The penitential seasons of Advent and Lent have always been renewing for me. They are headed somewhere, for all their reservation, to something hopeful and joyous. Even more appealing to me is their invitation to discipline. Sometimes, I fear, we Lutherans are so steeped in the absolute grace of God, the ultimate inefficacy of our works, and the freedom of the Gospel that allows us to “sin boldly”—our justification—that we neglect the spiritual disciplines to which the Gospel calls us, or else we set them aside as one optional part of our whole life rather than the essence of our whole life in Christ, i.e., nurturing that relationship with Jesus as he freely comes to us.
“Lent” actually comes from an old Anglo-Saxon word “Lencten,” as in “lengthen,” referring to the lengthening of days or springtime. It begins on Ash Wednesday, 40 days (not counting Sundays—always days of resurrection) before Easter. Easter on April 1 this year, and Ash Wednesday is February 14: April Fools’ Day and Valentine’s Day! The sermons practically write themselves this year! The date of Easter fluctuates, determined as the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, which means the first Sunday after the first full moon in spring. Lent is about spiritual renewal and growth. For me, spiritual renewal boils down to paying attention to the truth of God’s claim on us in baptism, paying attention to God’s presence in our lives, and paying attention to opportunities we have each day to be the presence of God for others.
The word “Christian” appears in the New Testament only twice. The word “disciple” occurs 269 times! “Discipline” and “disciple” come from the same root. To be a disciple is to be a person of discipline. To pay attention. To focus. ELW’s “Invitation to Lent” announces to the congregation on Ash Wednesday, “As disciples of the Lord Jesus we are called to struggle against everything that leads us away from love of God and neighbor. Repentance, fasting, prayer, works of love, self-denial, quiet meditation—the disciplines of Lent—help us to wage our spiritual warfare. I invite you, therefore, to begin on this solemn first day of Lent to recommit yourselves to this struggle.”
Many find that “giving something up” for Lent is a helpful and tangible practice of such discipline and a constant reminder of the ultimate sacrifice of Christ to which this season is heading. Some prefer to take something on instead of giving something up, but, let’s face it—it’s the same thing! Every “yes” is a “no,” and every “no” is a “yes.” If we add something to our plate, something else, therefore, won’t fit on the plate. One year I wrote a short thank-you note each day during Lent to people whom I really appreciate but whom I had never really adequately told. In any case, the disciplines of Lent are never intended to imply earned righteousness; they are meant to be our response to God’s great love for us in Christ. They do not bring God closer to us. They bring us closer to God.
Lent is intended not as morbidity but as the Church Year’s dose of reality therapy. In our introspection, the deeper we look inside, the more darkness we discover. We are mortal, and in the meantime we are sinful. Lent drives us inward so that the ugliness we find in there drives us outward to the saving work of Christ, accomplished in the cross and resurrection. The core of the Christian message is the gospel (“good news”), which presupposes the bad news of sin and death and the power of the devil. Ash Wednesday reminds us of our mortality, that we are dust, and its extended confession and lack of absolution reminds us of our sinfulness, calling us to repentance, to turning back to God. Our own life of suffering servanthood as we live in this relationship is our discipleship in the world.
May Lent’s call to discipline and renewal to you be less of a heavy burden and more of a gracious invitation to “return to the Lord your God.” It’s where we belong and where we are most authentically the beloved ones we are created and redeemed to be!
Walking with you,
Bishop Tim Smith