It seems to me that in the modern American Church calendar, at least, Lent is kind of an unpopular season. Most people don’t commemorate Lent, and if they do, they think of it as the season when you give something up. For most, Lent is like going on a diet- no chocolate, wine, or Mexican food. And, even though dieting is a big industry, for the most part Americans aren’t great at dieting or denying themselves of much of anything, for that matter. Yet, Lent is so much more than a spiritual excuse for dieting.
Lent (meaning, “springtime”), if nothing else, is a season for renewal. It has its roots in the fourth century church, and is associated with fasting, penitence, and prayer. Lent actually requires work, as in “working out your salvation with fear and trembling,” (Phil. 2:12), but if we’ll do the work, we can realize greater intimacy, gratitude, and joy than we have known.
As a people, things like denial and moderation are not really our deal. We work to excess; we order things off Amazon we don’t really need. We don’t just eat; we stuff ourselves at meals and then snack in between. If a glass of wine is good, three are better, and there are pants and shirts in our closets we haven’t worn in years. Barbara Crafton notes that in those cold, stark moments, maybe few and far between, we realize: “I am driven by my creatures-my schedule, my work, my possessions, my hungers. I do not drive them; they drive me. Probably yes. Certainly yes. This is how it is.”
We live in a spiritual climate that often resembles a baptized version of the American Way. If I can just get this part of my life worked out, cleaned up or straightened out, things will be okay. God wants me to be joyful and happy, and this relationship, this job, or this habit is standing in my way. God wants to give me victory over it in order to realize all he wants me to be and have. Inherent assumptions belie this Way: that I’m actually not that bad, that only a few things stand in my way, and that if I just work hard enough or develop the right habits, I’ll be happy and healed.
But, Lent won’t let me off the hook that easily. It won’t leave me enslaved to my created passions, won’t let me believe any aspect of my being whatsoever is worthy of salvaging. Lent tells me I have to die.
Walter Wangerin reminds us that Lent, reflecting on the passion of Christ, his suffering and death, acts as a mirror. If I have the courage to look upon it, it reveals to me who I really am. Some aspect of me doesn’t really want to see this guy, doesn’t like him at all, wants to disassociate from him, to make excuses for him, to pretend like his isn’t really there. To just not look.
But, looking at the impassioned Christ shows me who I am. It reveals in me a selfishness so extreme that only the harshest penalty possible, the most exquisite pain, the deepest and farthest eternal separation between Father and Son, for all time in a manner of earthly hours, was necessary to kill it. The Cross strips me of all pretense, all ability to pretend that I’m something I’m not, that I’m anything other than completely, wholly bankrupt and dead. Wangerin: “So that’s what I see reflected in the mirror of Christ’s crucifixion: my death. My rightful punishment. My sin and its just consequence. Me. And precisely because it is so accurate, the sight is nearly intolerable.”
Yet, only when we have the courage to let Lent do its scouring work, like debriding a wound, do we have a real chance of healing. Edna Hoag says that the purpose of Lent is to arouse the sense of sin, so that we can be convicted by our sin. Conviction leads to repentance that makes forgiveness possible, and unleashes the grace of Jesus. Forgiveness of our sin and the grace upon grace of Jesus, realizing that we are loved and forgiven, gives rise to gratitude, and gratitude motivates us to love others and work to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord.
Our sin can’t be ignored, negotiated with, mitigated, or managed. It must be killed, and it’s healthy and good to hate evil in our lives. It wasn’t a “one and done” the day we asked Jesus into our hearts. Taking up our cross means crucifying our sin every day, and being willing to do the work of asking the Lord to continually reveal areas in need of repentance, forgiveness, and restoration. We join with Christ in his death so that we may also align with him in his resurrection.
And, finally, denial and fasting are also a part, certainly not about dieting, and maybe not as much about training my heart or my stomach to do without, but perhaps just to remind me from time to time of how little I actually need to live that’s not Jesus.
There’s a place of intimacy with the Lord, a receptiveness to his voice, a joy in his presence, and a peace in trial and suffering that I don’t have right now because, no matter how far I have come, I’m still not as pure and holy or as hungry for God’s grace as my Spirit-streaked heart wants to be. And, the prayer, confession, repentance, and renewal of Lent is my pathway home.