As we approach the halfway point of our journey, my packs are getting a bit lighter. It’s as if the smaller “easy stuff” has gone by the wayside, but the deeper encumbrances are more of a challenge to dig out.
It seems an appropriate time to just sit a moment and ask, “what are we doing here? Really?”
I mean, yes, here we are in “Lent” and all… and so we’re “giving up” stuff… Right… but… but really… WHY?
Is there anything innately “meritorious” about “giving up stuff”? I mean, are we supposed to “impress God” with our “strength of character”, by giving stuff up in this season? Is that what it’s all about?
Of course, when I was quite small I was in a part of the country where most of my classmates were either Roman Catholic or Jewish. (I was actually quite jealous of them… Catholic students got a “half day” of school every Wednesday for “Release Time”, when they went to Church for religious instruction. Jewish Students got like twelve additional “holidays” off school for a variety of their religious observances. It just didn’t hardly seem fair!)
I remember “Lent” quite distinctly, for as Ash Wednesday approached, one of the hottest of conversation topics was… “What are YOU giving up?” There were the “good kids”, from the “proper” homes, who boringly gave up really cool stuf… Ice Cream, Chocolate, Comic Books, one most heroic ascetic actually admitted he was going to give up Television!
Among my own personal CIRCLE of friends, more “creative” choices were likely. Friends who chose to give up things like… homework, liver, vegetables… And, my personal favorite, the young man who tried to swear off “baths” for 40 days. He regretfully reported that he could not sell his parents on this sacrifice.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Of course, my playmates and friends had rather missed the point of the exercise. Many of their examples are simply funny… and I tell these stories here (true stories, btw!)… to share the humor. HOWEVER…….. I’m not sure most adults, religiously sincere beloved people, who engage in Lenten Fasting aren’t themselves just about as confused regarding “what’s it all about?”
Now, I truly want to be careful here. I am NOT being critical of the theology or dogmas of others. I have mine. You have yours. God blesses piety as expression of love for Him. It is vastly above my pay grade, here or anywhere else, to engage in “comparative religions class”. That’s NOT what this is about.
But a meaningful point to look at here… is “Penance”.
Now, before anyone gears up for dispute… (we’re NOT going to go reaching for our spiders or scorpions here… lol)... I’m about to express some principles I have been taught and believe to be true in and of my own background. The fact that these may be principles of worship or piety, does not mean that they are “exclusively true”. That is, just because these may be valuable principles for me in my own prayer life, that does not mean that they are universal… or that if you live by OTHER principles, I imply that you and yours are wrong. Not at all.
So, I think one of the major “disconnects” among worship cultures such as the Liturgical and the Evangelical, is on this issue of “Penance”, and “formalized contrition”. This tension becomes apparent in consideration of “Confession” or the “Rite of Reconciliation” leading towards sacramental Absolution. It also emerges to a lesser extent in the issues of Fasting, or Lenten or Advent preparations for Easter or Christmas.
“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:9]
I’ve really struggled with how to say this next part without getting all bogged down in theology or comparative religion. I guess I’ll just say it, lay it out there on the table, let ya’ll poke and prod at it to your heart’s content, and have done.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The underlying and mistaken belief of my childhood friends regarding Lent was that it was a season to “do penance”, to suffer, to endure deprivation or perform a sacrifice, to pay for sin and wrongdoing in their lives. It contained a grounding principle that implied Jesus’ need for them to add something more, some degree of “punishment”, to THEIR lives… in order to be clean and purified from sin before God.
This SPECIFIC outlook was itself grounded in a broader worldview that because of our frailties, fallenness, and sins… we are not only unworthy, but UNABLE, to stand transparently and directly before Holy God. That we can only approach Him in a “grovelling, penitent” posture. That, therefore, if we hope to approach God in a near and intimate way at Easter, we must “purify ourselves” all the more strongly through Lenten sacrifice. So, the more horrid one’s Lent, the more joyful and blessed one’s Easter. This is a transaction with God.
THIS is grounded on an even more fundamental belief, usually left unspoken and unexamined, that the experience of the Immediate and Intimate Presence of God… is to be dreaded as something that will fill us with fear, shame, and guilt. That we worship a “joyless” God, who cannot wait to catch us out and point to all our shortcomings.
Here’s a great commentary on that: A Mardi Gras Season Thought
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
But here, today, at this “halfway point” of our Journey through Lent, I would like even to go a bit past that author’s point, past our typical understandings of Lent, past the usual views whether Liturgical OR Evangelical…
What if Lent… indeed what if ALL “Penance”… were nothing more nor less than, “The grand celebration of our freedom from tyranny… even the ultimate tyranny of ourselves.”
“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh,for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses. We are destroying speculations and every lofty thing raised up against the knowledge of God, and we are taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ, and we are ready to punish all disobedience, whenever your obedience is complete.” [2 Corinthians 10:3-6]
“Taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ…”
HERE, it seems, is a meaningful reflection of “penance”.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Penance is NOT “punishment for sin”. That was already taken care of, in vastly more capable hands than ours. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” [2 Corinthians 5:12]. “By this, love is perfected with us, so that we may have confidence in the day of judgment; because as He is, so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.” [1 John 4:17-18]
Often, Penance is a gestural representation of sorrow and repentance Like one may send a card or give a gift to represent love and esteem on a holiday, the gift given is a “token of representation”. The gift is not designed to “assign value”, or “pay for” the value of the relationship. It is a “gesture”, not the measure of one’s weight in gold or silver. We can affirm our entering into the joy of an occasion (say a birthday, wedding, or anniversary), through offering a gesture of gift.
Penance can be a “gift of godly sorrow”, in the sense that Paul says here…
“I now rejoice, not that you were made sorrowful, but that you were made sorrowful to the point of repentance; for you were made sorrowful according to the will of God, so that you might not suffer loss in anything through us. For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation, but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you: what vindication of yourselves, what indignation, what fear, what longing, what zeal, what avenging of wrong! In everything you demonstrated yourselves to be innocent in the matter.” [2 Corinthians 7:9-11]
It’s important here, I think, to distinguish this from a very wrong type of repentance and penance… that which tries to “fix it all”, and “undo the wrong”. This is the repentance of Judas… which flat doesn’t work.
“Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, ‘I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.’ But they said, ‘What is that to us? See to that yourself!’ And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests took the pieces of silver and said, ‘It is not lawful to put them into the temple treasury, since it is the price of blood.’ And they conferred together and with the money bought the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. For this reason that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.” [Matthew 27:3-7]
See that huge difference? I mean, beyond Judas’ suicide, of course. Repentance for Paul is “FORWARD LOOKING”… it is to set a new and more loving godly direction for present and future action. One acknowledges failure of the past, but only for the purpose of present gratitude for grace and future increase in love and godliness. Judas’ remorse however, his “sorrow that leads to death” as Paul would phrase it, is “BACKWARD LOOKING”. It is fixated and obsessed with the wrongful act, seeks to reverse the act, to make reparation and restore the status quo ante. Forgiveness is sought from man, not God. And… bottom line… it doesn’t work. (Far too many Christians get themselves caught in this trap, by the way.)
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
So right here, at what has been our halfway point of this journey, I wanted to state “why I am here”, and invite your comments to do the same.
It’s so simple….
A while back, I came to realize that “I am a Temple”. Not just my “body” or my “soul”, but my ME. My Life. My Being. My Self. I have been fashioned in the very Image of God, with a destiny to house Him and His love and authority in their fullness.
I am the “Keeper”, the “Custodian” of this Temple. I can choose to take into it what I wish, store it as I wish, and keep this environment orderly or messy, as I choose. I can “construct and configure” it as I choose. My free will manages this environment with little constraint. But there’s only so much “room”. I have only so much “attention” and “consciousness” to offer.
If I become a “spiritual hoarder”, an “emotional cripple”, clinging to every shadow and illusion that moves me deeply… I will have no room, no freedom, no space, no attention… with which to receive and house Almighty God in all His Magnificence.
For me, Lent is simply “Spring Cleaning”. Here is this wonderful time available to move through my House, room by room, finding “false treasures” that I thought had value for me… and sweep them away to make room for True Treasure.
Is this “Penance”? Well, I suppose… to the extent that I yet experience foolish desire and attachment to issues, feelings, habits, attitudes that have no truth to them… just by my own habit or willfulness. But if casting away that delicious poison tests my integrity… well GOOD! It’s a good thing for me to “flex those muscles” from time to time.
As I said… Penance? Token gift of affirmation, gratitude, and agreement with the grace and forgiveness of God. But ALSO, a grand celebration of my own freedom from tyranny… even the tyranny of my own appetites and foolishness.
I love being “free in Christ”! How about you?