Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. In this manner, the whole Congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need that all Christians continually have to renew our repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observation of a holy Lent: by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and alms-giving; and by reading and meditating on God’s Holy Word. And to make a right beginning, let us now pray for grace, that we may faithfully keep this Lent. (BCP 2019 page 543)
The season of Lent is a wonderful opportunity for repentance, reconciliation, and renewal as we prepare to observe the earth-shattering events of Holy Week and Easter – yet so often it becomes an opportunity for empty gestures and superficial ritual. In the 1980s we lived in Lafayette, Louisiana, an area with a dominant Roman Catholic culture, where Lent was taken very seriously. After the usually raucous observance of Mardi Gras, Ash Wednesday came as a quiet and solemn reminder of our human frailty and our dependence upon God’s mercy and grace. But not everyone embraced it with the requisite gravity. I remember the local donut shop on Johnson Street, the main street through town, using their flashing neon sign to advertise a “Lenten special with free donuts” as a gentle poke at those who were abstaining from such worldly pleasures. Giving up unnecessary calories and unbecoming habits seemed to be the dominant mode of observance, so we decided to use this as a springboard to a more meaningful discipline.
We were planting a church on the outskirts of Lafayette and were using St. Thomas More Roman Catholic High School for our weekly gathering – I thought it a delightful irony that we were planting an Anglican Church in a school named after a man who was beheaded because of his refusal to accept King Henry VIII as head of the Church of England! However, most of our ministry took place in home groups that met weekly for prayer, discipleship, and fellowship.
We wanted to emphasize the importance of these groups and so developed a comprehensive advertising campaign with posters, bulletins, and billboards with the headline GIVE UP CHURCH FOR LENT! We even had a logo that showed a cutout drawing of a church with a “banned” icon superimposed on it. Our aim was to challenge everyone to devote themselves more fully to the rewarding work of prayer and discipleship instead of simply going through the motions of empty ritualism.
The response was astonishing! There were editorials in the local newspapers and commentary on the local television station attacking this despicable plot – suspected, of course, to be government inspired – to shutdown churches during this holy season. When we claimed it as our initiative, there were numerous conversations throughout the community about the true meaning of Lent and we saw remarkable growth in our home groups. While I am not proposing a similar campaign for the Anglican Diocese of Pittsburgh – in these contentious times I am not sure anyone would get past the headline – I do want to encourage you to take this coming season of Lent as an opportunity to get back to the basic Three R’s.
REPENTANCE ... When I first encountered Anglican liturgy as a teenager, I was shocked to hear myself described as a miserable offender (sinner), but I have come to discover that there is great freedom in knowing myself as such. As the apostle Paul reminds us, “All of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). It is only as we understand ourselves as sinners in need of repentance, that we can glimpse the enormity of God’s mercy and grace. Repentance is also a corrective to our tendency to look down on others as they wrestle with their own sinfulness – illustrated with painful clarity by Jesus’ story of the two men who went up to the Temple to pray (Luke 18:10-14).
RECONCILIATION ... In today’s world surely no-one needs to be convinced that we are in desperate need of reconciliation – not only here at home but all over the world – the only challenge is knowing where to start. The invitation to a Holy Lent, with which I began this letter, suggests a starting point – self-examination and repentance. It is impossible to reconcile with those around us until we are reconciled with God (2 Corinthians 5:16-21). But once that process has begun, we are to take steps to be reconciled with those around us, especially those within our own families and close community from whom we are estranged. Only then dare we direct our attention to the reconciliation needed in the rest of society.
RENEWAL ... Perhaps one of the greatest gifts that the season of Lent offers us is to be renewed in the basics of our Christian faith and in our utter dependence upon the Holy Spirit. Throughout the Biblical narrative we find a pattern of retreat into the wilderness before taking on new opportunities for Kingdom service. It is in the wilderness that we discover that our only hope is in the Lord and our only source of true strength is the Holy Spirit. I urge you to find time to withdraw from the daily swirl of activities and renew your relationship with the living God ... the story of Elijah’s experience of the ‘still small voice’ is instructive (1 Kings 19:12).
Finally, another story of our daughter Rachel. She has never been known to be in a hurry, so we were all rather amused when she declared with great seriousness that she was giving up RUSHING for Lent! Perhaps that is a good word for the rest of us?
Your brother in Christ,