40 days of purpose?
40 days of love?
These are well and good, But it’s Lent.
It’s not my first, but it’s one I’m fully dedicated to, aware of the practices and times on the Christian calendar.
So the question is, what is Lent? Well, it began on wednesday, with ashes, the ashes from last year’s palm fronds from palm sunday. They get burned, to produce the ashes. While I was out on wednesday with the ash on my forehead, someone said “where does it say in the bible to put ashes on your forehead?” I was honest and said “It doesn’t. at least not the way we celebrate lent.”
In traditional hebrew grieving practices there was the whole, wearing sackcloth and anointing yourself with ashes, as part of visible mourning. This mourning was an important part of grieving, as was the practice of sitting sheva, the process of allowing someone to grieve in silence for seven days, and just sitting with them through those seven days.
Lent is part of the Church’s practice of shaping the entire year around Jesus. Most people in evangelical circles who lead worship, or love worship especially are often sadly constrained from the idea that Christianity shapes more than their weekly and daily devotion, it shapes our calendar, with seasons, with times, and reflections.
Lent, in Christian tradition, is the period of the liturgical year leading up to Easter. The traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer — through prayer, penitence, almsgiving and self-denial — for the annual commemoration during Holy Week of the Death and Resurrection of Jesus, which recalls the events linked to the Passion of Christ and culminates in Easter, the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
In short, Lent is about Justice. Three forms which we’ll examine in a bit.
There are traditionally forty days in Lent which are marked by fasting, both from foods and festivities, and by other acts of penance. The three traditional practices to be taken up with renewed vigour during Lent are prayer (justice towards God), fasting (justice towards self), and almsgiving (justice towards neighbour).
As you know, if you read my blog often, I define justice as God’s setting things right, both in the end, and in the inbreakins that happen here, furthermore that justice looks like God’s self-sacrifical love that we see in the cross especially, but throughout the whole life of Jesus.
So to be denotative: justice (n.) a theological event in which things are set right in accordance with the coming of new creation, this process happens through the sacrifical love of God and the believer which is enjoined to this sacrifice as a living symbol through acts of worship, penance and love.
I. Prayer- Justice towards God
Setting things right with God is something emphasized during Lent. As we remember the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness we spend them at His side in prayer, fasting, and repentance, we spend this time preparing for Holy Week, and Easter. We spend time getting our hearts right, receiving through our penitential acts and prayers a formation in visible holiness, working both inwardly and outwardly to cleanse ourselves, in proper appreciation to Our Lord.
We seek to make Justice with God through daily prayer, and a focus on repentant prayer especially. We through fasting and prayerful living and meditation begin to share in the sufferings of Christ. Through these acts and a constant meditation on needing repentance we are making ourselves vessels for God’s redemptive justice.
II. Fasting- Justice towards self
Learning to deny yourself is the first step in taking yourself seriously. If you treat yourself with full and perpetual indulgence, you do not respect yourself. We take this time in repentance to learn to put our bodies in submission to the Lord. This is the first step in learning to establish justice for our bodies. With prayer and fasting and sacrifice we make our bodies open vessels for bodily justice, for sharing in the sacrifice of Christ. Fasting is a historical Christian practice that makes room for us to contemplate the right things and to share in the sacrifice of our Lord.
Fasting teaches us to treat our bodies rightly, by placing them in the life of Christ, and while this is especially emphasized now, it is something we should perpetually seek.
III. Almsgiving- Justice Towards Neighbor
Giving alms is a visible manifestation of Jesus’ command to remember and care for the poor. This works in communion with the other two forms of justice, and keeps us in and with the sacrifice of Christ in the wilderness. This is a time to remember that we are at God’s disposal, and just as He cared for us for forty years in the desert with bread from heaven, he continues to do so with the body of His Son, Our Bread. In remembering this, we seek justice for those in need, the weak and the oppressed, remembering that we are judged as a whole by our care for these. If we forsake them, we too shall be forsaken. This also reminds us that the Church is where social justice begins, and while it is right to support causes or give to organizations outside the Church working for God, we remember that social justice isn’t added onto the gospel, it’s at the heart of the gospel, because for us, it is a form of worship.
Lent, Death and the Gift of Time
Lent is also a time to think on death, in the Christian fashion. Christianity’s reflection on death is not morbid, but it rightly sees death, and acknowledges it. For Christians, Death is the final enemy, the source of the corruption of the powers of the world, and the power opposed to life in Jesus Christ, who is the very goodness of creation itself.
I. It’s a time to think on Christ’s death, in preparation for Holy week we take this time to think on Our Lord, and His suffering. We think about his self-emptying love, and everything that means for us. We contemplate the whole life of Christ, and everything this means, the obedience in the wilderness, the love towards the people, the agony of gethsemane, the desolation of golgotha, the confusion of sunday, and the celebration of victory when he showed himself again. These are all things to focus on this season.
II. It’s a time to think about the cessation of our own mortal existence. The priest utters the words “From dust you came, to dust you shall return,” when he anoints us with the ashes of the dead palm fronds. This is a time to acknowledge our own mortality, and the large futility of seeking after things, and wealth, and fame and recognizing nothing we own will endure forever, nothing we strive for carries on, except the Christ-life.
III. We think about our death in Christ, that is, we remember our baptism, our putting to death of the old nature and receiving the seed of new creation that continues to grow in us. We remember that in baptism we have died, and that those who are to be baptized this easter will be joining the ranks of the dead among the living. They will be joining this Community of the Crucified, the ones who bear in their bodies the marks of Christ, who look like this messiah, because He has taken form among them in and through His Spirit. Repentance was gifted to us as a grace, and we have been made part of the messiah’s community, where He lives and reigns. Rethinking our lives around these three deaths is a gift to us, to help us focus on the justice God seeks to establish.
In this time we refuse to become morbid, and in so doing capitulating the resurrection to the cross. We refuse to let death have the final word, and we do so by focusing on manifesting justice as advance signs of the kingdom during this period of fasting, that we might know what purpose death serves, both in mind and in action. Yet we also refuse sentimentality, the idea that we have no room to really talk about death. We refuse the impulse to ignore death because that is just “negative talk.” In being faithful to the Church and the Scriptures, and in so doing, being faithful to God, we go about thinking about death the right way, in and with the aforementioned three types of death. If we do not think about these deaths and what they mean, we starve our imaginations of the justice required to imagine the Christian life rightly.
Lent then, is a gift. It is a time God’s Church has made available to us, for the ordering of our lives, and the re-Christification of our times, bodies and values. It is a time to re-order our lives away from the vanities that might have ensnared us. It is a time to rekindle our hearts, to participate in the gift of penance, of making things right with God. It is a time to share in the fasting of Our Lord, to look death in the face and see evil as it really is. Yet is is a time to while looking at these things head on, remember that ‘we are the Easter People, and Halleujah is our song.’
I’d like to close with a prayer.
Penitential Prayer of St. Ambrose of Milan
O Lord, who hast mercy upon all,
take away from me my sins,
and mercifully kindle in me
the fire of thy Holy Spirit.
Take away from me the heart of stone,
and give me a heart of flesh,
a heart to love and adore Thee,
a heart to delight in Thee,
to follow and enjoy Thee, for Christ’s sake, Amen