But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate;for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.
- Luke 15:17-24
We appear to be getting ahead of ourselves here. We are not to Valentine’s Day, much less Ash Wednesday, and I’m talking about Easter. Nothing like looking ahead, is there?
That, I believe, is my point. Ash Wednesday is February 17, and Lent begins. Each year, we think about giving up something – perhaps chocolate or wine or sugar. Or, maybe we add something for spiritual growth, like, extra prayer time or sacrificial giving to a cause. All in all, I think we try to take Lent seriously, but I confess that I am not always clear about what I am trying to accomplish during Lent. Am I proving that I will sacrifice for the Lord? Maybe I’m just proving to myself I can sacrifice. Do I do enough during Lent, or should I do more? What spiritual gain am I supposed to attain? I don’t know if you ask yourself these sorts of questions or not. In the general scope of Christian history, Ash Wednesday and Lent are both relatively new to many Protestant denominations, and not all denominations embrace them now. The explanations I’ve heard over the years range from meaningful to silly.
Why do we observe Ash Wednesday and Lent? The answer to that question lies entirely in what we expect from Easter. When you think of Easter, what do you want? What are you anticipating? Last year, when Easter rolled around, we all were still in shock because churches were closed. Like most everything else in the past year, family gatherings were cancelled, and celebrations were muted, at best. As Easter approaches this year, we are still wary and guarded about gathering. Vaccines notwithstanding, the huge Easter worship services of the past seem likely to remain in the past for the time being. So, what are your expectations for Easter?
Easter Sunday is not dependent upon a large crowd, family gatherings, glorious music in worship, or any of the other activities we associate with Easter. No bunnies, baskets, chocolate, or hidden eggs are required – fun, yes, but not required. In fact, one of the most remarkable characteristics of the original Easter Sunday is that the only Human present was Jesus Christ.
Easter is the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and Son of Mary. The Resurrection is the decisive triumph of God over the powers of sin and death, the conclusive defeat of evil. The battles we wage against the forces of darkness and wickedness may be loud and chaotic, but the war has been won. In the victory of Jesus Christ, the gates of the Kingdom of God are thrown open wide, and we are given a vision of our destiny, our true home, the life for which we were created. We do not possess language sufficient to describe the Kingdom of our Father, but on Easter Sunday, when the triumph of life is celebrated, we, the prodigals starving in a foreign land, are given the glimpse of the promise. Our God is running to meet us and welcome us home.
That is why we have Ash Wednesday, why we observe Lent. Our inclination is to think of the prodigal son in historical terms, a parable that all too often reflects one of our own children or grandchildren. The story is used to teach joyless Christians that they, too, are celebrated as children of God. The parable of the prodigal son has many lessons, and another of those is God’s expectant, waiting grace when we’ve run away and alienated ourselves from Him.
The most fundamental truth of the parable is that we all are alienated from our Father, and the foreign land is the world of sin and death in which we live now. We serve a host of false gods in the middle of a land of temporal goods and alluring idolatry, while wishing we could be fed as well as the swine. Such a statement sounds so condemning and condescending, but it conveys the vast gulf between how little we accept in comparison to how much our God gives.
As a child, when Methodists used the older liturgy of Holy Communion, I resented the words of the Prayer of Humble Access, “We are not worthy so much as to gather the crumbs under Thy table. But Thou art the same Lord, Whose property is always to have mercy.” Yet, as an adult, I can appreciate, at least in some degree, the condescension of God in the mercy, grace, and love that searches for us even as we wander blindly and arrogantly, lost in the foreign land we wrongly call “home.” Today, the greatest sin against God, I think, may well be that we have forgotten that this is not our home, because we forgot the truth of the Resurrection and the power of its reality.
What you expect to get from Easter has everything to do with how you observe Lent. Minimally, we can say that the Forty Days of Lent are our annual tithe of time to God, the embrace of repentance that reorients our lives to Christ. But more than that, what we choose to give up identifies what we hope to receive from God. Does Lenten sacrifice turn us toward our true home? Do our ashes and sacrifice increase our yearning to see God? Can we allow Lent to lessen our hold on this world, so we may be open to receiving the Life of that world, that Kingdom from which life originated and where life never ends?
That is why we have Ash Wednesday, why we observe Lent. Lent emphasizes repentance, but repentance is the turning away from sin and death to seek salvation and life. The season of Lent is a time to turn again toward home, orienting our heart, mind, soul, and strength toward our destiny.
Your expectations of Easter will determine how you observe Lent. My prayer is that a yawning chasm of hunger for your destiny will turn you toward our Father’s Kingdom, the gates of which are thrown open wide through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is our hope, God’s promise, the one certainty in which we must trust and on which we must depend if we are truly disciples of Jesus Christ.
May your Lent be marked by sacrifice that gives birth to longing for home, so when the sun begins to rise on Easter Sunday, you will be able to see through the open gates of our Father’s Kingdom and see our God running to welcome and embrace you.
In Christ –
Rev. Elizabeth Moreau
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