said Elrond, ‘‘but let him not vow to walk in the dark, who has not seen the nightfall.’’
‘‘Yet sworn word may strengthen quaking heart,’’ said Gimli.
‘‘Or break it,’’ said Elrond.
Gimli argues that a vow made on the front-end of a journey may serve as a sustaining force for when difficulty is faced. Elrond counters that, at times, the weight of such a vow might actually break one’s will along the way. Both positions are worthy of considering further, but what light can this conversation shed on the ancient Christian practice of Lent?

The Church calendar has historically served as a way to center our lives around the life of Christ, and the season of Lent serves (1) as an opportunity to re-live Jesus’ forty days of fasting in the wilderness and as (2) a period of preparation for our celebration of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. It has traditionally been celebrated as a season for (1) fasting, (2) the adoption of a new spiritual practice, and (3) giving of time and money to the poor. These practices are not particular to Lent, but are in fact some of the most central practices of the Christian faith, commanded repeatedly throughout the New Testament (see Mt 6:1-18). An important side-point here is that Lent, as a season that simply asks Christians to act as Christians, is a gift from God and should be received by all Christians as such.

So how then should we approach Lent? With Gimli’s determination and rigidity, or with Elrond’s patience and grace?

The Church’s answer to this questions, as is so often the case, is “yes” to both. Be like Gimli as you fight against sin in your own life and injustice in the world. Use this period of 40 days (plus 6 Sundays) to re-center your spiritual life. Don’t let the calendar of culture dictate your devotion to Christ. Put forth effort to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). On Ash Wednesday, the Church is somberly called to “the observance of a Holy Lent.”

But also remember that we are far more like the first Adam, who failed his temptation in the garden, than we are like the second Adam, who triumphed over temptation in the wilderness.

Be like Elrond as you let your failure during this season serve as another reminder of your need for a savior. Don’t let your adoption of new disciplines “puff up” your ego, but instead recognize them for what they are: gifts from God given to a sinner who does not deserve them. This is why the Ash Wednesday service has also traditionally included the imposition of ashes on the forehead while the phrase “remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return” is spoken as a reminder of our frail, fallen nature.

May this Lenten season be for us one more way “that we may remember that it is only by [God’s] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life” (Book of Common Prayer, 265).
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