Many years ago when I was the minister in charge at All Saints’ Anglican Church in Aklavik, NWT, I got a phone call from an older lady in our church whose first name was Winnie. She had a quick question for me: she wanted to know if Lent had started yet. I said, “No, it doesn’t start ‘til next week.” She replied, “Good, because my kids have really been giving me a rough time, and I want to give them s____!”
Well, I have to admit that abstaining from giving your kids s_____ for Lent is probably more beneficial than giving up sugar in your coffee! But if it’s a bad thing to give your kids a rough time during Lent, why isn’t it a bad thing at other times of the year? And if it’s actually not a bad thing, why would you give it up for Lent in the first place? I don’t know about you, but I have a hard enough time learning to do the things God has told me to do, without adding a few optional extras for good measure!
Of all the seasons of the Christian year, Lent is probably one of the ones with the most traditions attached to it. Even people who don’t go to church sometimes give things up for Lent—chocolate, alcohol, sugar in your coffee—and some people even use it as an excuse for kick-starting their weight loss program! Years ago we used to have Lenten self-denial folders, or Lent boxes; the custom was to donate a quarter a day for every day of Lent, and at the end, you’d give it to the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund. Nowadays, of course, a quarter buys a lot less than it did in 1975; if we’re thinking of denying ourselves, we might want to ramp it up a bit!
But where does it all come from? Why observe Lent in the first place?
In the early centuries of our faith the season of Lent actually began as part of the baptism of new Christians. In those days most Christians were converts who were baptized as adults. In the Bible, that happened very quickly, but as time went by the process stretched out, and by about the third century it could take as long as three years to become a Christian. You’d first need to be accepted as a learner—a catechumen, they were called—and then would come a long process of learning the Christian way of life according to the teachings of Jesus. Later on you’d be taught the doctrines of Christianity, and then, at last, you’d be baptized by total immersion, usually at the Easter vigil, which in those days actually lasted all night long.
Of course, as the new Christians got closer to the night of their baptism, their excitement would be growing. This was the moment when they would die with Christ and be raised with him to a whole new life with God! This was the night when their whole lives would change forever! They wanted to be as well-prepared for it as they could possibly be. And so gradually, in the church, the custom grew of observing the last few weeks of their catechumenate as especially strict times of prayer and fasting. At first it was just the baptismal candidates who observed it, but later, all the members of the church began to join in too. They thought of Jesus and his forty days of fasting in the desert before his ministry began, and they tried to imitate him so they could get closer to God and listen to God’s voice.
But notice this: Lent wasn’t a thing in itself. Lent was related to Jesus. In their baptism, the new Christians would be dying with Christ and rising with him to a whole new way of life. Lent was a way of getting ready for that. Those who were already Christians were wanting to follow Jesus more closely in his time in the desert, being tested by the devil. Like him, they were trying to remove distractions so they could listen more closely for God’s word. Fasting wasn’t a thing in itself; it was a way of removing one of the distractions so they could focus on listening to God.
So we need to be careful about this. If our way of observing Lent isn’t connected to Jesus, and following Jesus, then we’re in serious danger of making Lent itself a distraction from discipleship. And that would be a tragedy.
If we go back to the New Testament and think of the life of St. Paul, we know that he was always a very religious person. He tells us he was raised as a Pharisee, and so he paid careful attention to every little detail of the Law of God. This wasn’t just moral laws; it involved all the Sabbath regulations, and all the laws about what foods you could and couldn’t eat, and how you prepared them. It included proper observance of all the Temple rituals – offering the right sacrifices, with the right ceremonies, at the right time.
How does Paul describe himself at that time? Listen to these words from his letter to the Philippians:
‘Indeed, if others have reasons for confidence in their own efforts, I have even more! I was circumcised when I was eight days old. I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel and a member of the tribe of Benjamin—a real Hebrew if there ever was one! I was a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law. I was so zealous that I harshly persecuted the church. And as for righteousness, I obeyed the law without a fault’ (Philippians 3.4b-6 NLT).
Paul sounds like quite an impressive person! In his day he would have been seen as an admirable Pharisee, very religious, very devout. But years later, when he looked back on those days, he had a completely different point of view.
‘I once thought these things were valuable, but now I consider them worthless because of what Christ has done. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ (vv.7-8a NLT).
And he goes on to say,
‘I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection of the dead.’ (vv.10-11 NLT)
‘I want to know Christ’. Surely this ought to be right at the heart of what Lent is all about for us. Giving things up isn’t a thing in itself. Becoming a better person isn’t even a thing in itself. Everything we do needs to be related to this central goal: ‘I want to know Christ.’ Notice that Paul isn’t talking about information; he’s talking about relationship. He doesn’t say, “I want to know about Christ,” but “I want to know Christ.”
Let’s think for a minute about this whole business of ‘knowing Christ’. A moment’s thought will make it clear to us that knowing Christ is very different from any other human relationship. We can’t see Christ. We can’t hear him with our ears. The contact we have with him is mystical and spiritual; when we say that we sensed his presence, it’s hard to define exactly what we mean by that. In one of our songs we sing ‘Hold me close; put your arms around me’, but very few honest Christians will claim to have actually felt the arms of Christ around them. What we’re talking about it something more elusive than that.
So how do we grow in it? How can we know Christ better, when it’s so hard to define exactly what we mean by knowing Christ?
Let me give you an illustration. In the days when Jesus walked the earth, imagine someone coming to one of his disciples, and saying “I want to get to know your Master Jesus. How can I do that?” And the disciple might reply, “Good, great! Tomorrow he’s going to be preaching at the synagogue in Cana, and then for the rest of the day he’ll be teaching and healing the sick at Jonas the carpenter’s house by the water front. Later on in the evening when things quieten down, he’ll have time for a quiet cup of wine with one or two people who want to ask him questions. For the rest of the week he’ll be doing much the same kind of thing in the Cana area. I’ll be glad to introduce you to him if you like.”
“Oh no”, our friend replies, “I can’t go to where he is and join in his activities. I’m a busy person; I’ve got goals I’m trying to meet in my life. I was hoping he’d be able to come over to my office tomorrow and talk to me. I’m free between the sixth and seventh hours.”
What do you think are that man’s chances of actually getting to know Jesus better? In fact, how badly do you think he really wants to get to know Jesus? If he could honestly say, with Paul, “I want to know Christ,” then surely he ought to be willing to go wherever he needs to go, at whatever time he needs to go there, so he can meet Jesus and get the ball rolling?
“Well,” you’re thinking, “How does this apply to me today? Jesus doesn’t exactly have a street address, does he?” No, he doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean we can’t follow him. For us 21stcentury Christians, following Jesus doesn’t mean walking behind him on the road as he travels around Galilee. It means following the path of life he’s given us—following his example and putting his teaching into practice—so that we become more Christlike.
So this is really what Lent is all about. This is why we pray and fast, and deny ourselves, and try to be more generous. These things aren’t good things in themselves; they’re good because they’re things Jesus taught us to do, and as we practice them in faith, we’re getting closer to Jesus. That’s our focus.
So as we begin Lent, let me suggest that we use it this year as a time to intentionally focus on Jesus. On Sunday we thought about the Transfiguration story and the words of God the Father to the disciples: “This is my Son, the Beloved…listen to him.” I suggested that one good way to listen to Jesus would be to pick one of the Gospels and read through it, slowly and prayerfully, through the season of Lent. What is Jesus saying to us in this passage? And how would we receive his words as God’s message to us? How specifically would we put them into practice?
“I want to know Christ.” “This is my Son…Listen to him.” So as we go through Lent, let’s make it our goal to listen to him and to come to know him better.
This won’t always be easy for us. Sometimes when we read the gospels and listen to the words of Jesus, we find them so challenging that we’re tempted to give up. “Love your enemies and pray for those who hate you.” “Forgive seventy times seven.” “Don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth.” His teaching is so different from the way of life we’ve become accustomed to in Canada in 2020! We might be tempted to say, “Lord, can’t I just give up sugar in my tea?”
But no, we can’t. Jesus is leading us in a process of inner transformation more demanding than anything we’ve ever tried to do before. But the result will be amazing. The result will be a person who loves God with their whole heart, and loves their neighbour as they love themselves, not because it’s a law, but because they want to—because they love doing God’s will and can’t imagine doing anything different. That’s what knowing Christ and becoming Christlike are all about. And that’s how the world will be changed.
So let me close by reminding you again of Paul’s words to the Philippians:
‘I want to know Christ and experience the mighty power that raised him from the dead. I want to suffer with him, sharing in his death, so that one way or another I will experience the resurrection of the dead.’ (Philippians 3.10-11 NLT)
May it be so for us, through Lent and beyond. In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.