Oh, Advent gets all the attention, because it leads up to Christmas, and instead of fasting and repentance, there’s partying and excesses of all sorts. Advent is a modern American kind of season, the way we practice it now.
But it used to be like Lent, a time for reflection, self-examination, silence.
It is no wonder the Lenten season is unpopular, often unobserved and un-regarded in some Protestant churches. We don’t see the point of Lent. I worry that we have fallen prey to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace,” grace that we glibly accept and feel that we need not acknowledge, grace that offers blanket forgiveness for sins we don’t really have to renounce, and aren’t that sinful, anyway, when we compare them to everybody else’s sins.
Christians have a deservedly bad reputation for pointing out the sins of other people. This is not a Biblically sound activity, but it can be enjoyable. And then Lent comes and reminds us that Jesus hung out with prostitutes and thieves and tax collectors and lepers, eating with outcasts, touching untouchables, loving the loveless and demon-haunted; He only publicly denounced one group – religious hypocrites.
Lent says we can’t examine the culture, whatever that is, or the neighbors, or our friends, or even the Church. We have to examine ourselves. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
To act justly.
To love mercy.
To walk humbly.
The Ash Wednesday observation at my church is possibly my favorite service of the year. It is sober, and sobering, with the sanctuary stripped bare of ornament. It includes lots of quiet space for thinking, for reflecting, and yes, for examining the state of my soul. In that quiet place, a little island of me in the middle of people I love, I cannot excuse my lack of concern for justice, my deplorable habit of mercilessness, or my overweening pride and vanity. One by one, the layers of yuck peel back, so that I can repent.
To repent just means to turn away from – I do not want to be blind to the suffering in the world; I do not want to lack compassion for anyone; I do not want to fail to love; I do not want to be haughty, arrogant, over-confident. I do not want to reduce God to some pathetic deity to which I can feel superior, as if God would collapse without my help.
Sebastian makes the sign of the cross on my forehead in ashes. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The grass withers, the flower fades. The soul, however, is a thing with wings – eternal, powerful, beautiful – free. Lent is all about walking away from the darkness of judgmentalism, of pride, of selfishness and jingoistic loyalties, even “religious” loyalties, and into pure light, pure love, absolute joy. Forty days hardly seems long enough!