Sunday, February 7, 2021

Bread & Wine | An Introduction to Lent 2021

You can't conceive, my child, nor can I or anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God. + Graham Greene

First popularized in the fourth century, Lent is traditionally associated with penitence, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. It is a time for "giving things up" balanced by "giving to" those in need. Yet whatever else it may be, Lent should never be morose—an annual ordeal during which we begrudgingly forgo a handful of pleasures. Instead, we ought to approach Lent as an opportunity, not a requirement. 

After all, Lent is meant to be the church's springtime, a time when, out of the darkness of sin's winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges. No wonder one liturgy refers to it as "this joyful season." Put another way, Lent is the season in which we ought to be surprised by joy. Our self-sacrifices serve no purpose unless, by laying aside this or that desire, we are able to focus on our heart's deepest longing: unity with Christ. In him—in his suffering and death, his resurrection and triumph—we find our truest joy.

Dorothy Sayers writes that to make the Easter story into something that neither startles, shocks, terrifies, nor excites is "to crucify the Son of God afresh." Certainly that would have been unthinkable for Jesus' first followers, who experienced it firsthand: the heady excitement of his entry into Jerusalem, the traitorous cunning of Judas and the guilty recognition of their own cowardice, the terror of his slow suffocation, and finally the disarming wonder of an empty grave and a living body resurrected from the dead.

Few would deny the magnitude or drama of these events. But how many of us embrace their pain and promise? How many of us, even at Easter, give Christ's death and resurrection any more attention than the weather?

To observe Lent is to strike at the root of such complacency. Lent (literally "springtime") is a time of preparation, a time to return to the desert where Jesus spent forty trying days readying for his ministry. He allowed himself to be tested, and if we are serious about following him, we will do the same. ... 
Spiritual masters often refer to a kind of "dread," the nagging sense that we have missed something important and have been somehow untrue—to ourselves, to others, to God. Lent is a good time to confront the source of that feeling. It is a time to let go of excuses for failings and shortcomings; a time to stop hanging on to whatever shreds of goodness we perceive in ourselves; a time to ask God to show us what we really look like. Finally, it is a time to face up to the personal role each of us plays in prolonging Christ's agony at Golgotha. 

As Richard John Neuhaus (paraphrasing John Donne) advises, "Send not to know by whom the nails were driven; they were driven by you, by me." And yet our need for repentance cannot erase the good news that Christ overcame all sin. His resurrection frees us from ourselves. His empty tomb turns our attention away from all that is wrong with us and with the world, and spurs us on to experience the abundant life he promises.

"Christ must increase, and I must decrease," the apostle John declares, and his words resonate still today. Let us discover Christ—the scarred God, the weak and wretched God, the crucified, dying God of blood and despair—amid the alluring gods of our feel-good age. 

Christ reveals the appalling strangeness of divine mercy, and the Love from which it springs. Such Love could not stay imprisoned in a cold tomb. Nor need we, if we truly surrender our lives to it.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol 
Oscar Wilde

... And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone. 

And every human heart that breaks, 
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy those whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

+ Introduction to Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter featuring contributions from C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Frederick Buechner, Madeleine L'Engle, Henri J. M. Nouwen, Dorothy Day, Kahlil Gibran, Søren Kierkegaard, Dorothy Sayers, N.T. Wright, and more

For more on the beginning of Lent, check out: 

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