Here we are at the edge of Lent. I say “edge” because we haven’t quite crossed over its border.
This past Sunday, Septuagesima, is the first of the three Pre-Lenten Sundays. The word literally means “seventy days,” and it’s pointing to the fact that we’re about seventy days from Easter. Next Sunday, the one that always makes a select few of the school children giggle when I say its name, is Sexagesima—sixty days. The Sunday after that is Quinquagesima, or fifty days. Lent doesn’t actually begin until Ash Wednesday. It lasts for forty days, which is mindful of the Lord’s forty days in the wilderness, Noah and his family’s time in the ark before being delivered, and the forty years the Israelites spent in the wilderness before finally entering into the promised land. Of course if you do the math, realizing that Sundays are in Lent but not of Lent, then you’ll discover that Lent lasts right up until the Vigil of Easter, which is the Saturday before Easter Sunday.
So why the Pre-Lenten Sundays? Isn’t Lent long enough already?
I suppose. Although, if you’re in tune with the seasons of the Church Year, you’ll already know that while each one has something to teach us, they’re also doing something to prepare us for what’s coming next. But the stark contrast between the brightness of Epiphany’s powerful miracles is almost too strange for dropping us right at the doorstep of one of the most sobering events of the year—Ash Wednesday—which begins the season for more intently meditating on the approaching sacrifice of Jesus. The Pre-Lenten Sundays help ease the jolt. They’re kind of like a very slow immersion into a really cold swimming pool. You need a little time to ease into something that has the potential for shocking your system. Lent isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s a solemn and deeply penitential time. Every single bit of its very visceral fervor is aimed at that one particular Friday in the Church Year that Christians call “Good.”
And by the way, I mean no offense when I say that if Lent is treated as being no big deal at your church, then go somewhere else. Your pastor isn’t doing it right and you’re missing out. Again, no offense, but you need to ditch the place. You’re being starved of one of the most vigorously focused times in the Church Year.
That reminds me… I had a conversation last week with a few of our school kids about a text in 1 John 5 where the Apostle asks sort of rhetorically: “Who is it that overcomes the world?” (v. 5). I spoke to them about how the world is actively warring against us, and strangely, its assaults aren’t really all that off-putting. It entices us. It reaches to us and convinces us into beliefs and behaviors that are counter to Christ and His holy will. Essentially I said that the world offers up a whole lot of road signs pointing to no real destination, at least none of any real or truthful value leading to eternal life. In fact, everything the world sets before us has the potential for leading to condemnation. But then in the very next sentence, John answers his own question: “Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.” In the verses immediately following this answer, John encourages the reader toward the means for not only discerning this, but for being equipped to withstand and ultimately overcome the world—the Spirit, the water, and the blood—which are really just first century synonyms for the Word of God and the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. John presses his readers to look to road signs that actually lead to something good know, road signs that actually give what they communicate. And he urges us to never become disconnected from these means by which Jesus takes up residence among His believers to feed and strengthen them for overcoming the world.
Thinking back on the conversation, I realize that this is a very Lenten text. Lent is a time filled with spiritual road signs. For example, in the midst of Lent’s penitential atmosphere, there’s a long-standing Christian practice of wrestling with the worldly flesh through fasting, which means folks deliberately set aside or give something up for Lent. In a sense, the act is meant to be a road sign (not at the same level as Word and Sacrament, of course), and it’s done for a handful of reasons. Hopefully one of the principle reasons is so that each and every time they experience the craving for the thing they’ve set aside, the very yearning itself will direct their attention to what the Lord set aside in order to accomplish our redemption. He set aside His divine majesty, and in utter humility, He submitted Himself to the powers of Sin, Death, and all that hell could raise to destroy us. And what did He give up? His life. He didn’t do any of this for Himself. He did it for us.
Ash Wednesday, the very first experience of Lent, is an incredibly potent road sign. The ashen mark smeared on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust and to dust we shall return (Genesis 3:19). And yet the mark—a cross—it points to the singular event among all others in human history that had the muscle for defeating death at its own game and setting us free from its curse. When that mark is made, it is formed in the same way a pastor crafted it on us when we were baptized. Ash Wednesday points to the fact that all who have been baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3:27). We were buried by baptism into His death, and by His resurrection, we rise, too (Romans 6:4). Death has no hold on us because it has no hold on Christ (Romans 6:9).
Lent is full of these types of road signs, and the Pre-Lenten season is helping to hone our senses for seeing them.
Lent itself will lead us through a forty day journey of carefully absorbed and distinctly precise meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus for the sins of all. I hope you’ll engage in it. As a Christian, I guarantee it’ll be well worth your while.