Inhabiting the Christian Year: Lent

This is part 5 of a series exploring the Western Christian year (liturgical calendar). For other posts in this series, click a number: 12, 3, 4.

Cycles of Light and Life

So far in this series, following an introduction, we've looked at Advent, Christmas and Epiphany. These three seasons of worship comprise what is sometimes called the cycle of light because all three focus on the coming/revelation of Jesus, who is the light of the world and the light of life (John 8:12). That cycle is then followed in the liturgical calendar by the cycle of life, which includes Lent, Easter and Pentecost---three seasons that focus on the purposes for which Christ came, namely
the self-giving sacrifice of his life to free the world from the domain of Satan and thus secure forgiveness and healing for the peoples of the world. Consequently, as we reflect on both the cycles of light and life, we are drawn into the inescapable fact of how the birth and death of Jesus are of a single piece, a garment that cannot be rent in two without doing violence to the Christian message. (Ancient Future Time by Robert Webber, p. 95)
As Webber notes, these two cycles in the worship calendar are tied together in another way:
[They both] follow a pattern of expectation, fulfillment and proclamation. Advent is expectation, Christmas is fulfillment, and Epiphany is proclamation; Lent is expectation, Easter is fulfillment and Pentecost is proclamation. Thus there is a historical progression into both Christmas and Easter as well as spiritual procession from each. When we recall and relive the experience of God's people who pilgrimage into and out of the incarnation or into and out of the death and resurrection, we mark our own spirituality with expectation and fulfillment. (Webber, p. 95)   

Looking at Lent

Let's now focus on the meaning of Lent, a season of worship designed "to lead us into the very heart of the paschal mystery, the death and resurrection of Christ" (Webber, p. 96). During Lent (which lasts 40 days when Sundays are excluded), we prepare deeply for Easter, recalling Jesus' 40 days of trial and fasting in the wilderness as he was being prepared by the Spirit for his public ministry, which culminated in this death and resurrection.

Jesus' Temptation in the Wilderness (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and concludes the day prior to Palm/Passion Sunday (the first day of Holy Week). Ash Wednesday reminds us that, left to ourselves as sinful mortals, we are but "dust and ashes"---those destined for death. With this reality in mind, we approach the coming Easter celebration of our new life in Christ by humbling ourselves before God, our Redeemer. Ash Wednesday thus sets the tone for all of Lent---a tone of "humility, simplicity, sobriety and even sorrow" (Living the Christian Year by Bobby Gross, p. 128). However, Lent is not to be thought of as a season of overwhelming, debilitating sadness. As one theologian has noted, Lent is a season of "bright sadness," a season during which
we become especially mindful of the sinfulness that alienates us from God, indeed, of the human evil that nailed Jesus to those rough beams. And thus we lament with sadness. At the same time, we understand that by his death Jesus secured for us forgiveness and eternal life. We are like prisoners whose release draws near or refugees on our way back home or patients for whom the cure is working. Lent is sobering, but it leads to Easter!....
Even as we prepare for the anguished hours of Good Friday and the unfathomable silence of Holy Saturday, we anticipate the glorious joy of Resurrection Sunday. These six weeks [of Lent]... are like walking in a still darkened valley even as the morning sun lights the tops of the mountains around us. Bright sadness, indeed. (Gross, pp. 128, 129)
The readings specified in the Revised Common Lectionary during Lent lead us to consider the two sojourns of Jesus that bookended his public ministry---his time in the wilderness as his ministry began, and his time on the road to Jerusalem as his ministry drew to a close. During Lent, the Word and Spirit lead us to relate personally to both of these sojourns as we
look inward and acknowledge our human and spiritual vulnerabilities [and] look outward and weigh the cost of discipleship. Both involve... repentance. And while [during Lent] we usually don't put ourselves in a desolate environment for forty days, we can choose a posture of humility and undertake practices that sharpen our spiritual awareness. These include prayer and Scripture meditation, moral inventory and behavior change, fasting and other forms of abstinence, acts of generosity and service. As Jesus entered the desert keenly aware of his baptism, during Lent we too rehearse and reaffirm our own baptismal promises.... As we turn inward and turn Godward, we can trust him to turn toward us with spiritual grace (see Ps. 138:6, Jas. 4:6). (Gross, p. 128)
Whereas Epiphany (ending the the cycle of light) emphasizes the glory of Christ being made known to the world, Lent (which begins the cycle of life) turns our attention from light to shadows, to Jesus'
increasingly hostile opponents, his growing heaviness of spirit, and his ominous talk of betrayal and death. With the disciples, we grow uneasy, almost appalled. Human sin, corrupt powers, even raw evil comes into view.... We start Lent by joining Jesus in the place of solitude, we continue by walking with him toward Jerusalem and we end by kneeling beside him in dark Gethsemane. All along the way---the desert, the road, the garden---Jesus is tempted to go a different way, one that avoids anything like the cross. Repeatedly he says no. (Gross, pp. 131, 132)
The disciplines we voluntarily practice during Lent are not ways we try to earn God's favor. Nor are they ways we try to make a public display of piety. Instead, they are ways by which we seek to turn from a "self-centered stance to a grace-filled humility" (Gross, p. 134). They are also means by which we seek to break the grip upon our life of unhealthy appetites and destructive addictions. This does not mean that we are trying to overcome sin on our own strength. Instead, it means that, through these disciplines, we are entering vicariously into the sacrificial humility of Christ himself.
He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed. (Isa. 53:5 NET)

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