We are delighted that Bobby Gross, author of Living the Christian Year and who has contributed previous series during Lent and Advent, has agreed to write a new series of Lenten reflections with future pieces appearing on Mondays beginning February 26.
Why would anyone think of the penitential season of Lent as a gift?
Forty or so days leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday during which we deprive ourselves of good things—like coffee or chocolate or wine or social media—and fast on certain days and generally mull over our sinful condition. The starting point, Ash Wednesday, says it all: feeling a vague disapproval for whatever celebratory activity we might have enjoyed the previous day of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday!), we kneel to have a priest or pastor smear a cross of ashes on our forehead intoning “From dust you have come, and to dust you shall return.” “Organized gloom,” as one spiritual writer bemoans.
And yet this has been the practice of the great majority of church for seventeen centuries. And in recent decades, the observance of Lent has been spreading dramatically. Why is this season in the Christian liturgical calendar proving beneficial to so many? How can we experience it as a gift, a source of spiritual grace?
We might start with what the apostle Peter says about grace in his letter to first century Christians under cultural duress:
Grace finds those wearing garments of humility. Uplift comes to those who choose to humble themselves, to make humility a practice.
Peter, of course, is echoing Jesus here, undoubtedly remembering a certain argument among the disciples over which of them was the greatest, the most important, a dispute they were reluctant to admit when Jesus confronted them. Perhaps this heated contention had arisen in reaction to the way Peter, James, and John had centered themselves as they recounted their experience on the mountain where Jesus was transfigured. Jesus declares simply: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Later, on the night before his execution, Jesus indelibly modeled exactly this kind of counter-cultural humility: before beginning the Passover meal, he disrobed and wrapped a towel around his waist and, one by one, washed the dirty feet of his uncomfortable friends. He was enacting his love for them, even for proud Simon Peter and treacherous Judas Iscariot.
And this vivid gesture becomes an enacted parable of the self-emptying love at the heart of Jesus’ whole life: his relinquishment of divine privilege, his assumption of human nature, his willingness to serve people, all people, the lauded and the least, his obedience to his Father, even to the point of excruciating death on that horrid instrument of torture.
But then God exalted him, highly exalted him! Above everyone and everything.
Paul expresses this wonderous and holy mystery in a hymn-like passage in his letter to the Philippians and offers this takeaway for his readers:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others. Let the same mind[set] be in you that was in Christ Jesus.
Friends, such humility is so un-American!
So, maybe Lent can serve as a designated, which is to say, a sanctified period to practice this kind of humility under God and toward one another. To be deliberate for a time in sustaining this inward posture and its outward embodiment might allow us to shake of the dust of cliché from these much-quoted paradoxes: lose your life and you will gain life, give and you will receive, serve the least and you will be great, humble yourself and you will be lifted up.
This is how spiritual grace will actually come to us.
This is how the poor in spirit inherit the kingdom, the mournful find comfort, the meek inherit the earth, those thirsty for righteousness and justice get satisfied, and the pure in heart see God.
The word humility derives from the Latin humilitas meaning lowly, literally “low to the ground” or “on the ground” (earth, humus). So when the priest marks us with ashes and describes us as dust/dirt, it reminds us of our humble condition as human creatures and our need to live with humility before God and alongside others.
“Hence with humility,” says Richard Foster, “we are brought back to earth. We don’t think of ourselves higher than we should. No pride or haughtiness. No self-deprecation or feelings of unworthiness. Just an accurate assessment of who we actually are. Our strengths and competencies. And, yes, our weaknesses and shortcomings.”
As Foster suggests, humility is self-abasement, not self-erasure. We should carry ourselves with dignity, but not arrogance. We should be full of gratitude, but not self-entitlement. We should extend ourselves in service, but with no hint of superiority.
So, in humility, I invite you to join me in the “observance of holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; in prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (Book of Common Prayer). Whatever Lenten practice(s) we quietly commit ourselves to, may they serve to draw us into an appropriate humility. And may that humility yield for each of us unexpected dividends of grace.
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Over these next six weeks, I will write continue to explore this theme of humility in relation to five aspects of our human condition: our creaturely mortality, our moral culpability, our circumstantial precarity, our intellectual limitations, and our disabilities in seeking to change the world.
 Richard J. Foster, Learning Humility (IVP, 2022), p. 23.
 I Peter 5:5-6.
 See Mark chapter 9.
 Philippians 2:1-11.
 Foster, p. 10.