Rev. Yme Woensdregt
The church has begun the season of Lent. It began Wednesday, which is known as Ash Wednesday. This 40–day–long season echoes one of the important symbolic numbers in the Bible. The story of the flood says that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights; Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness before entering the promised land; Moses fasted 40 days before receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai; and after being baptized, Jesus spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness, preparing for his ministry.
There are many Biblical numbers which mean more than the literal. The most familiar example is the number 7, which symbolizes perfection or wholeness. In the same way, 40 is not a literal number, but suggests a time which is “long enough” to accomplish the purpose of that time. Forty days is long enough to accomplish the work of Lent.
But if you were to count the days on a calendar, you’d find that there are actually 46 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. The reason is that we don’t count the Sundays during this season. From the very beginning, the church has understood that Sunday is the day of resurrection, a day of feasting and celebration, a day of being nourished with God’s goodness.
When the church first began to mark the season of Lent, the intention was that the faithful would repent and fast on the weekdays of this season. Each day, the faithful would walk with God and journey more deeply to the heart of our faith. Sundays would be a break from that daily penitence, a time to celebrate God’s goodness and rest in the warmth of God’s grace.
But that pattern has changed these days. People pay less attention to the Lent discipline in their day–to–day lives during the week. Sundays have become the focus of Lenten devotion for many people.
For most people these days, Lent has a negative meaning. If you think about Lent at all, you probably remember the question, “What are you giving up for Lent?” Lent has been a season of self–denial, and that’s not so popular these days. We’re not used to denying ourselves anything. That’s why credit card debt is so high in Canada. We have instant coffee and instant credit and instant everything. When we want something, we normally get it as quickly as we possibly can.
But denial is not the point of Lent. The point of Lent is transformation. When we give something up for Lent, we put away those things which distract us from our relationship with God.
If it’s only about giving something for the sake of giving it up, we miss the point. When we focus on what we’re giving up, we lose our focus on God, and narrow our gaze to the thing we are giving up. Julie Clawson writes, “I’ve discovered that for me personally, legalistic denial for the sake of denial often achieves the opposite purpose. Giving up coffee doesn’t make me a better follower of Christ, it just makes me more irritable. Giving up Facebook doesn’t help me build community in the body of Christ; it simply helps me as a detached introverted person creep further into my shell. Those disciplines don’t assist me in emptying myself in order to let God in; they simply fill me with more of me.”
She’s got it right.
I remember reading an interview with a farmer. The interviewer asked, “Why do you prune your apple trees?” His response was, “To let the light in.”
That’s a much better image for why we mark Lent. We prune and simplify our lives so that God’s light can come in. In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the vine and you are the branches.” As branches, we are pruned so that God’s energy can flow more readily into our lives and bring forth abundant fruit.
This approach suggests that our thinking about Lent has changed, along with much else in theology. Our ancestors in the faith used to think that they would give something up in this life, so that they could prepare for eternity.
But we have come to see that salvation is not about turning our backs on the beauty of this world in order to gain eternal life. Salvation is about learning to see God in the beauty of each day, in the love we give and receive in relationship, in the grace we find as we connect with one another, as we connect deeply with this world and as we connect with our best selves.
This Lent, I will open myself to the beauty of the world around me. I will seek to become more open to God’s presence in the people around me. I want to open my heart to the love that is all around me. I will try to be a presence of joy and grace and compassion in the world. I want to be an agent of God’s reconciling love in the world.
On Ash Wednesday, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” Yes, we are dust. None of us are going to get out of life alive. We are mortal beings.
But just think what the Holy One can do with the dust of the earth. Soil is a place of growth, of winter rest so that it can burst out in spring splendor. It is the moist, dark soil in which seeds begin to sprout.
So I will remember that God is at work in the soil of my life, and in the soil of our lives together. And I will take time to seek all those places where God is deeply present. I will appreciate God’s grandeur, and I will believe the good news that in the dark soil of my life, God is at work.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook