Some years ago in his sermon for the first Sunday in Lent a friend unexpectedly challenged those of us in attendance to do three things as each one of us made our way, through the Forty days of Lent. He called us to silence, study and service. The idea was that the congregation commit to a twenty minute Lenten discipline, at least three times a week. Such a challenge may not seem unusual, or out of the ordinary, yet in the years since hearing that particular Lent One sermon I am continually reminded of what Dr. Peter Gomes spoke of as a means of understanding the practicality and productivity of such a Lenten observance.
He suggested that by our active silence, we are able to listen for the sounds of God all around us, and to the voice of God speaking directly to us. By our honest and faithful study, we are able to see what others have thought and written about the working of God in the world, thus enabling us to enter into the knowledge and love of God with more than superficial feelings and vague assumptions. By our dedicated service, we are able to take an active part in doing the work that God has given us to do, by following the commandments of Christ to love and serve one another.
If it were only as simple and uncomplicated, as it often appears to be in the writing of Holy Scripture, or in the suggestions of the preacher, our Christian pilgrimage would be a cakewalk! But it is not that simple or uncomplicated to live a focused and directed Christian life, particularly during Lent. More often than not we are beset by what seem the unique problems and consequences of being Christians in a post-Christian society, in a post-Christian era. It seems to me that at no other time in the Christian calendar year is this more apparent than during Lent, with its traditional, intimidating prerequisites of self-denial, and introspection. Lent seems to bring out the best, as well as the worst, in all of us. This is a paradox that we must live with, but it is also a paradox that can be overcome by putting the human face of Lent in the proper perspective.
Our spiritual liberation comes in this season of penitence when and only when we are able to renew the human dimension of our spiritual enterprise. In our quest for a right relationship with our risen Lord, we are not meant to simply attempt to imitate his holy life, for that we can never do. Rather, we are challenged to live our lives as truly for others as Jesus lived his life faithfully for us all.
We fool ourselves, and kid all those around us if we think that we can walk stride for stride with our Lord as he makes his way to Jerusalem and Calvary. It was not possible for the apostles and disciples of Jesus to keep up with the pace he set throughout his ministry. They continually wrestled with their understanding of the mission, ministry, and message of Jesus. From the wedding at Cana to the garden of Gethsemane and the events surrounding the trial and the cross, and even after the experience of the resurrection, the story of the followers of Jesus is a story of continually missing the point of the message of salvation, and God’s act of redemption taking place in their midst. Many of us undoubtedly feel that if the disciples could not keep pace with their leader, what chance have we, so far removed from the excitement and newness of Jesus’ministry of reconciliation and renewal?
To keep a successful Lenten discipline often takes courage and integrity. It is the courage to be, for one specific period of time, different from the world. The courage to carry out what we have promised ourselves, and in some cases, pledged to God. To follow a practical Lenten discipline would in fact be to take the time and the patience to really observe the working of God in the world. It would be to choose to be different from the world and actively decide to engage God, or at the very least, to undertake a search for God that would involve our whole being. It is the integrity that an honest appraisal of self demands. It is a sense of purpose that enables us to focus on God in our lives and see the means by which the true understanding of the purpose and practicality of the Christian life emerges As a legitimate alternative a secular way of thinking. To employ the simplicity of this suggested Lenten discipline is to use the three S’s to their greatest effect, and our greatest advantage.
Our task during this holy season is to dutifully and reverently follow our Lord to Calvary. Follow, and seriously ponder the mystery of his life, as well as his death for us all. While imitation is an impossibility in our sinful state, simply following the example of our Lord and savior can also be a difficult proposition. The roadblocks and obstacles that we must overcome are discouraging impediments that confuse and sidetrack us as we attempt to keep pace with a meaningful and productive Lent. Many of us reach a point in our pilgrimage where the good intentions and promises of Ash Wednesday very quickly give way to our pre-Lenten attitudes of guilty indifference.
We often reach that point in Lent where we look in the mirror and see the hard reality of Lent staring back at us, and we don’t like it. It is not the image that we want to conjure up, and it is not the image that we expected to see when we made our solemn promises to keep a Holy Lent. It is not the image of piety and penitence that stares back at us. It is the image of guilt and sorrow, the face of failure. If we are totally honest with ourselves, no matter how much we say that we honor and keep faithful to the observance of Lent there are times when our forty-day discipline gets in the way of our day to day lives. After a while there seems to be sameness about Lent.
Yet, in spite of, or maybe because of our misgivings Lent seems to give us permission to search for our own personal means of following God. Left to our own devices we continually fall short of that which we seek: a right relationship with God, a relationship that allows us, not only to glimpse at the Holy, but also to view, if ever so briefly, our own possibility of divinity. The point is that we will not make any progress at all if we do not open ourselves to the possibility of being touched, and moved by the Holy One.
The story is told of a student who was about to graduate from college and came to the chaplain’s office for a talk. The student said that during her time away from home she had tested new ideas, met new people, and begun to think that her life back home had been limiting and parochial. In the process of coming to grips with whom she now was the student thought that she had lost all faith. In a last ditch attempt to reconcile her new life she sought out the chaplain for advice and counsel. The chaplain listened to her story and then simply asked the following question, ’do you see anything in the personality of Jesus which so intrigues and excites you that you feel sure it would be worth giving yourself to it, no matter what the outcome or sacrifice?” “Of course,” the student replied, “but that has nothing to do with religion.” (Interpreter’s Bible)
The student’s response to her chaplain may seem strange, but the truth is that in today’s society the popular notion of Christianity, and our Lord’s life among us, often reduces our faith to a set of moral codes, or liturgical observances. We sculpt our belief to the pattern that best meets our lifestyle, thereby justifying our actions and reactions to the world around us. In our attempt to understand all things, and include or exclude, all people in our day-to-day lives we have totally missed the point of the inclusiveness of God and the openness of Jesus. A secular Christianity that proclaims Christian virtues without a firm commitment to Christian faith misses the message and meaning of our Lord’s sacrifice. Being good like Jesus is not the answer. At least not the entire answer. Mere imitation does not, can not, and will not lead to salvation.
There is a courtroom scene in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in which Dmitri has been sentenced to prison in Siberia. He is so exhausted from his ordeal that he falls asleep on a bench. When he awakens he finds that someone has placed a pillow under his head. He does not know who it was, but he was overjoyed. For Dmitri it was, in the midst of his pain, a sign of the goodness of life. He will go to prison, he says, and keep God’s name alive there because he knows that God is in the world. The nameless, selfless someone who did him a small kindness is guarantee of that.
So often we forget that the process of salvation sometimes begins from an encounter outside, and is then experienced within. The Christian experience is not an accumulation of virtue, a record that just grows and grows like rings of a tree. To keep a holy Lent is to experience the loss of the old order that clears the path for the gain of a new life at Easter. Each new day God gives us the opportunity to start over, to start fresh. Most of us overlook these daily opportunities to be attuned to the conscious workings of God in the world around us.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent. It is also another chance for us to use these forty days to observe God in our lives. To observe God close up. To be conscious of the presence of our Lord guiding and directing our way is to seek the silence of Lent. To understand how and why Jesus died for us all is to undertake the study of Lent. And to actively engage in the work of reconciliation and redemption among the people that we meet daily is to engage in the service of Lent.
Each new day of silence, study, and service helps us to grow in the knowledge and love of God as we seek God’s grace and mercy in our lives. As we enter the time of the testing and the passion of our Lord and savior, let us once again commit ourselves to Christ our Lord and to a holy Lent.
Let us pray:
Direct our hearts to you, gracious Lord, so that we may follow you more closely during this holy season of Lent and all the days of our life; in all our needs we turn to you for the help of your grace, and ask you to give us strength to work for the things that make for a better world. All this we pray for your love’s sake. Amen. (Catholic Prayer Book)