We have entered the season of Lent, known by many as a time for giving something up, although why is a bit of a mystery. For Christians it’s a forty day time of preparation for the celebration of Easter. To make sense of it, we need to back up a little. Almost everyone knows that Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. It’s followed by the short season of Epiphany when we consider who Jesus is – what does it means to say he is messiah, Son of God? For whom is he messiah? For that matter, what is a messiah?
Lent comes next, starting with Ash Wednesday. Ash because we are reminded of two difficult realities: we aren’t immortal, made of dust we will return to dust; the dust of which we’re made we share with all other created things, the divine that lives in us is in all of creation. The important question in Lent is, who are we? More particularly, who are we, each of us individually, in relation to and with others, creation, and God?
Episcopalians are invited to observe a holy Lent through prayers, fasting, self denial, and reading and meditating on scripture as a way of making a right beginning of repentance. It begins with an Ash Wednesday service in which we do our best to be more honest with ourselves, and each other, about how we’ve failed to love ourselves and one another as we should; allowed pride, hypocrisy, and impatience to get in the way; are self indulgent and envious of others; are intemperate in our love of things and comfort; are inconsistent in worship; have made many false judgments; and contributed too much to waste and pollution.
In an age when we’re told to be self affirming through the power of positive thinking, and where many suffer from inappropriately low self esteem, it can seem like an oppressive anachronism, but wait. Sometimes we need to be honest about not being the paragons of virtue we like to think we are. It’s not for the purpose of self condemnation, but for hitting the reset button to get started again in a new and better way. And nothing helps to make a new beginning possible more than God’s own words of forgiveness and promise of new life in spite of our weaknesses and failures. It’s all part of a holy Lent.
A renewed right beginning of repentance is not a call for moping in guilt while trying to turn one’s life around. It’s about being more honest with ourselves about who we are, recognizing more fully that Jesus is with us, for us, loves us, and will lead us into a better life. It means making mid-course corrections to more faithfully follow where Jesus leads. There is a kind of liberating joy in making an honest confession, accepting the saving hand Jesus extends to lift us up, brush us off, and walk with us on the way.
I’m deeply saddened for those raised in traditions where sin and damnation were pounded into them along with faint hope that they might be saved from hell if only they believe the right way in the right words. It’s not what Christ is about, and it trivializes the restorative power of a holy Lent. In like manner, I’m saddened by those who’ve put their faith in various self help gurus and therapy made into religion. They are missing out on the power of Almighty God made known to us in Jesus Christ through whom there is sure and certain hope.
The ancient church made Lent a time of welcome and learning for those who wanted to know more. It was also a time when those whose way of life had separated them from fellowship were invited to make a new beginning in renewed fellowship. We’ve gotten away from that in recent centuries. It’s time to get it back in ways that make sense for times and places in which we now live.