Journal

Contemplative Life, Liturgical Seasons

Invitations to a Deeper Lent

For more of my life than I would like to admit, the season of Lent primarily signified the time of year when I would give up sodas as a last ditch effort to get in shape for baseball season. In fact, I would tend to forget about Lent until I spotted my Catholic friends walking around with ashen crosses on their foreheads, at which point I would rush to decide “what I would be giving up for Lent this year,” until I would inevitably land on sodas (“adequately sacrificial and healthy too!”). I struggled with Lent because my paradigm for this liturgical season was entirely negative. It was all about what I would stop doing, give up, or renounce, often with little effort made to connect that renunciation to any broader vision of spiritual formation. Perhaps you have experienced something similar.

What if Lent was inviting us into something more expansive and generative? What if we sought to see our Lenten disciplines in the light of Christ’s declaration that he came so that we might “have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10)? I encourage you to read back through some of what Bill Haley, Wade Ballou, and Scott Buresh wrote last year about how Lent might draw us into fresh experiences of God’s grace, healing, and love. Building off of their work, I would like to propose three “invitations” to a deeper-than-sodas Lenten season.

Gaudenzio Ferrari, “Stories of Life and Passion of Christ” (1513)

An Invitation to Remember

Lent invites us to remember the Grand Story in which our lives participate. This is one of the wonderful gifts of the church calendar – this reminder that our moments, days, and lives, while seemingly disparate, fragmented, and isolated, are always already a part of God’s unfolding redemption of the world. The ashes thumbed onto our brows on Ash Wednesday did not come from nowhere, but were themselves part of last year’s preparations for Easter. And yet, this remembrance has an edge to it. We stand awed by the immense love of a triune God who would come in-the-flesh to make a way for us to be in true relationship with him for all time, but we also remember why it was that way needed to be made in the first place. 

Sin. Lent offers us the opportunity to remember our Spirit-empowered participation in God’s unfolding redemption project, but it also calls us to make an accounting for the ways in which our lives remain enmeshed in the sinister weave of injustice, exploitation, and violence still covering our world. Even with the best of intentions, we simply cannot extricate ourselves completely from the personal, relational, and systemic tangle of sin on this side of Christ’s return.

How will you respond to the invitation to remember this Lent? We hope some of these offerings might bless you towards that end: 

  • On the first and third Wednesdays of the month we gather for Word & Silence, which aims to provide enough space and quiet in the midst of our busy weeks to remember our part in God’s Grand Story. 
  • Our ancient Celtic forebearers in the faith understood the reality of sin with profound depth and clarity. We have much to learn from them, which is why on Wednesday, March 25th, we will be convening “A Celtic Lent” – an evening of quiet reflection in community, set apart to help reorient us in the midst of the Lenten season through Scripture, liturgy, readings, and reflections drawing from ancient Celtic Christian tradition.
  • One particular aspect of sin’s sinister weave in America is the long and painful legacy of the slave trade. As a way of making an accounting for how that legacy continues to play-out in our lives, we invite you to join us on the Slavery in Virginia Pilgrimage on March 28-29th, where we will learn the stories of formerly enslaved peoples from Alexandria to Richmond, Charlottesville, and the Corhaven Graveyard.

Albert Sterner, “The Prodigal Son” (1930)

An Invitation to Repent

Once we see with clear eyes how our lives participate wittingly and unwittingly in things that break God’s heart, what is the fitting response? We, like millennia of Christians before us and millennia of Israelites before them, repent. We stop blindly “following the course of this world” (Eph 2:1), make an about-face, and return to God. This is not an once-and-for-all act; neither is it something we will ever do perfectly. Rather, repentance is a daily discipline we undertake with the help of the Holy Spirit that will bear fruit in our lives and in the world over time. Lent invites us to train ourselves in this discipline over the course of 40 days. 

The church has adopted a number of practices which support our returning more readily to God. As I mentioned above, the practices that get the most press involve removing something from our lives, like fasting or abstaining from certain activities. Others, however, involve taking-on something wholesome that was not formerly part of our lives, like increasing time in prayer or committing to be more generous. Both types of practice are intended to reveal our lives’ true center of gravity. For me, having the opportunity to give something up (and my subsequent struggle to follow through on that opportunity) shows me how much of my life revolves around securing comfort and ease; alternatively, making an intentional effort to be more generous in a particular area of my life tends to illuminate many other areas where selfishness remains entrenched. 

We can’t come to these sorts of realizations without a jolt to the established patterns of our “normal lives.” What are the jolts that would benefit your repenting and returning to God more readily this Lent? One of our favorite resources is “An American Lent,” a daily devotional from the Repentance Project that helps us respond prayerfully and scripturally to the dark history and continuing legacy of racial injustice in our country. Perhaps you will be able to return to the devotional’s opening prayer over the coming weeks:

Come, Holy Spirit, immerse us again in the waters of repentance. We receive your invitation to return, and to rest and to be saved. Return us to Christ, our first love, and teach us to abide in the vine. Produce within us the good fruit of repentance. Renew our minds with your truth, and unify your church. Amen.

Nicolas Poussin, “Saints Peter and John Healing the Lame M1655)

An Invitation to Renew

One of the primary reasons I struggled with Lent for so long was because I failed to grasp what it was aiming at. I wouldn’t have put it this way, but I intuited that Lent was meant primarily for me to grasp the extent of my total depravity (I barely had enough self-control to resist the call of the occasional A&W Root Beer, after all). On the whole, I wasn’t entirely off-base. Remembrance of and repentance for our sins are necessary components of the Christian life, but they were always meant to flow into the work of renewal.

For many centuries, the 40 days of Lent served as the primary season of preparation for new Christians seeking to be baptized on Easter. These men and women would rigorously train their minds, bodies, and spirits so that, come Easter Sunday, they might be ready to become Christ’s hands and feet in a world that often wanted to do those hands and feet violence. They were training to be renewed so that they could renew broken relationships, systems, and environments in the name of Jesus. 

This remains our call. How will you participate in God’s work of renewal this Lent? Perhaps you will consider joining us for a Community Work Day at the Corhaven Graveyard on Holy Saturday, April 11, to tend and beautify the resting places of formerly enslaved persons.

Lent reminds us that we are part of a larger story of unfolding redemption in the face of seemingly implacable brokenness; Lent confronts us with our need for repentance by jolting us into a deeper understanding of our own sinfulness; Lent trains us to participate in the renewal of all things that began at the empty tomb. How will we respond to Lent’s three invitations to us this year?

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