March 3, 2017 Column
Lent—a time to go deeper
Rev. Yme Woensdregt
The church has begun living in the season of Lent. It began Wednesday, which is known as Ash Wednesday. The season of Lent is 40 days long. Forty is one of those important symbolic numbers in the Bible. In the flood, it rained for 40 days and nights. Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness before entering the promised land. Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, preparing for his ministry.
There are many Biblical numbers which mean more than the literal. The most familiar example is the number 7, which symbolizes perfection or wholeness. In the same way, 40 suggests a time which is “long enough” to accomplish the purposes of that time. Forty days is long enough to accomplish the work of Lent.
If you were to count the days on a calendar, however, you’d find that there are actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The reason for that is that we don’t count the Sundays during this season. From the very beginning, the church has understood Sunday to be the day of resurrection. Sunday is not a day of mourning and repentance. Sunday is intended to be a day of feasting and celebration, a day of being nourished with God’s goodness.
When Lent was first celebrated, the intention was that the faithful would repent and fast on the weekdays of this season. Each day, the faithful would walk with God and journey more deeply to the heart of our faith. Sundays, then, would be a break from that daily penitence. People would celebrate God’s goodness and rest in the warmth of God’s grace on Sundays.
But that pattern has changed these days. People pay less attention to the Lent discipline in their day–to–day lives during the week. Sundays have become the focus of Lenten devotion for many people.
So what is the purpose of Lent? In parts of the early church, Lent was the culmination of a long period of preparation for baptism. It was a final time of examination for candidates for baptism. They would be expected to show that they knew what it meant to be a follower of Jesus Christ, and to perform works of mercy. For those who had already been baptized, it was a time to make a fresh commitment to walking in the way of Jesus.
Part of what this means is that in baptism, we are included in the community of Christ. We are part of a new people. We belong not to this world, but to God.
As people who belong to God, we strive to honour God’s values in our world. We are people who cherish justice, peace, reconciliation and wholeness. We live in such a way as to honour God in all our dealings. As we have been blessed, so we bless others. As we have been healed, so we touch other lives as gently as we can. As we have been included by God’s grace in a community of hope and reconciliation, so we reach out across all the barriers which keep us apart. We live in the world as people who embody God’s gospel purposes with all of God’s beloved children, and indeed with all creatures in creation.
So we repent in Lent. We seek to be renewed and transformed. To repent is not really so much about feeling sorry for what we’ve done wrong. It’s actually quite a positive thing. Repentance is about renewing our commitment to God’s ways in the world. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams reminds us that “Repentance happens when you suddenly see the abundance of God’s love and generosity in someone else and you come to the realization that you must change. Not only must you, you want to.”
As we repent, we learn to listen in a new way for the whisper of God in our lives and in our world. We are spiritual beings. To nourish our spiritual life is as important to us as food and water are for nourishing our physical life. God comes to us in countless ways, again and again, whispering a word of life into our lives, nudging us to see things from a new perspective, prodding us to be renewed in our hearts.
This vital truth is central to all the great religions of the world. They all call us to wholeness and holiness. They all whisper to us of renewal and hope.
In the church, Lent is a time in which Christians go deeper to the heart of our faith. We respond to God’s call to come home. We take small, faltering steps as we yield ourselves to God’s healing embrace. It’s not just about giving something up.
While Lent is a serious and solemn moment in our lives, it need not be a gloomy or depressing time. We are being called home. We are being graciously invited to return to the heart of God. We are being embraced by God’s love. We are being healed by God’s insistent Spirit — healed in our personal lives and healed in our communities.
So come again on this journey to the heart of our faith. Come, follow the one who promises us that above all else, we will find rest and healing. Come, go deep.