Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World

Misfit Disciples in an Orthodox World
"You had better be a round peg in a square hole than a round peg in a round hole. The latter is in for life, while the first is only an indeterminate sentence." – Elbert Hubbard

Keeping a Holy Lent

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Over the past few days, I have been reflecting on the season of Lent, and what it means for me today. Several days ago, we celebrated the second Sunday of Lent. I would not have known that if it wasn't written on the heading of our worship bulletin. As I read this, however, I thought of the many years I sat in church, the many years I conducted services, with only a passing acknowledgment of Lent, or the liturgical calendar in general. It amazes me that I really was not aware of these cyclic rhythms reflected in our annual worship calendar, and as such, was cut off from a huge portion of Christian practice that serves to enhance our understanding of what faith is and how to practically incorporate it into our lives. 

In fact, I think that this is, fundamentally, the greatest benefit in the liturgical calendar. It helps us, incrementally and pragmatically, to digest and explore the meta-narrative of scripture: the gospel story, who Christ is and what his life, death, and resurrection means to us personally. Each season, with its respective emphasis, helps us remember and live out the life of Christ in tangible ways. 

So, what does Lent represent? What is it exactly that we are doing when participate in this season? The ritual of Ash Wednesday best answers this question. (Chad Holtz wrote an excellent post on this: Getting Mud On Our Faces: Ash Wednesday and Death) I was well into adulthood before I ever participated in an Ash Wednesday service. I remember clearly getting in line, feeling the silence and having no clue what I was about to experience. As I waited, I began to notice those who had gone before me, leaving with what looked like dirt smeared on their foreheads. This was strange to me, but there was a reverence in the silence that I had never quite experienced before. Then, it was finally my turn and I stepped up before the minister and he dipped his finger in a mixture of oil and ash, using it to make the sign of the cross on my forehead. As he did, he repeated the words that I had heard by now with other participants: "from dust you came and to dust you shall return." Intrigued, I stepped away and headed to my car, those words ringing in my ear.

Over the next several days, I pondered the experience and the words spoken over me. One can not reflect upon these words without thinking of our humanity; the finiteness of our existence. Created from the dust of the ground, we are not an end to ourselves. We owe our creation and continued existence to God. There is something bigger than we are in the cosmos.

If we never get anything else out of Lent, being reminded of this is worthwhile. Sometimes, we do live our lives as if we are the final authority. Our ideas, dreams, passions, etc, become the central focus of our lives. Lent tells us that we are not the center of the universe. What we think, what we want, is not the most important thing there is. This revelation helps us lay aside ourselves and teaches us the value in submitting our lives to the one that is greater than we are.

When we acknowledge this, two things come to mind. We lay aside our self importance, and we submit our will to the one greater than we are. Jesus portrayed this in many tangible ways. To illustrate this, there are several scriptures that come to mind: 

"You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I." [John 14:28, ESV]

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me." [John 5:30, ESV]

These two scriptures show us two pertinent things about the mindset of Christ. One, he was not prideful. He did not have any trouble acknowledging that his Father was greater. This speaks of humility, something that Lent seeks to teach us directly. We are reminded of our humanity, the finiteness of our existence, and realize that God is greater and we owe our very existence to Him.

The second verse is about submission, another central theme to Lent. We read the scripture about Christ's temptation on the first Sunday of Lent (Mat 4) The narrative begins by saying that Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness. Christ submitted his will to the Holy Spirit and went somewhere unpleasant, fasting for forty days and nights, and then engaging in conflict with the devil. None of this sounds like a walk in the park. And, one can only assume that if Christ would have had a choice, he would have chosen something a bit more pleasant. But, he submitted, as our example, he gave up his will, what he wanted to do, to accomplish his Father's will and do what God wanted him to do. Here, the words echo from the garden, "not my will, but thine be done." [Luke 22:42]

During Lent, we should be reminded that we are not islands to ourselves. We are part of a much larger plan, an economy that takes more into consideration than our wants and dislikes, even our dreams. To follow the example of Christ means that we sacrifice all these upon the altar. We give up control and we allow God to become King in our domain. We submit ourselves to the sovereignty of God.

All this leads me to a scripture in Philippians, chapter two. The author is talking about unity within the church and how they were to have the same mind as Christ. He goes on to describe that mind to them, and I think this illustrates the very heart of Lent:

5 Have this in your mind, which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross. [Philippians 2:5-8, WEB]

The story doesn't stop there. It goes on to speak of Christ's exaltation. But, Lent is about the journey en-route to exaltation. Just as Jesus chose not to grasp exaltation in the present, but emptied himself and made himself a servant, we are to do likewise. And, this is what Lent is trying to teach us. All this is done in the shadow of the cross, but resurrection and exaltation is on the horizon. Easter is on the way, but learning the lessons of lent as we journey toward the empty tomb, is one of the most important things we will ever do.

(This is the first installment in my Lent Reflections series. I've decided to do this because I've never really applied myself during this time of year (I admit this with shame) and an seeking to obtain the benefit that I know a concentrated effort will produce.. So, I will be posting weekly reflections based upon one or more of the lectionary readings during the forty days of Lent.. Please bookmark this page and check back often. I would love to dialog with you in the comment section over what these passages mean to you and how you are seeking to apply yourself during your Lent experience. You can use the 'email me' function in the side bar to be notified of subsequent installments, or simply follow the site's RSS feed. I look forward to our conversation!)


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