How might you describe the season of Lent? Larry Goldman wonders whether this Gentile season of sacrifice is full-price retail version of Yom Kippur, and asks me if we have ever considered something more economical. Some people describe Lent in competitive terms: forty days to feel more wretched than thou. If Lent were a Wordle, what word would it be? FORGO? ABASE? ABHOR? NO FUN?
Instead of using the negative descriptives, it may be helpful to think about the ways that Lent can support and nurture a holy life in the midst of our complicated world? How do our disciplines offer us moments of transcendence which lead us to the presence of God?
We begin Lent by praying the Great Litany. In 1544, this was the first English language rite prepared by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer. Cranmer modeled the prayer after a very ancient way of praying in a pattern of call and response. It was prayed in procession on Sundays before the beginning of the Mass, and was included in the 1549 BCP. The people invoke the intercession and mercy of God, in every dimension of our life. Why do we still do this? Could it be that we continue to sense that without God, our life is ridded with malaise? We ask the Holy One to sanctify our messy lives. Holiness doesn’t grow without the influence of God’s grace.
Our scripture lessons today illustrate ways to live in holy intention individually and as part of a group.
Deuteronomy speaks of grace as a collective experience. The action of the entire community testifies to God’s faithful deliverance to new life and provision. The story is not of individuals but of a whole community who dwell together, sanctified in the blessing of the Holy One.
Paul focuses more on the working of grace in individuals, although he emphasizes the connection between us that derives from Christ. Holiness is not exclusive. Neither ethnic nor religious background can be used as an excuse for exclusion from the grace and salvation of God. Paul says that salvation belongs to all who call on the holy Name and want to live in harmony with God’s will.
Our gospel lesson teaches that evil, which can undermine our quest for holiness, often capitalizes on a temptation to step away from the primary relationship that identifies us. Underlying the dialogue between Satan and Jesus are two competing stories of what gives us life. The Adversary offers a deceptive story of life rooted in the Ego: self-indulgence (make yourself bread from stones), self-aggrandizement (all the nations of the world will belong to you), and self-serving religious identity (the son of God could jump from the top of the temple). Jesus responds with scripture quotations that show his awareness that genuine life and identity are rooted in God. He knows that life is more than food, true worship and service are not about us, and that disciples trust God, instead of testing God. The story Jesus offers is rooted in a narrative about a holy life marked by the grace of God, a love which supersedes self, and offers new life and divine identity.
Every day we are barraged with voices that tell us that we are not enough, that we are defective, that we are generally unlovable in our natural state. Yet the gospel teaches us that nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that we are deeply, foundationally, entirely loved by God, in our natural condition, which is to say in our imperfection, with our physical and spiritual limitations, our inclination to do foolish things, and our built-in obsolescence. We are infinitely and unconditionally beloved.
The Lenten exercise of repentance – turning back to God – is about remembering our beloved identity, as individuals and as community. This is more inclusive than just avoiding temptation. Please do not hear this as an endorsement of sin or of avoiding responsibility. The point is that when we remember who we are, we are less likely to be attracted to behaviors which are destructive of our relationship with God and one another. We can come to know the love of God more profoundly by practice. Holiness is a learned habit. This is Lent.
Spiritual practices teach us the path into holiness, as individuals and as a community. Daily prayer (of many varieties), spiritual reading, study of scripture, being in nature are all worthwhile personal spiritual practices.
Our community worship service is designed to offer multiple entry points to life in the presence of God: music (which counts as praying twice if we believe St Augustine), the beauty of a sanctuary, multiple readings from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, individual and corporate prayer, formal teaching (sermon), Holy Communion (the divine banquet for all of us), a priestly blessing, and some time for fellowship. The Sunday service is rich enough in grace to be impactful even in virtual format.
Do not allow this moment of spiritual growth to get away from you. Six weeks is the perfect timeframe to build a healthy habit. I encourage you to embrace Lent as a season for pursuing a life infused with holiness. Practice diligently the art of turning to God with some intention. May your Lent be holy experience.