Henry Nouwen, a Dutch Roman Catholic Priest and Theologian wrote, “Lent is the most important time of the year to nurture our inner life. It is the time in which we not only prepare ourselves to celebrate the mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus, but also the death and resurrection that constantly takes place within us…When we live Lent attentively and gently, then Easter can truly be a celebration during which the full proclamation of the risen Christ will reverberate into the deepest place of our being.”
I believe that he is correct. To fail to observe Lent or to fail to attend all of Holy Week is like walking in toward the end of a movie and then wondering why you did not find it as moving as those who saw it all. Thus the Church is wise to call us to the observance of a Holy Lent. As followers of Christ we join Him in His 40 days in the wilderness and confront our own temptations. Sharing in His victory over temptations these 40 days makes His ultimate victory over death taste even sweeter
Particularly for those who may be new to this tradition, allow me to explain some of the details of this penitential season. Traditionally there are three major ways that we observe Lent, taken from Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel according to St. Matthew. The three ways of observing Lent are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Not in all three of these Jesus did not say “If” rather He said, “When you pray…When you fast….When you give.”
One way to think of the benefit of these three is by seeing them as weapons to fight against our three major enemies, which are the world, the flesh and the devil. Older liturgies even described this season as Christian warfare.
Prayer as a weapon. English preacher Samuel Chadwick said that when we pray the devil trembles. He trembles because it is through prayer that we undo his works. When we pray “Thy kingdom come” we are praying for an invasion against the gates of hell, which Jesus said would not be able to prevail against us.
Fasting as a weapon. When we fast we confront our flesh. But we have to be careful here and not become dualists. God made our bodies and they are to be used as temples of the Holy Spirit, so our bodies are not the enemy nor are they evil. When St. Paul speaks of not walking in the flesh by “flesh” what he is referring to is that two-year old brat that lives inside of me, demanding to have his own way. Fasting is a way to say very loudly to the brat “NO!”
Giving as a weapon. Almsgiving confronts the pull of the world that demands that we watch out for number one and that fears that if we are generous then we be without. The world gives us a thousand reasons to walk past the man beaten by robbers but through almsgiving we become the Good Samaritan.
It’s very important to understand that these disciplines are means to a goal and not the goal in themselves. We are not trying to build up brownie points so that God will like us more. Rather we are confessing that we are not where we need to be, that in part we have wandered away and we use this season and these disciplines to make our way home. It is the returning that Prophets called out for. We are saying, as the beautiful hymn puts it, “Prone to wander Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love. Here’s my heart so take and seal it, seal it for thy courts above.” In saying “NO” to the world, the flesh and the devil we are saying “YES” to the Lord and offering Him our hearts.
We begin this season through repentance and ashes. Again we are not trying to earn favor rather we are simply admitting who we are. As we say weekly in the confession, we are admitting that we have not loved God with our whole hearts and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. And for this we seek the Lord’sabsolution, because as Frederick Beuchner put it, we can no more absolve ourselves than we can sit in our own laps. Additionally the ashes remind us that we are mortal and so we should not put off our repentance until tomorrow because we may not have tomorrow.
I really like that Henry Nouwen said that we should keep Lent attentively and gently. The word “gently” brings it into proper focus. Gently means that we are not driven to keep Lent perfectly, to turn it into a legalism. We are not trying to become the spiritual equivalent of Navy Seals and Lent is not the Church’s version of hell week. Keeping Lent gently is simply responding to Jesus’ loving invitation to come back home.
There is a beautiful line in the Psalm appointed today for Morning Prayer. It reads, “…mercy embraces those who trust in the Lord.” Use this season of Lent to renew your trust in Him and allow His mercy to embrace you. May God grant us the ability to live Lent attentively and gently. Amen.