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Lent and Lengthening Days: Sunday, February 18, 2024

The First Sunday in Lent:
Mark 1:9-15

At his baptism, “[Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart.” At his death, “the curtain of the Temple was torn in two.” At his baptism, “the Spirit descend[ed] like a dove on him.” At his death, he exhales the Spirit when he breathes his last.

This is a likely intentional parallel shaping of the Gospel of Mark; a balancing of its beginning and end. On Wednesday night at our joint service with St. Columba a few people heard me speak on this theme of finding balance in an through Lent. A balancing of life and death; of joy and sombreness; of, as Jesus counsels in the Ash Wednesday gospel, to take on a spiritual practice, but not to make huge deal out of it, “like the hypocrites do.”

Lent is sometimes rightly described as a journey, and there’s good, vivid, Lenten imagery associated with the desert; with the wilderness that Jesus goes out to, to be tested. (As others, in Biblical history, were tested through the heat and dryness of the desert.) But in this balancing of the book’s beginning and its end, we’re being invited not just to go out with Jesus into his desert, but invited to follow him to his Cross. The heart of the Church year is encountered in the great three days before Easter Sunday: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and the Saturday night Easter Vigil. Through that three day, three part liturgy, Jesus invites us to follow him to (and through) the Cross: from his last words to his friends; his agonizing crisis in the garden; his betrayal and arrest; interrogation and torture; his death; and eventually his resurrection. [As some of you heard me say on Wednesday] those three days are intense; it’s a marathon. And these forty days of Lent give us an opportunity to train — our bodies and souls — for that marathon.

As you might have heard before, “Lent” is related to the word “lengthen.” It’s a reference to the lengthening of days as spring approaches. For us in this part of the world, Lent with all its heavy associations, gets layered on top of the heaviness of our snow, and the greyness of the days. (This year it might not feel quite so oppressive, with our milder winter.) But when you think of the development of Lent in its original Near Eastern context, you’d find more of that sense of balance: yes, much more directive than we are today about things like fasting and other spiritual practices, but at the same time, the arrival of warmer weather, the sprouting of green plant life, and the promise of spring. So, even if we are taking on, or fasting from, one or more things, there’s a general sense of moderation; not misery. The purpose of Lent isn’t that God wants you to be miserable. It’s that God wants to bring you (to use our theological language) from death into life. (From unhelpful, unhealthy, limited and limiting ways into something altogether better and brighter. And we get there by growing in our openness to what Jesus experienced in his Passion.) And there’s no shortcut through this. It’s very human to want to fast track things, and avoid discomfort. But some things just have to take their own time. And in Lent, this season named for “lengthening,” we’re called to be present to ourselves, and to Jesus, over these 40 days that precede Easter.

Think of how Jesus didn’t just jump from his baptism into his ministry. (Though a case could be made for doing that: there’s endless human need, so why not start helping and healing as soon as possible?) But no, Jesus goes from his baptism into the wilderness, to be tested, to be stretched. And Jesus didn’t go straight from the Last Supper to the Resurrection, though that would have been far more comfortable for everyone involved. Likewise, there is something (or lots of things) that are important for us to learn from all the movements of Jesus’s Passion — something that gets at the core of human experience — the experiences of betrayal, agony, pain. But all of these things (and much more) transformed when Jesus is raised from the dead. Saying something to us about how those things that we thought were farthest from God, are actually moments in which God is most present, with us, in our trials.

So take some time to ask what Lent might look and feel like for yourself this year. I believe it was in his Ash Wednesday sermon last year, that Gerry pointed out that the 40 days of Lent are approximately a tenth of the calendar year, and so, a ‘tithe’ of the year. We give these days over to God in a special way. We mark them off as distinct, and different; as sacred. One contemporary figure in the Anglican Church has framed the traditional disciplines of Lent in a way that might speak to us anew (and I suspect I’ve quoted this before).

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, of international instability and of fears for the planet needs fasting, prayer, abstinence, penitence and much more in generous measure.*

So in these early days of the season, be curious about where you are feeling drawn in these lengthening days. How can you mark off and give over the rest of this season over to God? (How might I, or your neighbour in the pew, support you in this?)

Let us pray:

In these forty days, O Holy God,

you lead us into the desert of repentance

that through a pilgrimage of prayer and discipline
we may grow in grace
and learn to be your people once again.
Through fasting, prayer and acts of service
you bring us back to your generous heart.
Through study of your holy word
you open our eyes to your presence in the world
and free our hands to welcome others
into the radiant splendour of your love.
Be with us in this desert time,
and conform us to Christ,
in whose name we pray. Amen. **

* Michael Perham, The Way of Christlikeness (Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2016), 16.
** Common Worship: Times & Seasons, extended preface (p. 218)