Examine me O God, and know my heart, test me and discover my thoughts, and lead me in the way of everlasting. Psalm 139:23-24
My Journey into Lent
I currently work at St. Luke’s Episcopal Sugar Land Hospital. This is the same hospital system that Christie is doing her 1st year CPE at, only she goes downtown to the hospital district. Being an Episcopal hospital, for Ash Wednesday the chaplain made his rounds imposing ashes for any that wanted it (Christie and the other CPE residents did the same thing at St. Luke’s downtown). The Ash Wednesday services at Crosspoint Fellowship in Abilene stand as some of the most meaningful for me and I was really bummed that we weren’t going to be able to attend Ash Wednesday services at our church in Houston (Ecclesia). So I was glad when the chaplain came into the kitchen and asked if anyone wanted to receive ashes. I quietly received mine and went about my duties. But one of my co-workers asked me later if I was Catholic. When I told her I wasn’t she got a very stern look on her face and asked me, “Well, what are you then?” I told her I was Baptist and with that she got very upset telling me that only Catholics are supposed to do Lent and receive ashes.
The thing is, I know many Baptists who would essentially agree with my co-worker, though from a different perspective. For them anything liturgical or having to do with the lectionary or Lent is a Catholic thing. And while they may acknowledge that other faith traditions also follow the church calendar, the Baptists I grew up with definitely saw little use for Lent or the wider church calendar. I should probably be more specific here. There have been some Baptists that have actively preached against Lent, but most of the Baptists I grew up with just basically ignored Lent as well as the church calendar. In my opinion I believe that Baptists have done this to their own detriment. Stemming from long held disagreements and divisions Baptists and other faith traditions have missed an opportunity to use the church calendar as a way of connecting us all into a common story – the story of Christ. Ultimately, I don’t agree with my co-worker. And while I value my Baptist heritage and maintain my convictions in that regard I don’t agree with those Baptists I grew up with that deemphasized the church calendar, even if just by ignoring it. I think that the liturgy, lectionary, and Lent belong to all who call Christ their Lord and seek to live by his teachings. They are not the sole property of any faith tradition. They are the heritage of all Christians, of the whole body of Christ, a part of our common story.
In general I think that Baptists have been at their best when they have remembered their heritage and story and potentially at their worst when they have forgotten (or ignored) their story. Anyone who grows up Baptist (or goes to a Baptist seminary) quickly learns that a large part of this heritage centers around Scripture. In fact, Baptists are often called a “people of the book” – that book of course being the Bible. But I should admit that the “people of the book” designation always confused me because, well, we never seemed to read very much Scripture as a part of our worship. It always seemed that the focus was on picking apart and dissecting smaller portions of Scripture, but the effect of this was that less Scripture was read, not more. As I have become more familiar with the lectionary and with those churches that make it a point to follow the lectionary I have come to believe that they generally have more Scripture in their worship than most Baptist churches I have been a part of. Coming to Crosspoint Fellowship in Abilene was a refreshing change for me in this regard. Crosspoint made it a point to follow the Lectionary and it was at Crosspoint that I participated in my first ever Ash Wednesday service and first real observance of Lent. In essence, I gradually came to understand the whole purpose and significance of Lent through my experience of community at Crosspoint.
What is Lent About?
The season of Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and extends to Easter Sunday. Lent is 40 days long, representing the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert, not counting Sundays. Lent is meant to be a time of repentance, reflection, and preparation for the celebration of the resurrection of our Lord on Easter Sunday. Lent has become synonymous with denying oneself of something. This is so much so that the typical question one gets is: what are you giving up for Lent? The school I attended from Kindergarten through 12th grade was at least 90% Catholic. This made sense since Lindsay, TX is a German Catholic community and the local Catholic church sat just yards away from the high school. In effect this meant that during Lent even non-Catholics like me gave up meat by default and had to eat fish sandwiches in the school cafeteria like everyone else. Sensing that just giving something up can turn into a legalism some have started taking something on of a positive nature. I think both of the approaches have their place and importance for the season of Lent. However, while the externals are not unimportant, I worry that sole focus on them ultimately diverts our attention away from what Lent is all about. The external practices whether negative (denial of something) or positive (adding something) serve a deeper purpose, one that not surprisingly centers not merely on what we do but on Christ himself.
In my thinking Lent encompasses four main aspects that are all connected. The first of these is that of identification with Christ. Just as Christ identified with humanity in the incarnation we seek to identify with Christ during the season of Lent. As Christ went into the desert for 40 days we enter our own desert period. If Christ endured the desert for 40 days surely we can do Lent for 40 days, right? And in observing the practices of Lent we seek for our identity to be less about us and more about Christ. The second aspect is that of participation in Christ’s mission and story. Through the observance of Lent and meditation on the lectionary passages we seek for Christ’s story to become our story. Identification with Christ leads naturally to missional participation with Christ even after Lent is over. The third aspect is that of formation into the image of Christ. We are people who are shaped by the things we do, what we watch, and what we listen too whether we realize it or not. Practices such as giving something up (whatever that might be), while not the main point of Lent, still remind us that spiritual formation does not happen magically but must be decidedly embodied. These embodied practices teach us that our ultimate dependence is upon Christ. And Lent reminds us that such embodied formation takes time, patience, and discipline. This time, patience, and discipline ultimately become the spaces that the Spirit is able to work within shaping us into the image of Christ.
The fourth aspect to be mentioned is that Lent is a time of personal as well as communal preparation and anticipation. Here we begin to see that Christ desires something more radical than just giving something up as a mere external act. Christ demands that we deny our whole self and give up the prerogative of writing our own story. Beyond this he calls us to take up a cross and follow him in his narrative. In this Christ writes our story – his story becomes our story – yet his story leads through the desert and a cross. The question we must ask is: are we ready? Are we really ready? Are we prepared for Easter Sunday? If we are not prepared for Good Friday I don’t see how we can say we are ready for Easter. If we are to identify with Christ, participate in his mission and story, and be formed in his image we can’t leave anything out of the story. It would be tempting to just skip to Easter but we can not. We are not ready for Easter. We need a time of disciplined preparation, a time of allowing the lectionary passages to lead us through the story of Easter, a preparation that produces within us more and more a sense of anticipation for that which is to come and which is ours in Christ alone – resurrection.
Ash Wednesday Reflections
Lent begins with the imposing and receiving of ashes in Ash Wednesday. This is another thing about Lent that many do not understand. “What good does having ashes smeared on your forehead do,” is the question they ask. Actually the ashes have great theological significance.
The ash itself represents the dust of the ground that we are made from. “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” is what is said to the recipient. In one respect this is an affirmation of our creatureliness as well as our connection to the rest of the created world. In short, our createdness is a good thing to be affirmed and celebrated. In the act of creating people God was willing to get His hands dirty. From the dirt of the ground God made, in essence, groundlings. Being made from dirt means that often we get, well, kind of dirty. In this dirtiness we can see that we are created as finite creatures. We are not God and the ashes bring this to mind. We also see in this dirtiness that we tend to be fragile (yet resilient) creations. Our fragility is not itself sin but in our fragility we still tend to mess things up, to get things dirty. However, we can also see that there is a distortion of what God has created, we are not only finite and fragile, but we are also fallen creatures.
The ashes not only represent something about us, our finiteness, fragility, and fallenness but also go on to extend the story to what Christ has done for us. The oil that is mixed with the ashes represent the healing and restoration that is to be found in Christ alone. Also, the ashes are applied in the shape of a cross representing Christ’s sacrifice for us and anticipating the healing it offers. In this I think we can see an eschatological character to Ash Wednesday and Lent as we prepare for, look forward to, and anticipate the healing to be found at Easter, which itself foreshadows and anticipates our participation with Christ in the final resurrection. But we can take no shortcuts in participating in Christ’s narrative. The observance of Lent, the lectionary passages, and the liturgy represent a storied gospel that calls us to active participation in the story of Christ. This is not a gospel lacking in deepness or meaning but one overflowing with theological excess such that we can not take it all in. In the end, if Christ’s narrative led him through the desert and a cross on the way to Easter Sunday, then this is the path our journey towards Easter must take as well.
A Prayer for Lent
Jesus, holy and strong,
by your fasting and self-denial teach us self-denial.
Control and discipline us,
that we may learn to obey.
Almighty and merciful God,
You hate nothing that you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent;
create in us new and contrite hearts,
so that when we turn to you and confess our sins
we may receive your full and perfect forgiveness
through Jesus Christ our Redeemer.
God of the desert, as we follow Jesus into the unknown,
may we recognize the tempter when he comes;
let it be your bread we eat,
your world we serve,
and you alone we worship. Amen
Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen
Blessings on your journey!