Lent is Church language. For countless jaded Christians the word implies little more than hypocrisy and self-righteousness. For others it’s that time of year to give up coffee or baked goods for a few weeks. When some think of it, this might pop into their heads: “It seems like I remember my sin enough without smudging it on my face and going without my favorite drink for a month and a half.” I invited a friend to the Ash Wednesday service with a local Catholic congregation and this was his response: “Nah man. I like my coffee.” And then he added, chuckling, “When I hear ‘Lent’ I think of my Catholic friends giving up some piddly thing and making a big deal about it on Facebook.” He has a legitimate critique. There are, in my experience, a precious few who really get the point of dabbing a bit of ash on their foreheads. And that is, in part, why I’m writing this series.
In an article written by an Anglican from the Order of Julian of Norwich, the author says this of the language of Lent:
Spiritual authority has been drained from these words; to a great degree they have become old, punctured vessels which have long since leaked out their wine. If they do retain meaning for some, it is often of an antipathetic character; they are words signifying psychological abuse at the hands of an aggressive, punishing Church. Simply put, our language has lost its spiritual authority because, to my mind, it has not been used with honesty nor as a sacred means of grace, as sacred vessels which can potentially bear the wine of God’s direct word to the soul.
(A Retreat given to the Clergy of the Diocese of Fond du Lac in Lent, 1998)
I want to attempt to bring honest life back to dying language.
Before you begin reading, please take a few moments to center yourself. Ask the Spirit to make himself known to your heart and mind. Thank the Father for all you have, and center your attention on Jesus, the wise King.
In many traditions, the liturgy of the first Sunday of Lent (February 17th this year) begins,
Father, through our observance of Lent, help us to understand the meaning of your Son’s death and resurrection, and teach us to reflect it in our lives. Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
This prayer reflects the essence of Lent. It’s a season to directly and intentionally reflect on what the death and resurrection of the Son of God really means. And we do this so that in our daily lives we’ll open up a way for Him to shape us more and more into His own awesome image. This intentionality begins on Ash Wednesday with a reflection on our sin and a turning toward God for redemptive healing through his powerful grace. Not just individually, but collectively as the Church and the human race as a whole.
Mindful of the prayer given above, take some time to read over the following passages from today’s lectionary: Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, Psalm 51:1-17, 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21. Today I’m going to focus on Psalm 51 and 2 Corinthians 5:20b-21.
In Psalm 51 we see the Psalmist wrestling with his own sinfulness, pleading with God to make him clean again. He recognizes the goodness of God’s presence and he knows that God has the power to make him clean and justly acceptable. He knows that YHWH is a God of abundant mercy and steadfast love and therefore, even in the midst of his sin, he longs to turn his face back toward his King.
In 2 Corinthians 5:20b-21 we see hints of the Psalmist’s prayer, and we see how a holy and just God is able to show grace, even in sin. I’ve found that in reading the same translation, scripture tends to thoughtlessly rhyme through our minds. And so, to get you thinking, I’ve given my own translation of vv. 20b-21.
We beg of you on behalf of the King, be reconciled to God! He made the one who didn’t know sin to be sin, for our sake, in order that we might embody the just character of God.
Paul is pleading with those in Corinth who have found themselves attracted to this God on a cross. He wants them to pray in the same way as the Psalmist in Psalm 51.
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit. (ESV)
“Be reconciled to God!”
Be reconciled, because through our King, Jesus, God has made it possible for us to embody his just character. He’s given us full access into his presence, for our sake!
Rest in His presence, in Him whose name is Faithful and True, this season of Lent.
When you fast, don’t do it as a show. Don’t post it. Fast for your Father who sees what you do in secret. As Emerging Scholars, or those interested in scholarly things, how can we fast in a way that will drive us to look to, and thus be more like, Jesus? This coming Sunday the liturgical gospel reading is Luke 4:1-13. A good place to start for us might be the second temptation: the kingdoms of the world.
And so, toward making this year’s Lenten fast relevant, viewing it as an avenue through which life flows, I’ve got a few suggestions. Instead of giving up Facebook or our commenting on social networks (e.g. blogs, news sites), why not give up their being a means to our own gain or rightness, seeing them instead as tools for encouragement, for bringing life to others instead of ourselves? Instead of giving up blogging, why not use our blogs to bless, and fast instead from checking blog stats? (Those stats, if we’re honest, only fan the lustful flames for perfection and power, productivity and popularity.) Instead of giving up email and cell notifications, why not fast from them for the first hour of the day and give that time to prayer and meditation–time with our simple and pure first Love?
All of these are somehow related to productivity. Their relinquishment drives us not only to reliance on Jesus for gratification (instead of ourselves and others), but to a renunciation of control over the day’s production. Think about what these strongholds of power and production are for you. Ask the Spirit to reveal to you those things that are binding up your heart and keeping you from Him, from real Truth.
And, to honor my friend who quipped about people giving up piddly things and making a big deal of it, what if this year you don’t tell anyone except your Father about your fast? That is, incidentally, the message of the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday.
Remember your redeemer, love your neighbor, enjoy your salvation.
I hope you see more life in the words “Lent” and “Ash Wednesday.”
For more on Lent see Tom’s post from 2009 here. For a bit more exegesis on 2 Corinthians 5:21 (as well as some reflection on Jesus and new creation), see my recent post here. If you’re confused about Ash Wednesday, this is a really helpful link.
About the author:
My wife and I live in South Hamilton, MA where I'm pursuing an MDiv at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and she's serving as Intervarsity staff on campus at Northeastern University. I study Theology and History and Philosophy "as ends in themselves" (in the Aristotelian sense), as well as for a further, more complete end: a deeper understanding of my King and, thus, a more dynamic relationship with him.
I graduated this past spring (2013) with BA in Religious Studies (Hinduism and Buddhism concentration) and a minor in Classical Greek (Homeric/Ionic/Attic/Doric/Koine, appx. 8th BCE - 5th CE). The study of the ancient world in its original context and language fascinates me, especially that of the Early Christians, Ancient Jews and Hellenes.
For more of my writing, see my blog @ www.philotheology.com