The Church is a Lenten people. The Church is neither overly optimistic about the future (“things are always getting better and better, every day and in every way”), nor is she overly pessimistic (“the whole thing is going to hell in a handbasket, so why bother?”). Lent teaches us the truth about ourselves and the truth about Jesus, the Lord and Head of the Church. That truth is this: we are sinners who never go through a day, a week, a month, or a year in which we do not need to repent. That is the truth about us. But we do not stop there, because the truth about Jesus, the Truth who is Jesus, has been revealed to us. That truth is this: the darkness of Lent gives way to the new light of Easter, because the temptation, fasting, suffering, and dying of Jesus give way to an empty grave. Weeping at the death of the Lord gives way to rejoicing at His resurrection.
It is no coincidence that we move from the season of Epiphany, which is the season of Jesus’ appearing to all nations and peoples, right into the season of Lent, which is the season where we see what sort of Savior Jesus is. He is not a Savior who simply teaches what we ought to do to be saved. He is not primarily our exemplar, who declares God’s will to us and does it perfectly. That is the Jesus of Mormonism and various modern theologies. The Jesus who is the Savior at the heart of Christianity does not tell us stuff we have to do; He does something that actually saves us from the darkness where we sit (Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16). In Lent Jesus appears to us in the strangest, most unexpected way: on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem, forsaken by His friends and followers, forsaken, even, by God the Father. As we move through these forty days (from March 5 until April 20, minus the Sundays), from dust and ashes to holy Palms, a holy Supper, a holy Cross, a holy Rest, and, finally, a holy Resurrection, we think about what this all means for us, in the year of our Lord, 2014.
What it does not mean is that we try really hard to imagine what it would have been like all those years ago. We cannot go back to Gethsemane or Golgotha and, even if we could, it would not make any difference for us. The answer to the question is “No, I was not there when they crucified my Lord.” Instead, Lent and Holy Week (along with Jesus’ gifts in Baptism and Supper) are about Jesus bringing His suffering and death to us. He has sent His Holy Spirit to His Church and the Spirit brings us to true repentance. If it were up to us to bring about our own repentance, the best we could do is make ourselves feel bad. That is not repentance.
True repentance can be produced in us only by the Holy Spirit, as He brings the Word of God through our ears into our hearts. He makes us despair of our own works, even the good ones. He causes us to realize what part we have played in damaging relationships. He brings before our eyes our hateful and murderous thoughts. We try to avert our eyes so that we do not have to see what our sin means for other people and what it means before God, our creator. We see that Adam’s sin runs through us, and we cannot escape it. And then, when the Law has run its course, we are left with only the words of the tax collector: God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (Luke 18:13).
Thank God that He does not leave us in Lent! We have the promise that God will raise our bodies on that great Easter Day, just as surely as Easter will come on April 20, following Lent. This is what it means to be a Lenten people: our lives are always to be lives of repentance, which is what it means to live in our baptism. Because we live between our first resurrection from sin in baptism and our second resurrection from physical death, we are caught between sin and holiness. So this Lent we await, as we always do, the coming of our Savior in glory. He will put an end to our long Lent of repentance and sorrow and bring us into His eternal light of joy and the presence of His Father and ours.
What’s with the ashes? And why no allelulias? If you’ve had a chance to think about it, perhaps you have asked one or both of these questions during Lent.
Why do we have Ash Wednesday, and why is it appropriate to mark crosses of ash on our foreheads? At the Ash Wednesday service, you will have the opportunity to come forward and I will mark a cross on your forehead while I say, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19). This is a reminder to you of a few things: first, the context of this passage is the curse laid upon Adam (and his descendants) because of sin. The curse upon all creation continues until this day, and it will continue until Jesus returns and restores His creation. Second, ashes have been associated with repentance for thousands of years. (See Esther 4:1-3; Job 42:1-6; Psalm 102:9-10; Jeremiah 6:26; Lamentations 3, esp. v. 16; Daniel 9:1-19, esp. v. 3; Jonah 3:6-10; Matthew 11:21.) Third, the cross of ash is the other side of the cross that was made on your forehead in baptism. As long as we live in this life, baptism means repentance. Fourth, we realize that we are mortal, and reminders of death are always reminders to repent.
The second question you might ask about Lent is why we sing no alleluias. It is related to what Jesus says in Matthew 9:15: “The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from [the wedding guests], and then they will fast.” The lack of alleluias and restrained joy during Lent remind us that we have not yet been taken from this “vale of tears.” We still live in this world, which is not yet as it should be (and will be). “For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:22-23, ESV). This is why, on the last Sunday before Lent (The Transfiguration of Our Lord), we sing these words: “Alleluia cannot always/Be our song while here below;/Alleluia, our transgressions/Make us for a while forgo;/For the solemn time is coming/When our tears for sin must flow” (LSB 417, st. 3).
*St. Augustine said, as Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; but with you I am a Christian.”