There are many ways to think about Lent. For some, this is a season for special service or study; for others, it is a time to give up something cherished as an action of self-denial; for some, it is simply a time to feel bad about yourself. Whether our Lenten discipline is oriented toward self-denial, spiritual reflection, or community service, I’m convinced that most of us experience the season routinely, forgetful that Lent is primarily and ultimately oriented toward Easter. We give up things, we take on things because that is how we are supposed to spend the days in late winter and early spring. It’s a convenient way to pass the time between spring training and opening day.
Lent’s true purpose is not to promote self-denial for its own sake. Lent’s true purpose is to focus us on how God leads us toward Easter. Because we human beings have short attention spans, it is easy for us to forget what Lent is primarily about. When we’re in the middle of a wilderness, we can tend to forget the destination of the journey. We get lost, and in our confusion we lose our bearings. As Dante reminds us at the beginning of the Inferno,
At the mid-point of the path through life, I found
Myself lost in a wood so dark, the way
Ahead was blotted out. The keening sound
I still make shows how hard it is to say
How harsh and bitter that place felt to me—
Merely to think of it renews the fear. [Dante, Inferno, Clive James translation]
The readings for tonight remind us why we observe Lent in the first place. We observe Lent not because we are supposed to feel guilty or overburdened. Surely modern life can make us feel that way without the season’s help. We observe Lent because we are trying, as best we can, to get ready for Easter. Let’s hear how our passages from Exodus and from Romans might help us prepare.
Tonight’s reading from Exodus shows Moses’s conversation with God immediately after his encounter with the burning bush. You remember that the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, and at the depth of their suffering there Moses received this call from Yahweh to lead his people into freedom:
Go and assemble the elders of Israel, and say to them, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, of Isaac, and of Jacob, has appeared to me, saying: I have given heed to you and to what has been done to you in Egypt. I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Exod. 3:16-17)
Just as it is easy for us to lose our way in the middle of life’s dark wood, just as we can forget that Lent serves to point us toward Easter, so it is easy to forget the point of the whole religious enterprise. God’s deepest will for you and me human beings is that we be free—in this case, free from servitude and oppression, in other senses free from all those things that enslave or enchain us. Israel’s journey with Yahweh from Egypt to the promised land has always been what we call a “type”—an allegory, an image—of the larger journey toward human liberation. Moses led the Israelites through the Red Sea and 40 years in the wilderness. His successor Joshua led them through the Jordan River into the promised land of Israel. Jesus, the new Moses—whose name is actually a variant of Joshua—leads you and me from various kinds of slavery through the wilderness of suffering into the promised land of new and risen life.
This reading from Exodus helps to reorient us toward what is finally meaningful and true about our joint and personal spiritual process. We human beings find ourselves in various kinds of oppressive wilderness. For some it is actual enslavement. For others it is the virtual enslavement of poverty, violence,illness, or addiction. For others yet it is the enslavement of comfortable, isolating affluence and materialism. God’s will for us is that we be fully alive, not on our terms but on God’s. Real life, full life looks like the life we see in Jesus: embracing, compassionate, liberating, free. What Moses saw in the burning bush and what you and I see when we look at Jesus are the same—they’re images of what it means to be set free from the bonds that constrain us. Lent is the time we look those bonds in the face and let God come in and liberate us to a life that is fully human and free. Lent is the time when we get ready to step into the implications of Easter.
And our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans, gives us a sketch of what that free and compassionate Easter life might look like. As Paul exhorts us,
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. (Rom. 12:14-18)
Just as we can become confused about the purpose of Lent or the destination of our spiritual journey, so we can become disoriented about the goal of the Christian life. Because we live in a highly subjective age, we tend to think that it’s all about what we think or feel. But the great spiritual teachers have always taught us that it’s all finally about how we act. The Dalai Lama sums up his religion in one word: “kindness”. Pope Francis says, in his Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel) that our genuine encounter with God makes us fully human “when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.” [Evangelii Gaudium, section 8] And we attain the fullest truth of our being when we escape our relentless subjectivity and are able to live in communion and community with others.
When Paul exhorts us to “live peaceably with all” he is speaking as one who knows the reality of the kinds of violence of which human beings are capable. I serve a faith community at Washington National Cathedral that has, as have you here at St. Martin’s, felt the call to stand against the epidemic of gun violence in America and to stand with and for both the victims and survivors. Yet again this week we witnessed another public shooting at Fort Hood in Texas. Christians—be they first century Christians or twenty-first century Christians—stand for peace and nonviolence not because we are naïve about human evil but because we are entirely realistic. We know we have no alternative. We follow one who died at the hands of malevolent human violence. We understand that people can be fearful and angry and dangerous and cruel. But we understand something else as well. We understand that all human beings are precious—not only the innocent but also even the violent ones. We treat all with loving respect and compassion because doing so is in the spirit of the Exodus and resurrection freedom to which we are moving with Moses and Jesus. We do so because we seek to live in Easter, not Lent.
During the season of Lent, as a way to remind myself of Lent’s final meaning, I often reflect a portion of 2 Corinthians that was Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s favorite Bible passage. In a way it connects with the Exodus reading we heard tonight because it concludes a meditation by Paul on how Moses had to look at God with a veil over his face to protect himself from the radiance of God’s glory. But now, says Paul, we can look Jesus right in the face. We can take the veil off. Here is what he says:
Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:17-18)
By walking with each other and Jesus in Lent toward Easter, you and I, with unveiled faces, are being transformed into the image of God from one degree of glory to another. This wilderness is real but is not our permanent condition. The violence and confusion that enslave us will finally pass. Lent will give way to Easter. Let us live into Easter now by repaying evil with good and living peaceably with all. As we do that, we will, from one degree to another, see with unveiled faces the glory of the risen Christ. Amen.