Lent is nearly upon us. It begins on Wednesday, February 17 and continues until Easter weekend at the beginning of April. Once upon a time it was a season observed with great solemnity in worship and daily life throughout the Christian world. These days, various denominations observe it not at all, while it is of great importance for others. Regardless of denominational practice, ordinary daily life for the average Christian is likely to be unaffected, except when at worship in churches that are serious about Lent, made more problematic by pandemic restrictions on in person gatherings.
If you ask random people on the street what Lent means, the most common answer, other than “I have no idea,” is it’s a time to give something up, like candy, alcohol and things like that. “Why?,” you ask, and the answer will likely be a blank stare. Will you get a better answer if you ask random Christians? Maybe not. While clergy are known to give brilliant sermons on the meaning of Lent at Ash Wednesday services, they’re generally attended only by the pious few. For most irregular church goers, the six Sundays in Lent are marked by liturgical strangeness that are a bit odd, which means it’s Lent, and that has something to do with preparing for Easter, but that’s about it.
I don’t think it’s helpful to go on about what Lent used to be and expect average church goers, or the vaguely curious, to be inspired by it. More important is to open the doors to what Lent can be today for those even slightly interested in deepening their experience of Christian faith. That may be especially true in our time of pandemic with its economic and social dislocations that have erased the old normal, while holding before us the possibility of an ill defined new normal almost but not yet here.
It’s a time that cries out for restored meaning to life and hope for a better future in a wildly unpredictable world. It won’t be a return to the old ways, and how dependable can new meaning and hope be when the future is unknown? On what, if anything, can a person depend that will remain rocklike steady amidst chaotic change? Following the failure of social progress destroyed by WWI, an entire generation of thinkers proclaimed there was no hope, no future. Life was pointless, a matter of chance. Just getting through without premature death was the best one could expect.
Christians know there is a different way. Life is not meaningless, hope is not in vain, and Lent is the season set aside for discovering unshakable meaning and hope on which one can depend in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In other words, for us in today’s world, Lent does not begin in sackcloth and ashes of penitent self abnegation. It begins with the Easter proclamation of resurrection. In that sense, Lent doesn’t begin on Ash Wednesday, but on the Sunday before, the Sunday in which we remember that Jesus was fully revealed to several of his disciples as God incarnate in his mountain top transfiguration. It is the promise that each person’s life is known and loved by God, that it has purpose and meaning beyond the conditions in which it finds itself, that in death, life is not ended but changed. Moreover, the promise of meaning, purpose, and love isn’t something to search for, it’s given. It needs only to be received as in the words of the old hymn, “Just as I am.”
It’s from that beginning that the curious, the desperate, the seeking, the doubtful, the hurting, the fearful can be invited to observe a holy Lent of self-examination, reflection, guided study of God’s holy Word, and to make a new beginning of life in communion with God as revealed in Christ Jesus. Lent becomes a time of slowing down, a time to surrender anxieties to God’s care, and to learn with greater certainty who Jesus is and why he can be depended on, no matter what conditions of life are experienced.
Lent is a time to be reminded that the bible contains the stories of time and lives more uncertain, unpredictable and dangerous than our own. They’re stories of God’s abounding and steadfast love that cannot be shaken by destructive human behavior, and of persons living in communion with God giving them unshakable confidence no matter what conditions of life they endured. It’s what explains Paul’s confession that he would trade nothing for his life in communion with Jesus, in spite of imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, hunger, poverty, threats from bandits, and betrayal.
From the mountain of transfiguration to the cross of Good Friday, Lent is a time to explore the depth and breadth of human existence we all experience in part. It ends with rationally predictable circumstances condemning Jesus to death as a common criminal by crucifixion on a cross. Were that the end there would be no hope, no future; life would be pointless, a matter of chance. There would be no God. We would be alone. Just getting through without premature death would be the best one could expect. But it was not the end then, and it is not the end in our own uncertain time. What was revealed to a few on the Mount of Transfiguration was revealed to all humanity in the Resurrection. Jesus, the word of God made flesh, was not dead. The word of God spoken through the pen of Isaiah centuries earlier was true: “…my word that goes forth from my mouth…will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.” (Isa. 55)
Life has meaning because it is loved, individually, by the one who is life itself. There is no other. Life’s purpose is to contribute, in any way, big or small, monumental or trivial, to the well being of others, and of all creation. That is why the curious, the desperate, the seeking, the doubtful, the hurting, the fearful can be invited to observe a holy Lent of self-examination, reflection, guided study of God’s holy Word, and to make a new beginning of life in communion with God as revealed in Christ Jesus. Lent becomes a time of slowing down, a time to surrender anxieties to God’s care, and to learn with greater certainty who Jesus is and why he can be depended on no matter what conditions of life are experienced.