This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the first day of the Lenten season. This is the day we mark the beginning of the pilgrim’s journey toward Easter, following Jesus as he goes before us, through his sorrows, and into the joy of his eternal life. Join us Wednesday evening for a 40 minute event from 6:40 to 7:20 pm. If you have been part of the Westside community over these past few years, you will know that we have been collectively learning the wisdom of the Christian calendar, this rhythmical retelling of the story of Jesus. We recently completed the season of Advent, which for us at Westside involved a simple and home-centered table liturgy centered on joyous waiting. In Advent, which means coming, we waited for the One long promised. When that moment arrives, the joy is palpable. No wonder that the giving of gifts is the characteristic way we celebrate.
Lent, the season which precedes Easter, is a characteristically different season. It has a more demanding nature, a different realism, and a deeper compensating joy.
Joan Chittister, in her book The Liturgical Year, reminds us that life is not merely about joy. LIfe is also about the willingness, the perseverance, and the commitment to endure what is not joy. That may seem like a startling comment in some ways, especially because we have granted so much decision-making value to whether or not we are enjoying ourselves, whether or not we are having fun. This tendency just might be a cultural disease: the criteria called “fun” might say more about our immaturity than anything else.
Chittister suggests that we might see Lent as adult spirituality, or at least the invitation to adulthood. Lent involves ideas like sacrifice, and endurance, and self-giving love, themes which require a certain kind of stability, a certain kind of deep-set knowledge of things. Lent presents the question of whether or not ultimate joy is worth more to us than temporal fun, a defining question on the maturity scale.
The anonymous Letter to the Hebrews tells us this about Jesus: “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:2b, TNIV). The picture here is one of suspended joy, the willingness to go through suffering and shame in order to realize an ultimate and lasting joy, even triumph. In this way, Jesus is not only our saviour, he is our champion in faith.
Reflecting on this, I have drawn up the following four principles for my own Lent reflection this year:
- in order to grow up I need to see what is going on, I need to pay attention -- I will prayerfully re-read the story of Jesus during Lent, this year from the gospel of Mark
- in learning to pay attention I am reminded that God’s purpose for me is to grow up into spiritual adulthood, into a mature faith (Ephesians 4:13ff)
- maturity has one clear characteristic: it means that I am to think of the needs of others ahead of myself, learning what it means to wait for my own greatest joy
- and being “spiritually adult” means valuing reality over appearance, valuing the eternal over the temporal, valuing substance over all else -- it means that I will seek out a lasting joy by enduring what is not joy
As I write there is one aspect of my childhood that has suddenly re-appeared to my consciousness: the fact that as a child I wanted to grow up. Every birthday was a celebration, not just because of the attention and the gifts, but because I somehow knew I was closer to finding life’s promise, life’s possibilities. I have suddenly remembered what so often captured my childhood imagination, the fact that I wanted to become something, be someone. I am sure this is a universal. To begin life is to want to find life in all its possibilities. Perhaps then, when Jesus said we should become “like little children”, this is one childlike quality in need of recapture -- to be a child is to want to grow up. I want to think about this, and pursue this theme over these next 40 days of Lent. I am very middle-aged, but I am not sure I am all-the-way grown up.
On February 13, Ash Wednesday, we begin the 46 day journey to Easter, the season that carries us through sorrow to the most exuberant of realities. This Wednesday, for 40 brief minutes from 6:40 to 7:20 pm, we take time for two thoughts, two prayers, two songs, and the marking of ashes. We have prepared a devotional resource which will help you read through the gospel of Mark, a way to live thoughtfully and prayerfully as you make your way towards Easter.
This year, for Lent, I want to give up on all that is childish in me, and embrace the child-like quality of wanting to grow up.