Growing up in a church that did not follow the liturgical calendar, I had very little understanding of Lent until my time in Seminary and beyond. Lent, spanning 40 days, serves to remind the church of Jesus’ time of fasting and temptation in the Wilderness.
Ash Wednesday, a day where we recognize our own mortality and brokenness, kicks off the season of Lent, and Easter Sunday brings it to a powerful conclusion with the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus.
Lent enters into our life each year as a more solemn reminder of our need for repentance and grace, as opposed to the celebratory, anticipatory nature of Advent. For years, I have approached Lent with a sense of dread and foreboding. I tend to gloss over my own need for repentance. It is painful, sometimes embarrassing, and in our feel-good culture, it makes me feel a bit like good old “Debbie Downer.”
But what is the Cross without the need for forgiveness? Why celebrate victory over sin if sin did not once have dominion and authority? What is the resurrection of Easter if we did not feel the power of death pulling our souls into hopelessness? Who hopes in a day when every tear will be dried if we never have known the sorrow of oceans of tears?
We can not acknowledge the victory of life over death if we are not able to acknowledge the reality of death, and this is why the season of Lent is so important.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in The Cost of Discipleship (1937), speaks of cheap grace:
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate”
This powerful analysis of the progression of the church speaks volumes to how we approach Lent. Christianity without Lent feels a bit like Bonhoeffer’s description of cheap grace. It feels a bit hollow, eerily meaningless, and hauntingly self-contradictory. “Wait? Why did Jesus have to come, and why did He have to die if I’m a pretty great person who just needs a few little tweaks every now and then? Surely that whole cross thing was a little bit overly dramatic? Maybe even gratuitous?”
But, really folks, I know when I look deep down into my own ugly, I see my desperate need for a Savior. I see those dark thoughts, my own trend toward pride and narcissism, my own self-promoting agendas, and I see someone who desperately needs to dive head-first into a season of Lent.
In his work, No Man is an Island (1955), theologian Thomas Merton writes:
“But the man who is not afraid to admit everything that he sees to be wrong with himself, and yet recognizes that he may be the object of God’s love precisely because of his shortcomings, can begin to be sincere. His sincerity is based on confidence, not in his own illusions about himself, but in the endless, unfailing mercy of God” (No Man Is an Island, Thomas Merton)
Lent offers us a unique perspective, where we clear out space In our lives and minds to see God a bit more clearly, and as a result, to see ourselves a bit more clearly. From this vantage point, we may respond a bit like Isaiah did in chapter 6 when he saw the Lord on the throne:
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Isaiah 6:5
Merton and Bonhoeffer understood the importance of repentance and discipleship in the Christian life, and as we approach Lent with fresh eyes, I pray that we can see it as instrumental in our journey of discipleship.
The awareness of our need for repentance does not lessen God’s love for us. Oh, no, my friends: it only solidifies it deeper: God’s grace is abundantly available to cleanse us, and His love is ready to embrace us and welcome us. Lent is the path that Jesus paved for us to know and experience the true and transforming love of God.