I shared this last year on Ash Wednesday: it's my favorite introduction to the season of Lent, taken from a book by Henri Nouwen called Show Me the Way. Lent is a hard season for us because it represents a call to repentance, reflection and a handful of other things we’re not so good at. Still, taking a month or so to think about Christ’s work in our lives before we dive into the happy hymns and chocolate bunnies of Easter can’t be a bad thing. Here’s the quote:
“God’s mercy is greater than our sins. There is an awareness of sin that does not lead to God but to self-preoccupation. Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failures and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says: ‘I am too sinful to deserve God’s mercy.’ It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: ‘Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God’s mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?’ The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God’s mercy.”
That's a pretty stark choice, isn't it? Guilt, hopelessness and suicide...or pain, repentance, tears and restoration. The choice is obvious but neither is without suffering. That's helpful to me this year. We can often fall into the trap of believing in black and white options, of good and bad, of decisions without nuance. Nouwen's paragraph reminds me that life isn't like that, and that it probably shouldn't be. Life presents us with choices and decisions that involve gain and loss on both sides, that require us to balance our experience of joy with some sadness, or to temper our grief with glimpses of hope.
Lent is a time of year for reflecting on our need for a savior, for a champion. That's an amazing thing to type, now that I look at it, but I'm instantly reminded of the full range of ingredients that go into that mix. Enjoying the gift of a God's presence in the form of a Messiah is wonderful, but I can't fully embrace that joy without an awareness of how my sin (our sin, really) pushed the Messiah onto the Cross. The discipline of Lent is to re-train our hearts and minds to consider life, all of life, in that sober, balanced way. It's a way that leads to the Cross, to be sure, but it also leads us to forgiveness, restoration, consummation and a bunch of other good things. Lent reminds us all not only that we have a savior, but of how much we need one as well.
In the Scottish Book of Common Order there is a prayer designated for today, for the beginning of the Lenten season. Make it yours as you begin this sober journey that leads to the Cross, to the empty tomb and beyond.
Almighty and everlasting God,
you hate nothing that you have made,
and forgive the sins of all those who are penitent.
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that, lamenting our sins
and acknowledging our wretchedness,
we may receive from you, the God of all mercy,
perfect forgiveness and peace.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord.