So we step into Lent once more. The dusky browns and grays of a Texas winter seem perfectly to fit the spirit of the season. But, the naked, dormant trees are budding. I saw a young maple today against the Western light of the descending sun and it was crimson in the flower of spring (spring comes early in Texas). The season of Lent co-mingles the grays of winter and the colors of spring.
Spiritually, Lent co-mingles sin and grace, weakness and strength, mortality and everlasting life, and the vanity of life under the sun with the hope of life in a renewed creation. Lent gives a script, a score, to the groanings of creation, and even the groanings of those who have the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:18-27. These groanings are birth pangs, filled with the anticipation and hope of the new birth of all things, seen first in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
So why has the Church through the ages participated in the Lenten season with ashes, confessions, fastings, contrition, penitence, and other voluntarily acts of self-abnegation? Let me suggest a few things to help you navigate your journey through Lent.
First, like all of the Church's Calendar, Lent guides us into the Gospel, the Story of Jesus and His Kingdom. Lent brings us in our own time to share in the time of Jesus. Lent leads us to the beginning of his sufferings and then leads us to the apex and nadir of those sufferings in Good Friday. In an odd way, this was done through much of my Christian life (before I began to deliberately practice Lent) in the gospel songs we sang.
For me it was in the Garden
He prayed 'Not my will, but Thine,'
He had no tears for His own griefs
But sweat-drops of blood for mine.
Fasting alone in the desert
Tell of the days that are past;
How for our sins he was tempted,
And was triumphant at last.
These are just two examples of songs from a non-liturgical tradition leading us into the reality of Christ's life of suffering. They are "Lenten" meditations.
The Church Calendar, in Advent, in Lent, in Eastertide, leads us profoundly into a re-enactment of the Gospel, not in any sense as a re-doing of the finished work of Christ, but as a profound sanctification of our hours, days, weeks and months, immersing us in the Story of Jesus. Lent reminds us that Jesus suffered temptation in every respect as we do, that because he suffered, he is able to empathize with our temptations, and that in his heart-felt identification with us in his full and true humanity as the Son of God, he is able to succor us, that is, "to come to our aid." The season of Lent takes us back to the Life of Christ and brings forward the Life of Christ to us.
Lent reawakens us to the reality of God's love and saving grace. The Anglican Reformers were deeply concerned to reinterpret Lent in these terms. This is seen in Archbishop Thomas Cranmer's Collect for Ash Wednesday:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Cranmer in this prayer takes us by the hand and leads us into the Lenten season, a season gray with winter, but drenched in the soft rains of early spring. These rains are the love and mercy of the God who has revealed himself in our Lord Jesus Christ. And where do we see this love? In the life and sufferings of Christ.
From the wilderness temptations and fasting, to the Garden and its agonies, to the direliction of the Cross, Lent sets forth the love of God in its most exquisite forms, love that suffers for others, in the place of others, holy love suffering for fallen, sinful, rebellious men and women.
Finally, Lent brings us to a fresh awareness of our sinfulness and of our need for lamentation and repentance.
True Christianity is a penitent faith. It sees the sinfulness and horror of sin, and, facing this reality about ourselves, it moves us to reject and renounce ourselves and our works to trust the Loving God of the Christian Message.
The acts of self-denial that Christians engage in during the season of Lent are not performances whose goal is to satisfy and placate an angry God. They are, rather, acts of self-negation that are motivated by a profound sense of gratitude to a saving God, the God who has given himself for our sins- in bloody sweat, suffering, and death.
This penitential color, symbolized in the purple color of the season, is a color that dyes all our life and acts. We are sinful, God is gracious. We are unworthy, God is generous. We are needy, God is full of largesse. The Anglican poet, George Herbert (whose birthday we recognize on the 27th of this month), puts it succinctly and beautifully in his poem, "Bitter-Sweet."
Ah, my deare angrie Lord,
Since Thou dost strike;
Cast down, yet help afford.
Sure, I will do the like.
I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve:
And all my sowre-sweet dayes
I will lament and love.
It is in the spirit of these three things that in enter again the season of Lent. It is by these three things that I navigate these forty days before Easter. In them is memory, confidence, and self-awareness. We need each of these things and all of them together to be finally, fully human.