“Lent begins with this realization. That we are a people in exile. That we are wandering far from our true home. And thus the beginning of repentance isn’t merely the terror that one finds in wandering in a strange land; the beginning of repentance is homesickness…..Lent teaches us to fess up to how often we settle down in the land of our exile as though it were our true home; attempting to still the yearning the Spirit has created by throwing at it physical or psychological pleasure, and how it never works.” courtesy of Pastor Will Weedon
Lent is a 40 day period leading up to Easter that is characterized by prayer, reflection, repentance and often fasting, then culminating in the celebration of the resurrection and the feasting of Easter. It roughly mimics the 40 days Christ retreated to the wilderness and wrestled with the devil. Many evangelicals reject ‘lenten’ observance because it’s just too Roman catholic and because there is no mandate for it in scripture. As a former evangelical, I can say that I’ve spent 30 years enjoying the ‘feasting’ of Easter without the penitential and preparatory time of Lent….and I wish I could go back and change that. I find that one of many benefits of following the traditional church calendar and being in a liturgical church is that nothing gets overlooked. It’s a methodical way of proceeding through the scriptures and it prevents such things as quickly glossing over the celebration of Christ’s resurrection without spending time in quiet reflection of His death on the cross, the mental anguish and suffering which took place while he was in the wilderness, and the details of the events of His life during Holy Week. It’s like walking in ‘real time’ with Him during the last weeks of His life. Is Lent discussed or commanded , per se, in the scriptures? No, but penitence and fasting and prayer are…..and what better time to observe a more rigorous christian discipline than as we reflect upon the last days and weeks of the life of Christ.
And we all practice degrees of discipline already. Lent is the spiritual equivalent of physical exercise for the body. The body gets stronger when we demand much from it….not when we always ‘give in’ to what it wants. The same is true in disciplining our children. Because we love them so much, we demand what is best for them….which is often not what they, in their immaturity, want for themselves. In C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain, he puts it this way:
“It is for people whom we care nothing about that we demand happiness on any terms; with our friends, our lovers, our children, we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging circumstances. God has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense………The Church is the Lord’s bride whom He so loves that in her no spot or blemish is endurable.”
…we are at present, creatures whose character must be, in some respects, a horror to God, and as it is, when we really see it, a horror to ourselves.”
God our Father, despite our unloveliness, has given us everything we need and has clothed us with the righteousness of Christ, but we, like Adam, want to ‘clothe’ ourselves. Lent is a time to strip down; to take off the filthy clothes of our own righteousness and to let our Father give us from His hand what He knows we need.
It’s like the picture of Stevie teaching Emme to fish. We learn from our Father by spending time with Him. There is much He wants to teach us and much that needs to be changed in us. But more than all that, He wants to give us Himself….knowing that we were created for relationship with Him. And that nothing will satisfy the deepest longings of our soul save Our Father’s perfect love. Lent is time to retreat with Our Father. To confess to Him that we have wandered so far from home and that we have become far too ‘comfortable’ in the pleasures of this life. To confess to Him how utterly dependent we have become on everything, but Him. And He will gladly ‘receive’ us back with open arms……not because we demonstrate to Him our growing discipline and holiness……..but for the sake of Christ……. and Him alone.
A few stray thoughts:
1. Lent is a time for penitence and reflection and the practicing of christian discipline. It does not make God ‘more pleased with me’ and is not a ‘good work’. God is pleased with Christ alone and good works are those things which I give in service to my neighbor.
2. If I purpose to ‘give something up’ for Lent and then two weeks later find that I fail and can’t keep my lenten discipline, God is not disappointed in me. God is pleased with Christ and thus pleased with me when I have faith in Christ. I am a sinner who fails and sins constantly. And my failing is not a surprise to God.
3. If I keep my lenten discipline to the ‘tee’, I must be careful not to try and convince myself that I’m ‘more spiritual’ or holy than before. I have been freely clothed with the righteousness of Christ and am only learning to ‘fit’ into clothes that were given me by God.
4. We must also be careful not to view our discipline as ‘suffering’ and remember that Christ suffered on the cross for our redemption and we do not get to choose our own suffering (by giving up, say diet pepsi for a month).
5. It is a good exercise to occasionally deprive our bodies….to not give in to every fleshly desire. We are so often slaves to our own bodies and teaching ourselves discipline in any area is often met with resistance.
The holiness into which you seek to grow has already been given to you, whole and entire! It’s yours in Jesus Christ, the gift of His righteousness fully bequeathed you in Baptism, and constantly renewed in you by absolution and the Holy Eucharist. Through these wonderful gifts, we get to GROW in the apprehension of that which is already our own, learning to live more and more from it, more and more from union with Christ and less and less from the old self. So it is not that holiness grows in you; it is that you grow in holiness! Getting used to whom God has made you to be in His Son.
There’s real effort here, of course, but the effort is working at resting in Him who works all things through us. I don’t overcome sin by my willpower (ha!), but by the strength of Him who has united Himself to me.