Lent: Penance & Celebration

My worship professor in seminary — many years ago — pointed out to us that, in the earlier days of the church, Lent was both a season of penance and a season of celebration. For those looking towards their baptism at Easter, it was a season of penitential preparation; for mourning their sins and focusing upon their liberation by Christ who took those sins upon himself when he was lifted up on the cross. For those who were already marked by baptism, however, it was a season of joyful preparation for the celebration of the saving act of the death & resurrection of Jesus; Emanuel.

‘How very much like the church,’ he said, ‘to simplify a liturgical season and keep the penance and toss out the celebration.’

I remember being thunder-struck when he pointed this out to us. Lent had always been my favourite season of the Christian calendar. I had equated somberness and penance with piety. Indeed, it occurred to me as strange when people held festivals and made celebrations of Christian life. What was pious about being happy?

Sitting and listening to my professor, it occurred to me, in perhaps the first meaningful way, that I’d over-simplified my own faith. I’d missed the fact that the point of Jesus’s suffering was to bring us into new life, life more abundant, — even life eternal.

Thus, right then and right there, I resolved to take up lent as a season of celebratory preparation for Easter. I am among the baptized. I do not ignore my imperfections and sins. But neither should I ignore the beauty and joy of the promise I have (we have) in Christ Jesus. It’s been twenty years since I made this change in my own life. I celebrate that anniversary here.

In no way would I deny a person a holy and penitential Lent. If that is what draws you closer to God, I add my well-wish and blessing to your Lenten practice. I simply note here that there are other ways of looking at Lent; and other ways of living a holy Lent.

What is important is that we give renewed attention to our lives as expressions of holiness, and peace, and love. As we draw nearer the cross — and then an empty tomb — we remember (bringing into ourselves anew) the saving grace that gives us life, restores life, and conquers death for each of us.

May you and yours have a blessed and beautiful — and holy — Lent.