Grace and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Every year as we approach Lent, I am surprised at how many comments I hear or read about indicating that “Lent is not biblical.” When I come across such comments, I bristle a bit. I feel disappointment and frustration, and yes, sometimes even some anger when the person is particularly snarky about it. Of course, it isn’t biblical! No one is claiming that the season of Lent is biblical. It is no more biblical than Christians arbitrarily deciding upon December 25th as a good day to remember Jesus’ birth is biblical – not in the strictest sense anyway.
Yet, I fear these folks are missing the forest for the trees. They are sadly missing an opportunity to be blessed. There is no specific call for Lent in the Bible (no one is arguing that), and still, isn’t it remarkable that the earliest Christians found designating such a season spiritually helpful? During these forty days (not counting Sundays which are remembered as days of Resurrection), special disciplines are encouraged as they serve to nurture faith in the individual even as they might serve to witness to our faith and grow Christ’s Church. This season…a season designated by the community of faith for the good of all and to honor God…was found to be a meaningful, beautiful time of preparation for Easter. So, it became a yearly practice and was given a suitable name. The season became known as Lent, an old English word meaning spring.
Yes as with spring, we may witness new growth and new life during Lent. This is what we hope for during these forty days, but we may prevail upon its disciplines at any time of year. Such disciplines don’t lead to a reward for our goodness. They aren’t something we do to become holy, for we cannot become holy by our own power. Instead, such practices become our opportunity to “live in Christ” – to live out our faith concretely nurturing our love for God and others and thereby offering us a chance dwell in God’s grace and love for us. It is for that reason that we find such disciplines commended in the Law and the Prophets, and even by Jesus himself.
The Psalms are filled with such spring-like imagery as are the prophetic texts, and some of Jesus’ own parables. Our life with God is always filled with bounty and blessing, often symbolized by natural things: the streams that refresh us; or the trees that serve as protection or a home for God’s beloved creatures. For the many disciplines of Lent – reflection upon one’s life and repentance, fasting, prayer, and most certainly almsgiving and acts of mercy – they can become like the tall cedars of our faith providing us a safe dwelling place in this world of trouble…a place of comfort and shade, strength and renewal. Amidst their many branches, God embraces us. God can even transform us. This Lenten invitation to take actions rooted in our faith in Christ serves only as a reminder of what Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance.” It leads us toward a deepening unity with Jesus, both his life and in his church.
Indeed as someone said recently, “Ashes don’t say we’re holy. They say we’re sinners.” They are to reflect the ongoing prayers of our hearts, “I’ll try to be better. I’ll do what Lent asks: more prayer, more sacrifice, more almsgiving.” Western Christians whether Roman Catholic or Protestant desire to remember their total reliance upon God’s grace. “Remember you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” we are told. This life is fleeting, sometimes dangerous, and we at our best are only sinner-saints. We need the grace of Jesus Christ to help us make it through. The church as a community, as the body of Christ, commends these practices to us. Through them, we may be built up by God and encouraged to build up one another.
Using varied words throughout Christ’s diverse and universal Church, we hear as much during community worship on Ash Wednesday. For example, the Episcopal Book of Common prayer (not too unlike our Lutheran commendation to a holy Lent heard earlier tonight) rightly proclaims, “The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.”
So, we begin this season of Lent with ashes – a broken, struggling people – but also gathered together as one holy people of God. Our sin is systemic, shared and individual, but we are also chosen and loved. God plans for our redemption. In a time of trial for the nation of Israel, Joel commended these same types of behaviors. By their apathetic faith, unholy alliances with powers of this world, and acts of selfishness and sin, the people of God were at risk in those days. They were weakened as a nation by such behaviors, and a terrible plague of locusts put them further at risk – at risk of invasion, starvation, and suffering. Joel hoped that by immediate repentance the advancing threat would be turned aside by God.
Well, hear the Good News! Thanks be to Jesus Christ, we need not just hope. Salvation is ours. Forgiveness is possible, and it isn’t too late. No matter who we are, what we have done or failed to do, the grace of Jesus Christ invites us into his loving arms. These are days not of gloom and doom but of growing light. They are days to be celebrated. Through Christ’s cross, the sin of all who trust in him has been redeemed. His cross previously an instrument of torture and death became for us a forgiving place of shade where we can invite our friends and neighbors to also find rest. Through our baptism, we are clothed in Christ, the finest of garments, given new life and a new family of God. This is much as Zachariah and other prophets have promised throughout the ages. It is a new day, a final age where Jesus is coming back to complete his work, and we are invited. In our hearing, all God’s promises have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
As unworthy as we all might be, we are still loved by Jesus! And since we are so loved – loved unto his own death, Jesus invites us to gather, remember, and experience new life: remember our need for God; remember our failings and all the ways we turn away from God; and not least of all, remember all the grace-filled ways Jesus reaches out to us, drawing us back. We have this shared forty-day journey to re-experience Jesus’ parable of the vine and the branches. In this season, we will bear fruit by intentionally striving to remain in the vine which is Jesus. We admit openly that without Jesus we can produce no fruit, and so we turn to him all the more and hold on in faith. We will seek intentionally to better love God and our neighbor. We desire that this dedication and fruitfulness will not fade after forty days but instead last a lifetime. It will be Jesus who will use this time to prune us and bring new life. His light will overcome our darkness, and it will shine more and more brightly.
This is our Lent, our springtime given us as a gift in the present even as we await the eternal Easter of our future. Lent is more than a season of time. It is a call to a way of life, Christ’s way. It goes well beyond the Bible even as it is rooted in it, because together on this journey, we have the opportunity to personally encounter anew the living Word of God, Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. Amen.
The above pastoral letter was originally published in Messiah Lutheran Church and School’s newsletter, The Messenger (June 2013 edition). To view the entire issue of The Messenger or to see the full calendar of events, visit: http://www.mlcas.org
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.