A friend and a great thinker, Austin Gurchiek, has written my blog for this week. He explores the theology behind an oft forgotten tradition of the church in my own fellowship, and I hope that readers will be engaged and inspired by his brief survey.
The Lenten season of 2017 begins this Wednesday, March 1. Lent, coming from the Old English word lencten meaning spring, will be observed this year by Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans, and many Protestant denominations. The season encompasses the 40 days before Easter and is a time of self-denial and fasting, sacrificing something in order to give what you deny to others, remembering Christ’s sacrifice for us. Lent reaches its climax in Holy Week, remembering Jesus’s last week before his death, and Easter, commemorating the resurrection of Christ.
Lent has origins early in Christianity. In Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History, he records a letter from Irenaeus (130-202) to Victor the Bishop of Rome about celebrating Easter,
For the controversy is not only concerning the day (Easter) but also concerning the manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some moreover count their day as consisting of forty hours, day and night. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time, but long before in that of our ancestors.
Irenaeus did not know about this 40 day fast as we know it, but it was clearly an early practice to fast before Easter. Other early Christians write about the fast consisting of two days, the days that Jesus was in the tomb, now commemorated as Good Friday and Holy Saturday at the end of Holy Week. Over time, Lent has developed into the 40 day fast that is observed today because of Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the wilderness.
Lent is important because it calls Christians to remember Jesus’ death, not only in our minds, but also in our actions. Jesus’ death has brought us life and that is something incredibly joyous! However, no one can exist in a state of joy forever. Lent calls us as Christians to remember the death of Jesus as well as our own death. On the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, priests put ashes on the celebrants in the shape of a cross and tell the celebrant, “Remember, O man, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return,” which reminds the celebrant of the consequences of sin, as shown in Genesis, death. During Lent, Christians remember the sacrifice of Jesus for their sins. The 40 days of fasting make the joy of Easter more meaningful; every time a person who is fasting is tempted, they remember Jesus’ own suffering. During Lent, Christians remember our own mortality that Jesus entered into in his Incarnation.
The self-denial of Lent is not an ascetic sort of self-denial, though, but rather in dying to yourself you live for others. Think of Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi: he is not redeemed by going back to the ways of the Jedi, who choose to detach themselves from the world, but is instead redeemed by sacrificing himself for Luke. Through the cross, death leads to life, but Christians need to reckon with that death in order to appreciate life as well as understand the implications of following Jesus.
Jesus’ death allowed us to be united with Christ. Jürgen Moltmann says it like this in The Crucified God, “He humbles himself and takes upon himself the eternal death of the godless and the godforsaken, so that all the godless and the godforsaken can experience communion with him.” When Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” he is calling us to join him in dying to ourselves so that the world may have life. Through suffering, we find life; it is the paradox of the cross. And while the cross would mean nothing without the resurrection, we cannot experience the resurrection without the cross. The cross of death brings the resurrection of life into the world. We can only experience the joy, freedom, and good news given to the poor and oppressed through a crucified life. Lent calls Christians to remember their cross so that the joy of Easter Sunday can be truly understood and appreciated.