Lent can be about renewing our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. The focus can be the newness we desire more than the “oldness” we have.
First Advent, then Epiphany, Lent and Eastertide make up the church year. Advent focuses our anticipation through the prophecies of hope, faith, joy and love before Christmas. The Epiphany stories of Jesus Immanuel are wonderful experiences of God with us. Now we come into Lent.
Lent has a whole different tone, and I don’t like it. “Lent” means “lengthening” and refers to the growing daylight hours. This I like, but the season of Lent seems to look more at the darkness. Even the traditional colors of Lent are dark and sombre.
It starts with Ash Wednesday. Ashes call us to repentance, as the old phrase “sackcloth and ashes.” Ashes symbolize mortality, death. No wonder the secular, commercial culture has not picked up on Lent. This year Valentine’s Day is on Ash Wednesday. You can guess which was celebrated more. Lent is not good in the marketplace and maybe not in our own souls.
Sin and “The Fall”
The Bible uses many different words for sin. One means to fall short of the standard. This may be why the story in Genesis 3 of the first sin is called “The Fall,” but I have not verified the origin of this title. The story does not use this word nor occasion this picture of sin.
We often think of sin as a moral failure, but that is not the picture in Genesis 3. Sin is disobedience, but it is more than breaking the rules. Sin is a revolt against authority, although that may be too violent an image for the simplicity of the story.
We can also see sin as betrayal. Betrayal is deeply personal and relational. Betrayal is to turn against those who are intimately connected with you. Betrayal is to change our fundamental loyalty, our fealty. This description of Genesis 3 ties our picture of sin to the life of Jesus. He, too, was betrayed by an intimate friend.
If betrayal is a powerful picture of sin, what does repentance look like? If we picture sin as moral failure or disobedience, repentance is simply to change our actions. I fear this is what the idea of giving something up for Lent reinforces. The focus becomes what we must do and how to do it better. This is not Gospel. This is a heavy burden.
If we picture sin fundamentally as betrayal, then repentance is returning. This is the basic meaning of the Hebrew word for repentance. It is to come back, to return to allegiance, loyalty, faithfulness. The English word “repent” highlights the emotional element of remorse or regret. That is an element of repentance, but not enough. In Greek “to repent” is to change your way of thinking, to change your mind. This, too, is a part of repentance, not the whole.
Fundamentally, repentance is to return to a faithful, loyal relationship with God. As the summary of the law states, “to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5). Maybe February 14 was a good day for Ash Wednesday after all. Interestingly, when restated in the New Testament (Matt. 22:37, Mark 12:30, Luke 10:27), “with all your mind” is added for the Greek world.
Turning to the light
Maybe I do not like Lent when it focuses on the darkness, on our sin. Yes, we need to see and acknowledge our betrayal, but that is not the focus. Repentance needs to focus more on “turning to” than “turning from.”
Lent can be about renewing our relationship with God in Jesus Christ. The focus can be the newness we desire more than the “oldness” we have. Traditionally Lent was a time of preparation and instruction for new believers before they were baptized on Easter morning. Lent can be the same for us, a time of growth, longing and learning, and, most of all, loving God.
I still wrestle with Lent because of its sombre aspects, and I need to. Yet the darkness is not the focus. There are Sundays “in” Lent, not “of” Lent. It is a time for forgiveness and new life, for turning to the light, preparing for Good Friday and Easter.