Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Beginning Great Lent

This is my standard introduction to the practices of the Christian season of Lent.

I realize that not all of my wonderful readers are familiar with the purpose and practice of the Lenten season. Stay with me as I indulge myself (and perhaps you) in a little bit of history and theology.

Where it Came From

In the earliest Christian centuries, once the Christian mission moved past Palestine and the "god-fearing" Gentiles (those familiar with and disposed toward the story of Israel's god, like Cornelius in Acts 10) and into the wider Roman world, it became necessary to catechize potential converts - to be intentional about teaching them the story of Israel's god, his people, his world, and his Christ, from beginning to end. Catechesis was a time of ethical reformation, as members of the church discipled these soon-to-be Christians in the way of God's New Community.

Much of the theological instruction for this one to three year period was put into the period of 40 days before the Great Vigil of Easter. The forty days brings echoes of Moses conversing with God on Sinai before receiving the Ten Commandments, the forty years of temptation in the wilderness that refined Israel, and the forty days when Jesus entered the wilderness for his communion with God and to prepare for his own testing. Forty days is a time of refining and of being with the Lord.

At the season of Lent, Christian converts receive intensive theological education, accompanied by prayers, confession and exorcisms - it is indeed an intense time of being with the Lord. The rest of the Church also walks through this time of penitence and learning and self-examination.

Walking with Jesus

It also has a place in the overall narrative of Jesus' life: At Epiphany, we commemorated his appearance to his people, and realized that he is the light that scatters our darkness. At his baptism, he was revealed to be the Son of God, bearing divine favor for the people. At the reception of John's baptism, he identified himself with the faithful remnant of Israel, and began to reconstitute the nation in terms of loyalty to himself by his calling of the Twelve; now enter the story of the last days of his ministry, when he begin to orient himself and his disciples to his vocation of suffering and death for the sake of the people. The story has taken a dark turn, and we join the Master as he sets his face resolutely toward Jerusalem. In solidarity with him, we begin the time of sorrowing for our sins and his suffering, walking into the darkness of our broken humanity in the hope of Easter's light.

So the matter of Lenten disciplines or practices is this: what can I do to set my own face toward Jerusalem? What in my personality and my life with the Church in the world needs to be put to death, and what does God wish to be raised up? I think we find the answers to these questions by putting ourselves in an intentional posture of listening: making a quiet space in our routines to hear from the Lord.

This is not meant for Herculean efforts of spiritual zeal - like boot camp for Jesus - but for a time of greater intentionality. We learn to be quiet and make space, preparing for the conviction of sin, and to offer our brokenness for his healing, so that when we do speak and act, we will do so as a grateful and repentant response to the Trinitarian God who leads us into truth.

We rededicate ourselves in practical ways to prayer, to seeking and listening to the counsel of our brothers and sisters, and in learning more deeply the Way of Life. In this practice-able, regular actions - these ways of making space - we invite the Lord to purge our personalities of the dross of the old nature, and to refine us more and more as part of the new creation. Repentance, it must be remembered, is a change of attitude, a new way of seeing that sends us walking in a different direction. Sometimes the turning is slight, and sometimes it's one hundred and eighty degrees. Our goal is not a particular spiritual experience or to start or stop a particular habit necessarily, but to be with the Lord and offer to him our readiness to turn in unexpected directions, to listen to words we would not have anticipated, and answer yes to him in ways we would not have imagined.

The time of Great Lent is upon us. May it be a holy one as we walk into the dark places of ourselves and discover that the Lord Himself leads us into the stillness of our solitary fears, to sit with us, to heal us, and to absorb all of our darkness into the Darkness of his Cross and the Light of Easter Dawn.

So how do we make this concrete?

Saying the office is a way of making space in our day that will sanctify the rest of it, and letting the Scriptures teach us how to offer our hearts to the Lord.

Centering prayer enables us to quiet ourselves in a deep, purposeful way, to stop the noise and stop the thinking and just stop … and wait for the Spirit of the Lord to come and do what it will. It's about giving him space to do the deep works he needs to do, but doesn't really need to tell us about.

Attending to the holy mysteries, and receiving the mystical body of Christ into oneself - does that need explanation? Salvation, after all, isn't only or even mostly in our heads. Salvation is performed, and salvation must be eaten.

Peace and blessing be upon you as you begin the journey of Lent in God's Church.


SaintSimon said...

Liturgy and the church calender are poor masters but great servants. When it is described as in your post, lent is a great servant (although you will not be surprised to know that I would quibble about some points). I now feel more equipped to respond to people that say "what are you giving up for lent?". Thank you.

Kyle said...

You guard your freedom in Christ jealously, and that's commendable - but don't let it become paranoia.

Peace, Simon.

Anonymous said...

Can you give up Lent for Lent?