An Invitation to the Observance of a Holy Lent
My dear sisters and brothers in Christ,
The Lenten season is upon us! As of Ash Wednesday, we bade adieu, for a while, to the green of ordinary time which we’ve enjoyed in the season after the Epiphany, and we have now embraced the purple that ever reminds us of the inner reflection and penitence that are the hallmarks of the journey to Easter.
As you may know, the observation of Lent as a liturgical season has its origins in the disciplines and practices of the early Church. Easter, the great feast celebrating the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus, was understood from the earliest days of the Christian era to be a proper and fitting time for new converts to the faith to be baptized.
Preparation to receive the sacrament of baptism involved a great deal of prayer, instruction, study, prayer, contemplation, penitence, and prayer, in a process that took up to two full years. And the final forty days leading up to the converts’ baptism at Easter marked a period of particularly intensive prayer, fasting, prayer, devotion, prayer, penitence, and prayer (notice a theme developing here?).
As Christianity became culturally dominant, eventually more people became Christian by being born into families that were already Christian than by converting as adults. With that shift, the forty days leading up to Easter became a time of fasting, penitence, and (you guessed it) prayer for all Christians in preparation for the Feast of the Resurrection of Our Lord. In the modern age in the West, we begin our observance of Lent with the liturgy of Ash Wednesday, which allows for a period of forty days—not counting Sundays—leading up to the Great Vigil of Easter.
(Sundays are not considered part of Lent because every Sunday is a feast day of Jesus Christ and celebrates His resurrection; that’s why we describe each of them as, for example, the “third Sunday in Lent,” rather than the “third Sunday of Lent.”)
In preparing our hearts, our minds, and our souls, as well as our congregation and our community, for the highest of high holy days, the single most important feast in the entire Christian religion, we intentionally observe these forty days as a time for introspection, reflection, discipline (a time for us to be “disciple’d”), self-control, self-denial, and intensive prayer. In particular, we deliberately focus our attention upon our own mortality (right from the beginning with Ash Wednesday), our own heavy burden of sins (our specific individual sins and the collective stain of sin upon our communities, the burden of which we share simply because we are part of those communities), our need for Jesus as savior, and the importance of discipline as we seek be become ever more deeply conformed to Christ in our own lives.
This particular year, however, as many of my friends and colleagues have observed, it hardly feels like Lent is the start of a “new” season; emotionally (and even spiritually) for many of us, it feels as if Lent, 2020, never actually ended, and that this year we are simply moving into some sort of Lent ~ Phase II. That feeling, I think, is quite understandable. The pandemic that has isolated us physically from each other and cut us off from worshipping in community together has imposed upon us an array of sacrifices and disciplines that have significantly changed the way we live our daily lives.
How, then, do we even consider moving into a meaningful observance of a holy Lent this year? What more can God ask of us? … we might cry to the heavens.
We might just as well turn that question around, though: What more can we offer God? Is there anything that we could do that would ever be enough? Coming at the question from that angle might change our calculus somewhat, yes? And we must remember, moreover, that we are saved by grace through faith in Christ Jesus ~ there is nothing we need to (for there is nothing we can do) on our own to achieve or earn our salvation. It is a free gift from God.
Discipleship, however, is another matter entirely. That is work, and it is work that is never finished, not in this earthly life. Even something as seemingly simple as prayer is often hard work. One of my favorite stories from the Desert Fathers and Mothers of the Fourth Century puts it like this:
The brethren also asked Abba Agathon, “Amongst all good works, which is the virtue which requires the greatest effort?” He answered, “Forgive me, but I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God. For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey. Whatever good work a man undertakes, if he perseveres in it, he will attain rest. But prayer is struggle to the last breath.”
To what works, what struggles, are we called this Lent, coming as it does on the heels of such hardships already?
My friends, as we begin our Lenten journey together, as we make our way this year to the foot of the cross of Jesus Christ, I invite you prayerfully to consider that our work for this year’s Lent may be a true repentance, a true turning. This Lent, let us begin by transforming our hearts and our minds to see the hardships imposed upon us by Covid-19 not as unjust impositions and unfair burdens that we are forced to bear because we’re scared of getting sick, but rather as sacrifices we make and disciplines we willingly take on because we love each other and all of our fellow human beings, we respect the dignity of each and every human being, and we truly desire to serve God by safeguarding the people around us.
In other words, I’m not asking you to take on any additional burdens, to make any additional sacrifices. I’m asking us all to “turn around” how we see all of the hardships we’re currently enduring, to make them into the disciplines and sacrifices of a holy Lent, offered up in devotion and service to the One who sacrificed everything of himself for us on the cross of crucifixion. Let that be the Way for us who would follow Jesus through Lent to the glory of Easter.
Peace and blessings to you all,
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