The season of Lent which begins with today’s worship is one that is fraught with good intentions. Take, for example, the habit of giving something up for Lent. Name it – chocolate, caffeine, meat, video games, comic books – whatever it is. The challenge, of course, is the often-missing connection between that which we are giving up and the purpose of giving it up in the first place. Sometimes the 40 days of Lent looks more like a self-improvement plan, a cleanse for the body. A time to restart that New Year’s resolution that went off the rails. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a fresh start on a self-improvement plan. There is nothing wrong with a cleanse. But, I’m just pretty sure it’s not what Lent is about. And, let me tell you, the year I gave up caffeine for Lent was not very nice for the people around me.
A similar problem arises with those who choose instead to take something on for Lent. I can assure you that Andrea would be thrilled if for each of the next 40 days, I took on the cleaning out of one room, closet, or drawer at our house. You might feel great if, for the next 40 days, you take on a commitment to going to the gym each day. But, like the giving up, this sort of taking on doesn’t seem much different.
And then there are those – and let’s admit it – we’ve all known them and, if we are honest, we’ve all been them at one time or another – those who give something up or take something on and then make sure that everyone around them knows they are doing it and, better yet, makes sure that everyone knows and appreciates what a tremendous sacrifice it is. As if the point is to demonstrate some sort of superior-Christian-status and as if their doing or not doing - our doing or not doing - is how salvation works in the first place. I have a feeling this may have been a concern familiar to the community for whom Matthew’s gospel was originally written: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them”. . . “whenever you pray,” do not stand on a street corner “so that [you] may be seen by others. . . “whenever you fast, do not look dismal. . . to show others that [you] are fasting.”
So how did we get so off-track with our Lenten observance? Or, better yet, what can we do to get back on the right track? Surely Matthew’s gospel doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t pray or fast. So, what’s going on. And, this practice of giving something up or taking something on has been around for a long time. Perhaps we’ve just lost sight of the connection between the practice and its purpose.
In the early Church, the season of Lent was a time of conversion. It was a time set apart for those who were converting to Christianity to prepare for their baptism. It was also a time when those who had already been baptized but who had fallen away prepared to return to the fellowship of the Church through the intentional work of reconciliation, penitence and forgiveness. Not wanting to get too far ahead of ourselves, it is important to remember that the Season of Lent, ends with The Great Vigil of Easter, the culmination of that three-day-long single service which begins on Maundy Thursday, continues through Good Friday and culminates in the renewal of baptismal vows by the whole gathered community at The Great Vigil. It was at this Vigil that the early Church baptized new members. In some places it was the only worship time in the church year when baptism happened at all. And these 40 days of Lent were all about preparing for that event. Whether or not we have anyone seeking baptism in our community, we too are called to use our Lenten observance as a time of reflection on those baptismal promises. Because, at the Great Vigil, when we renew our baptismal vows, if we want to do so with any sense of integrity or intentionality, then it makes sense to spend some time reflecting on both the things we renounced or gave up upon being baptized and those things we promised to take on when we were baptized.
At The Great Vigil of Easter, you will be asked, “Do you reaffirm your renunciation of evil and renew your commitment to Jesus Christ?” This question is a summary of 6 that are asked of candidates for baptism. The first three of the 6 are renunciations: Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God? And, after each, the candidate for baptism – or their sponsors if the candidate is an infant – answers, I renounce them. I turn away from them. I give them up. And, upon renouncing all evil, the candidate is then asked 3 more questions: Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior? Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love? Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord? And, after each, the candidate says, “I do.” I turn my life to Jesus. I take on Jesus as my only Lord.
I’m always struck that the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday stops at verse 21. If we only read a few more verses we would arrive at the verse when Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters.” You must turn away from all evil and turn to Jesus. You must give up your attachments and take on Jesus or, perhaps more aptly, open yourself to being taken on by Jesus.
The 40 days of Lent is an opportunity for us to pay attention to the things we need continually to renounce, to let go of or give up. Some of those things are easy to bring to mind. They are the sins that cause us shame or embarrassment. The sins that can wake us up at night with worry, fear or anxiety. They are things that we may need, indeed, to give up – not just for 40 days but for life. And so these 40 days provide us with a right beginning. But other sins are much harder to renounce and sometimes they are even difficult to see. The isms and phobias of our world are an example – sexism, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia. These, and countless others, are the sins that have become a part of our institutions (including the church) and our society as a whole. Sometimes they are so much a part of the way things are that we just take them for granted as part of everyday normal functioning – until someone who is hurt or oppressed by them helps us to see the sin. For these corporate and institutional sins, renunciation is not as simple as giving them up. They are woven into the very fabric of our existence. And yet, the season of Lent calls us to a time of intentionality, a time of prayerful consideration of how we can and must turn away from these “reigning assumptions of our culture which hold us captive,” to unhook ourselves from these “false ‘lords and masters’ and turn (or turn again) to the way of Christ.”
There is no one way to engage in this work of Lent. But there is one purpose – reconciliation with God and with one another, turning away from the evil that enslaves us and turning again to the Christ who saves us. What are you giving up for Lent this year? I pray that whatever it is it may be helpful in identifying and renouncing the things in our own lives and in the institutions we are a part of that are obstacles to the way of Christ. Things that we can ill afford to hang on to. What are you taking on for Lent? I pray that whatever it is it may be helpful in dismantling the obstacles that draw us away from the love of God so that we might be drawn ever closer to the way of Christ.
I invite you to stand. Dear people of God: the first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
Several members of St. Mark’s have expressed a desire to enter this season of repentance and return with renewed intentionality. At this time, I invite N., N. and N. to come forward. They have expressed a desire to follow the path of penitence, to turn again to the way of Christ, and to intentionally prepare to reaffirm their baptismal promises. The path they will follow in this season of Lent is not the only path. The path they will follow in this season of Lent is not a better path. They have agreed to be called forth from among us today not “so that they may be praised by others” and not “so that they may be seen by others,” but rather that they might serve as visible signs of the calling we each have to walk in the ways of Christ, as a means of putting before each of us the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel.