Genesis 9:8-17 Psalm 25:1-9 I Peter 3:18-22 Mark 1:9-15
It’s Lent – a season that we are asked to recall and confess our sins. Whoever we are, sin affects us profoundly. The word “Lent” means “long spring days.” Lent begins the journey toward the cross, and toward the tomb, and the mysterious, unending joy of those who found it empty.
Joan Chittister tells us that to understand Lent and its characteristics, we must wander back and forth through the history of the church. Its sense of purpose developed over time. By the year 330, the forty days observance of Lent was common in the early church. But the community was only granted religious tolerance in 313. It is significant that the church found a way to observe Lent long before it was safe to do so. As a comparison, Christmas was not a universal feast until the sixth century. Clearly, Christ’s Passion and Resurrection were a central part of the Christian calendar.
Every Sunday for centuries, the Paschal meal has brought the Christian community together to celebrate over and over again as an awareness of Jesus’ words – “Do this in remembrance of me.” The memory of Christ’s Passion is a living and vibrant one.
Chittister reminds us that no rules were needed to keep this community together. No laws had to be passed to maintain it. No regulations requiring the celebration of the Eucharist were written for centuries. It happened then, as the hope of Jesus’ return had changed from the sense it would happen “now” to the realization that it was “already but not yet.” Jesus was alive in the community even though His risen return as they had envisioned had not yet to come.
The Resurrection, the triumph of Jesus over death had already happened but was not yet fully accomplished. Jesus was not again present in real time. Until that happened, it is up to the community itself to be the presence of Christ on earth. Until then, it is here in the Eucharistic meal, in the memory of the cross and the empty tomb, the Ascension and Pentecost, that the Christian community grows more and more deeply into Jesus. And just as significantly for the world around it, it is here that the Christian community renews its responsibility to go on together in Jesus’ name.
The question is, how? And why? The practices that grew up around the commemoration of the death and Resurrection of Jesus evolved from place to place over time. One common thread of understanding linked all of them together: the common awareness that Easter was not the Christian Passover. No, Easter was different in meaning and in purpose from the Jewish Passover.
It is this difference between Easter and Passover, that Lent is designed to prepare us. For the Jew, Passover is a sign of salvation, of “God with us” at a particular time in the past. For the Christian, Easter is a sign of “God with us” in the past, but with us now also and at a time to come, as well. Chittister says that this single conscious concept is the life-breath of the faith, a life in Christ, and of the Christian witness now and forever. Each year, Lent calls each of us to renew our ongoing commitment to God and the importance of the Resurrection in our own lives, here and now. But that demands both the healing of the soul and the honing of the soul, both penance and faith, both purging of what is superfluous in our lives and the intensifying of what is meaningful.
Lent is a call to renew a commitment grown apathetic by a life more focused on routine than reflection. After days and months of mundane regularity or unobserved following of our faith, Lent requires us, as Christians, to stop for a while, to reflect again on what is going on in each of us. We are challenged again to decide we do truly believe that Jesus is the Christ – and if we believe - whether we will live accordingly when we no longer hear the song of angels in our lives and the voice of God seems so far away.
Lent is not a ritual. It is time given to think seriously about who Jesus is for us, to renew our faith from the inside out. It is the moment when, as the baptismal waters flow on every Easter Vigil altar, we return to the baptismal font of the heart to say “yes” once more to the call of Jesus to “come and see.” It is the act of beginning our spiritual life all over again refreshed, renewed, and reoriented. Totally aware of the cross of Christ, we Christians go again to the tomb of the heart, stripped of its distractions, to say, “I believe.”
The question remains, “How should it be done?” Today, we read of Jesus’ baptism and his journey into the wilderness where he is to be tempted. He fasted for forty days and was not enticed to eat, but was fed by God. His time in the wilderness strengthened him, helped him focus and become who God needed him to be. Lent can do that for us. Chittister says that fasting exposes to seekers the distance between self-control and self-satisfaction. Fasting can mean many things – fasting from sweets, or chocolate or starches or Facebook or gossip – it doesn’t have to be totally not eating. There is always the option of adding something to our days to help connect with God. Many devotional books are offered during this time. The idea is that clarity of the soul and awareness of a life beyond the material things comes more easily when material things doesn’t smother us.
Lent enables us to face ourselves, to see the weak places, to touch the wounds in our own souls, and to determine to try once more to live beyond our lowest aspirations.
Having conquered our impulses for the immediate, having tamed our desires for the physical, perhaps we will be able to bring ourselves to rise above the need that consumes us. Maybe we will be able to control the anger that is the wall between us and the face of God. Maybe we will have reason now to give up pride – the pride that is a barrier to our growth. Maybe we will learn to give up our wants that deny us the freeing grace of simplicity. Maybe we will even find the energy to fight the complacency that deters us from making spiritual progress, the gluttony that ties us to our bellies, and the envy that makes it impossible for us to be joyful givers of the gifts we have been given.
Lent is the period in which, learning to abstain from adoring ourselves, we come to see beyond the divinity we have made of ourselves to the divine will for all the world. To give up worship of ourselves and our accomplishments and turn to fully worshipping God.
Lent is the time to simplify our lives, to be touched by God, so that we may touch the lives of others. A time of looking for resources of wisdom that will equip us to live authentically as God’s people, and inspire us to live in God’s grace.
When the voice from heaven told Jesus who he was, he attached no privilege of divine favor to that announcement. When the Spirit drove him into the wilderness, he did not seek a way out. The Beloved Son accepted the company God gave him in the desert – Satan, wild animals, ministering angels – with no drama of preferring one to the other. Here is someone who wastes no time defending himself against what comes to him, knowing that everything comes from God. Here is someone who shows us what it means to please God.
We are not in the desert, we are in the swamp, and we are going about our normal lives. The branches behind the altar remind us of Jesus’ time in the wilderness. The center vase is empty to tell us to empty ourselves as we journey toward Good Friday. The crown of thorns on the altar shows us the profound sacrifice of Jesus. Christ has asked us to be aware of his presence in our lives. Worshiping together is important, in person or virtual, praying while we move about during the day is important, but there is something essential in finding ourselves alone. Alone, we face a moment of truth. There is an unspoken question in the air. Is God here for me? Is God’s attention absorbed by the vast world, the need of the billions of God’s other children? Faith falters and we scarcely dare “bother God” with our little needs. Only this appearing before God alone can we come to know that God loves us, that God sees the whole world in each one of us and loves it. God cares for everything about us and in us. In knowing, we can begin our holy Lenten journey…Amen