02 October 2007

Thinking about Lent

Those who know me well have probably figured out that I tend to be consumed by whatever it is that I am working on. I'm thankful that my family and friends bear with me in that regard, even if they do not always understand why whatever it happens to be should be so important to me. I suppose that some of those things probably shouldn't be so important to me. I'm always wrestling with the temptation to make false gods out of my own works and efforts. But I hope it is not always or entirely wrong to be passionate about the work that I am given to do within my vocation and stations in life. It is true that others are better at balancing and managing their time than I am. Maybe I should become obsessive about time management.

Anyway, what ended up consuming me for almost the entire month of September, up until the wee early hours of the morning on the 1st of October, was the season of Lent. That's odd, isn't it? I was working on my contribution to a Lenten resource for 2009. It felt like a worthwhile undertaking, and I found it to be an enjoyable and satisfying project. I always use these kinds of assignments as opportunities to read and study things that I wouldn't otherwise get around to pursuing. That helps me to grow, which benefits both me and my congregation. In this case, I certainly gained a greater knowledge and understanding of Lent, of its rites and ceremonies, its customs and observances. I'm looking forward to experiencing that sacred season again when it next arrives, earlier than usual, in February of this coming year (2008). I don't know that I'll even use the Lenten resource itself, when it comes to that in 2009, but I have appreciated the chance to learn from the process of working on it for the sake of serving and supporting others.

It really struck me, though, how difficult it was to get myself in the right frame of mind to work on Lent in the month of September. It felt like I was swimming upstream the entire time, or cutting against the grain (not that I do much swimming or woodcutting, but I like metaphors).

I recently heard a nice presentation on using the Church Year in pastoral care. I'm always delighted by attention to the Church Year, and I was glad for the ideas that were set forth. But it also occurred to me that we're really better off not trying to "use" the Church Year, but allowing it to "use" us. Or, perhaps one could say that the best way to use the Church Year is simply to observe it, and thus to be shaped and guided by it. Pastors have to make plans and preparations, choices and decisions, in following the Church Year with their people, but a good pastor doesn't have to reinvent the wheel, and he doesn't have to come up with creative new gimmicks to make a go of it. Far better if he avoids creative gimmicks altogether, actually. The Church Year has grown and developed in various ways over time, but the basic contours of the seasons, their patterns and progressions, have remained pretty steady. The Western Church has a rather different liturgical year than does the Eastern Church, but there are aspects in common, especially during Lent and Eastertide, which emerged already in the first several centuries following the Cross and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is truly amazing that we continue to be catechized in those same liturgical seasons.

It's the Word of God that catechizes us, and no less the Word of God that shapes the Sundays and seasons of the Church Year. The rites and ceremonies, customs and traditional observances of the Church Year have all derived and developed as confessions of that Word; so they, in turn, proclaim that Word to the Church, and in this way they contribute to the catechesis, to the faith and piety of the people of God. Collectively, these are the things that make each of the seasons uniquely what it is. Lent is Lent because of the Word that is proclaimed, and because of the particular ways in which that Word is heard and received and confessed and prayed and practiced. The same is true of Easter, Christmas and Epiphany, and the times and tides of the year following Pentecost. I could think about Lent and work on a Lenten resource during September, but that didn't make it Lent. All my concentrated efforts, all my careful study and thoughtful consideration of that sacred season, still didn't make it Lent.

It wasn't for me to put myself into the right frame of mind for Lent. Rather, the mind of Christ is formed in me and in His people by His Word and Spirit in the course of the Church Year, in accordance with the several great Mysteries of the faith that are beautifully unfolded for us, given to us, and celebrated among us. Of course, the Incarnation and bodily manifestation of God in Christ Jesus, His Passion, Cross and Resurrection, and the sending of His Spirit are true all year long; and the Holy Triune God is saving us by those Mysteries of the faith every day, morning and evening, waking and sleeping, in all our coming in and going out, and even forevermore. But we are finite creatures, and we cannot take it all in at once. We cannot fully comprehend it, even in a lifetime, though we are given everything pertaining to life and godliness in Christ Jesus, by grace through faith in Him. There's no point trying to force it. We never are sufficent of ourselves, but Christ is our sufficiency, our righteousness and holiness, our justification and sanctification, our repentance and our faith, our life and our salvation. In His mercy, He reveals Himself and gives Himself to us in the Sundays and seasons, the patterns and progressions of the Church Year.

I don't think it was wrong for me to be thinking about Lent and working on a Lenten resource during September. I benefitted from that assignment, and hopefully others will benefit, as well. But it did make me realize there's no short-cutting the proper progression of the seasons. And, in that, it made me even more aware of what a blessed, gracious and evangelical heritage the Church Year is. It lays Christ and His Gospel upon us, upon our hearts, unto faith and life, and it leads us always back to the bosom of the Father in Him. Pastors work to provide this blessing and benefit for their people, but by their own immersion in the Church Year as it unfolds, they are catechized, strengthened and sustained in the one true faith along with their congregations. The Sundays and seasons of the Church Year, each in its own turn, provide the people of God, both the pastors and the laity in their respective vocations, with the specific ways and means and the particular words with which to pray, praise, give thanks, and to confess the faith.

I'm looking forward to not simply thinking about Lent, but actually experiencing that sacred season of Lent when it comes around in February. Between now and then, I will relish and savor this time and tide of the holy angels, then the Feast of All Saints, the end of one Church Year and the beginning of another, the season of Advent, the Twelve Days of Christmas, and the Epiphany of the God-Man, who is our dear Savior, Jesus Christ.

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