Pastoral Perspectives

Rediscovering Lent

For some years, I followed the church liturgical calendar or the Christian calendar without a deep appreciation of its richness and beauty. The calendar traces the life and ministry of Christ Jesus within a year. By the grace of God, I attended a Lenten Seminar last month, and my eyes were opened to the rhythm of grace found in the Christian calendar.

In essence, when we let the Christian year shape our personal practice of Bible reflection and prayer (e.g., use devotional materials appropriate for the season), we can inhabit or dwell inside the redemptive Story of God, and allow this great Story to shape our lives by active remembering and anticipating. This bringing of the past and the future into the present is a work of the Holy Spirit. When we allow the Holy Spirit to weave our stories into God’s Story, we anticipate with hope that the power that raised Jesus from the dead also guarantees the final redemption of all things in Christ (Eph. 1:15-23). Living the Christian year helps us to dig further into this power as we recall afresh God’s redemption Story week after week. With a deeper appreciation of the Christian calendar, I entered the Lenten season with curious anticipation.

Lent is a 40 days period (Sundays not included) before Easter Sunday. Traditionally Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and ends on the Saturday before Easter Sunday (Holy Saturday). On the first day, ashes which signify our spiritual penitence were applied on the foreheads, marking the start of a time of examination, reflection and meditation. The word lent comes from a Saxon word that originally meant “length” and was used to denote springtime (lencton, in Old English). We can look at Lent as a season of spiritual spring cleaning as we journey with Jesus to the cross.

To inhabit Lent, we pray, fast, meditate on Scriptures using Lenten Devotional Readings, and examine our lives to address temptations and hidden sins. While fasting in Scriptures refers to not eating food, Bobby Gross, in Living the Christian Year – Time to Inhabit the Story of God, explains that we can appropriately extend the concept of fasting to other activities and substances:

In our consumer-driven society, the practice of abstinence from certain things for certain periods can loosen the hold of our unhealthy appetites and destructive addictions. This is why many people choose to give up something for Lent. If we are purposeful in what we choose, this type of fasting can recalibrate our degree of “need” for the thing given up.

I was relieved to learn of Lenten abstinence as fasting from food is not feasible for me due to gastric problem. When I tried giving up certain enjoyments the past two weeks, I realised very quickly I had been excessively attached to them. While none of these enjoyments are in themselves bad, they can be subtle idolatries. I thank God for this gracious revelation.

At the Lenten Seminar, we were invited to ponder afresh the silence between Jesus’ entombment and his resurrection that very first Holy Saturday. Teleporting myself to the locked-up abode of the apostles and the resting place of the disciples who wanted to return to Emmaus, I saw sadness, disappointment, confusion, fear and despair. Indeed, without the light of Easter Sunday, there is no hope for us! I thank God that we now go through Lent with the assurance of Easter and the forgiveness secured by Jesus. Don Saliers, quoted by Bobby Gross in Living the Christian Year, describes the double journey of Lent in this way:

Lent is a double journey – a journey together (and alone) toward the mystery of God’s redemptive embrace in the death and resurrection of Christ. At the same time, it is a journey into the depths of our humanity.

Indeed, the wisdom of Lent calls for us to examine our hearts and habits, to acknowledge our finitude and failings, and to turn to the God who turns to us in mercy (Psalm 90). But there is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God. As we engage in practices of repentance this Lenten season, let us take heed of a warning from Henri Nouwen in Show Me the Way:

God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but rather to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get struck in a paralysing guilt. It is the guilt that says: “I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.” It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: “Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?”

As I examined my heart and reflected on the temptations and hidden sins I had to address, I was reminded that Jesus has been tempted in every respect as we are, but he repeatedly says no to temptations. At the start of Jesus’ ministry, the devil tempted Jesus with physical comfort, public acclaim, and wealth and power (Mat 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13). After Jesus disclosed the path of suffering, his trusted disciple Peter took him aside to talk him out of it. Jesus again discerned the voice of Satan and rebuked Peter (Mark 8:31-33). At the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was sorrowful and troubled. He pleaded with the Father three times to be spared the bitter cup of suffering and separation, but each time he ended his plea with a willingness to say yes to doing the Father’s will (Mat 26:36-46).

And this is what Jesus asks of us during Lent, to say no to self-gratification and temptations, and to say yes to the God who died for us – “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34).

Ms Chan Suet Fong

March 4, 2018