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Lent as Life, not Punishment: The First Sunday in Lent

Sunday, February 21, 2021:
Genesis 9:8-17
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

There have been a lot of interesting and helpful discussions about Lent recently. How do you do Lent when last year’s Lent never really stopped? (And related, how will we celebrate Easter if, like some predictions are saying, a third wave will hit us right around that time?) To be asked to consider refraining from something, when so much of our regular lives have been taken away, can feel counter-productive, or cruel.

The readings today evoke images of water, and baptism. That might lead us to approach this Lent less from the perspective of dour mortification, and more from that of preparation — thinking of how in the early Church (and to some extent, today), Lent was a time of preparation for Easter baptism. Though even the common Lenten theme of repentance fits into this perspective. Repentance means “to turn around.” Repentance isn’t about wallowing in our own sins, our own guilt, but about ensuring that we’re headed in the right direction. So during Lent — and this is fitting on the day of our annual vestry meeting — the Church goes about some self-examination to see if it’s heading in a direction, following Jesus, that leads it to Jerusalem, to the Cross, and to the Empty Tomb. Some practices might be helpful in this course-correction: being content with less; supporting important causes; engaging in some extra study and prayer. They’re not ends in themselves, but markers along the path to Holy Week, and to Easter.

    – Following a path, or a map can seem restrictive and limiting. But it can also be helpful, and liberating, if we’ve been going in circles.
    – The ark we heard about in our first reading probably got cramped, and muggy, and stuffy. But it’s what saved its passengers.
    – Forty years in the desert was surely difficult, dangerous, and a drag. But it led to the Promised Land that was infinitely better than enslavement in Egypt.
    – School can be monotonous, and tough in so many ways. But it’s a necessary step on the road to responsible citizenship, and preparation for vocations, careers, or more school, where you get to focus on the subjects you love.
    – Or think of a get-together with loved ones — something we’ve been missing… A casual, potluck, pop and chips night is simple and unremarkable, and can’t possibly compare to a big, dressy gala, or a night at an extravagant restaurant. But if all we did was go to black tie events, we’d probably burn out. It’s hard being ‘on’ all the time.

So those simple, low-key times are important parts of our lives. So no wonder the Church has seasons like Lent, where things are stripped down, quieted down, and more introspective. Lent isn’t a punishment, just like school isn’t, and following the directions on a map isn’t about imposing arbitrary limits. The ark, and the long walk through the desert were difficult, even confounding. But they were stations on the way to fuller life. Lent can be that for us.

One contemporary writer makes a case for Lent when he says:

An age where there is more food on the supermarket shelves than ever before needs to learn the wisdom of fasting. A world where we rush from one excitement to another, or one duty to another, needs space and silence that lead to prayer. A culture of indulgence needs abstinence. A society that has lost its moral certainties needs repentance. A generation that communicates by soundbites and texts needs spiritual reading. A Church that celebrates a friendly accessible compassionate God needs music that pulls us up short before the majesty and the holiness of God. A time of economic turmoil, or international instability and of fears for the planet needs fasting, prayer, abstinence, penitence and much more in generous measure.*

So I encourage you again, as I did on Wednesday, to the observance of a holy Lent. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach. The important thing is that you pick up a Lenten ‘map’ and find a pathway that has as its beginning point your baptism, and its end: the Crucifixion and Resurrection. “And baptism, which [the flood] prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.” Amen.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Michael Perham, The Way of Christ Likeness (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2016), 16.