Friends, as we begin Lent tomorrow, I thought it would be good to provide an overview of this season for those of you who are new to this season, so here is a talk I gave at the start of Last Lent. Blessings to you!
Well, it is good to be with you again at the start of this new season we call Lent. I thought since a lot of us here tonight are somewhat new to the Anglican tradition and thus perhaps new to Lent too that we would begin our time together with a brief overview of Lent and a short description of the service we are participating in today on Ash Wednesday.
So what exactly is this season of Lent? Well, in the simplest of terms, Lent is the 40 day period prior to Easter – it is a time of devotion and discipline as we prepare our hearts for the great celebration of Jesus’ resurrection on Easter Sunday.
Now for those of you who count – you will count 46 days, but the 6 Sundays throughout the season are considered mini-Easters and are not included in the 40 days.
Lent, as a season, emerged in the early centuries of Christianity, becoming the full-fledged season as we know it by the fourth century.
It began as a period of intense preparation for Christians who were to be baptized on Easter Sunday (which was the common baptismal practice at the time.) After approximately a two year catechetical process, converts to the faith would enter into this last intense period of study and prayer which was seen to reflect Jesus’ own 40 days of fasting before the onset of his ministry.
Soon enough, these new converts would be joined by believers who on account of church discipline had been separated from the fellowship of the church. These folks would also enter into this intense time of prayer and study in order to prepare themselves for their restoration into the church.
And then finally, it came about that the whole church felt that it was good to join in such a disciplined time of devotion, and thus the season of Lent was born, and it has been practiced throughout Christendom since that time.
Now depending on the Christian tradition or denomination that one is in, Lent is practiced somewhat differently and slightly different emphases are maintained.
For example, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, devoted followers will fast from all animal products – that is meat, cheese, eggs, etc. during the entire season as a concrete way to show that “man does not live on bread alone” and that the greatest need for humanity is intimacy with God. In the Protestants and Roman Catholic traditions, folks don’t generally take on this particular strict fast, but they do engage in their own ways of fasting and penitence.
For me, what is important in all this is not the exact nature of the practices that occur during the Lent, but the common threads that run throughout Lent, whether one is Protestant, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox. For all of us who practice Lent, we are given a double focus, which shapes our daily meditations, prayers, and the other ways we live out the season.
On one hand, during Lent, we seriously consider the Fall and our resulting human condition.
If we are truthful with ourselves, during this season of Lent, we say with the apostle Paul “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. During Lent, we admit that we are sinful individuals. For those of who have believed in Christ, we have been saved by his grace– praise God – but the reality is we still carry around with us pride, self-centeredness, a need to be in control, envy, prejudice, etc., etc. We are not fully formed in the likeness of Christ and our relationship with God is not as intimate as we were created for, yet that is exactly what God is calling us to.
And this why the season of Lent is a time for examination of life, confession, and repentance. If we are going to be the women and men that God has called us to be, we need to we put away our masks, remove all our “fig leaves” and drop all our pretentions before God.
So this is our first focus, and it is an important one, but if we just focused on this reality, we might get overly depressed.
And that is why it is important to know there is a second focus, and the second focus is this: during Lent, we don’t just reflect on our human condition but we reflect on our hope in Christ and proclaim with joy that despite our sin, Christ has reconciled himself to us through his crucifixion and resurrection. In Lent, we are always looking forward to the triumph of Easter Day.
So even as we spend time in self-reflection, we at the same time hold fast to God’s profound love for us demonstrated through his costly sacrifice on our behalf. Thus we remind ourselves that we have been saved by God and there is nothing we can do to save ourselves or to make God stop loving us. Therefore, we can rest deeply in God’s love throughout the season.
And as we rest in this love, we then also have the courage during this season to seek change in our lives. Change so that we can become more and more like our savior Jesus Christ. Change so that we may live our lives abundantly and be the men and women God designed us to be. Change that is not done in our own will power but is undertaken with a grateful heart and is guided and effected through the power of the Holy Spirit.
So that is what Lent is in a nutshell. There is of course much more I could say about that now, but I’ll leave it at that and if you have any questions while I am down here for the next couple of days, we can talk about them.
So now that you have a grasp on the season of Lent, let me talk briefly about this day, Ash Wednesday. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and is by far the most solemn day of the entire season. On this night, we are confronted with our unregenerate nature, death, and our powerless to prevent ourselves from dying. In a few minutes, ashes, the sign of death, sorrow, and mourning, will be put on our foreheads as a sign of our mortality. Because of sin, we will die. There is no escaping this reality.
That being said, there is good news! When I place the ashes on our foreheads, I will place them in the sign of the cross. This means, yes we will die, but as Christians we will die in Christ, and that changes everything! Thus, as Professor Lawrence Stookey says, we can walk through the shadow of death without fear because we know we will find ourselves at the great resurrection feast of the Lamb of God upon our passing from this world. Because of God’s grace, we will be with Him for all eternity.
So as we go through this service tonight, we must keep that in mind. There is no doubt that this service has a strongly penitential nature to it, and it is necessary, but ultimately this day as well as all the days of Lent are to remind us of God’s profound love for us and his beautiful grace. And that is why at the end of the service tonight, we will end by listening to (and singing if we choose) that old Christian classic, Amazing Grace. So now we are going to move into a time when I will place on the Ashes on your foreheads.