We Need Lent to Get to EASTER
Will we come to Easter as tourists or travelers?
Honestly, some years Easter Sunday was a disappointment for me, and I wondered why. Was an uninspiring preacher, or mediocre worship music or too much attention to that year’s Easter dress styles to blame? Or I could have claimed that a host of guests and visiting relatives diverted the highest worship day of the Christian year away from spiritual encounter to ongoing meet-and-greets.
There are so many things to deal with on Easter, so many irrelevant intrusions we allow, so many distractions that draw us. Why wouldn’t I sometimes feel empty when it was all over, as if we were on the cusp of a real spiritual breakthrough of some kind, and I missed it?
Easter is supposed to be the high point of the Christian year. Its prominence was established in the early years of the Christian church. The whole Christian year was a journey to Easter. Those who wanted to become Christians underwent a long period of teaching, training and testing before being accepted as members of the church on Resurrection Day. What could be a more suitable time to mark the beginning of their journey with their living Lord than the celebration of His resurrection!
The resurrection of Jesus meant that love didn’t die in a grave. It did more than endure death, it conquered death. This is why Easter is the birthday of the church, and of every Christian, for that matter. Our faith stands or falls on it.
In the wider world in which the New Testament church grew, described in the Acts of the Apostles, belief in resurrection after death was not a widely accepted message. Greek philosophers sneered at it (Acts 17:31-32). It even got believers in serious trouble. As a prisoner standing before Felix, the Roman governor of Palestine, the Apostle Paul said the religious authorities were seeking his death because he preached the resurrection of the dead (24:21). The resurrection was also a life and death issue for the integrity of the whole Christian gospel. If Christ was not raised from the dead, said Paul, Christian faith is a fairy tale and a sham (I Corinthians 15:13-19).
Easter Sunday is the day we proclaim, embrace and celebrate the undying persistence of this miracle. In the face of death—life! The murdered Jesus lives. For those who confess their death-deserving sins in the presence of this Jesus—life! Through the crucified and resurrected Jesus they enter eternity.
So why does Easter Sunday sometimes fall flat? Why do we allow the market’s pathetic exploitation of the season—spring sales, Easter parades, egg hunts, Easter bunnies and social overload—to dilute the purpose and obscure the real meaning of Easter? Make no mistake. We allow it. The blame lies with us, with me.
For good reason, long ago the church put aside forty days (excluding Sundays) leading up to Easter. And the reason is as profound as it is simple: We will never know how to live if we don’t know how to die. Lent is for the dying.
The season we call Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Early Christians made a cross with ashes on their foreheads. Some still do. Ashes for death. A cross for a Lover’s love so great it tasted death to rescue the human race. Lent is an old English word that literally meant “spring,” when life emerges from the death of winter. Without winter, no spring. Without the death, no life. Lent is the journey through death to life. My own experience teaches me that Easter rings hollow if my dying hasn’t prepared me for it.
WHAT DOES OUR DYING LOOK LIKE?
Good question. The season of Lent is an opportunity to answer that question personally. The answer begins with Jesus. Lent invites us to meditate on the life of Jesus, our Lord, who shows and teaches us how to live. We, His disciples, learning his way, living his life, becoming like him. And we begin to peel away the layers of our false selves and discover our true selves in God’s image, and we learn to starve to death that false self and nurture the true.
Jesus enjoyed life. Not at all because He indulged and pampered Himself, but because He gave Himself. What life is all about, what truly fulfills us as human beings is to love both God and our neighbors. (Matthew 22:37-40) ‘Neighbor,’ by the way, means everyone, including our enemies. (5:43-48) We, all of us, are like dead seeds in winter’s cold ground, until we begin to love God with our heart and soul and mind – and our neighbors (everyone included!) as ourselves.
Jesus did it to perfection. He modeled it for us. So during Lent, as we search for life, we meditate on the life of Jesus. Inevitably we discern a way or ways our following, our discipleship has fallen short. Such personal honesty is actually cause for hope. As we confess our shortcomings and sins to God, He empowers us to overcome them and to move forward on our Christian journey. The enabling grace of God is like water and sunshine to the buried seed. This is the work of Lent, removing the coldness, the dryness of our disobedience, preparing us for Easter.
I’ve come to understand that Easter is God’s gift to those who have done the work of preparing themselves spiritually. This is not to say that our preparation enables us to figure out beforehand how God will reveal Himself or exactly what He will do for us come Easter. God is full of surprises. It is to say that He will honor our honest confessions, the readying of ourselves, and the changes we are making to become more like Jesus. And then He will give us more than we asked for or knew.
There are different ways we can journey well during Lent. Many resources are available. I offer one, one that I think never fails us. Read through, meditate on, and pray over one of the Gospels during Lent. Follow the life of Jesus. Remember that He is not only our Savior and Lord, He is also our Rabbi. What this means is that we are His disciples. Our calling is to imitate Him. He came to show us how to be who God created us to be. And He came to die to make that possible.
If we read a Gospel with this in mind, we will find ourselves on our knees. We will own that we are under judgment. We will seek the enabling grace of God to make changes. We shouldn’t, however, think that we have then ‘arrived.’ What we have done is to open ourselves to the next phase of God’s future for us. We have begun the next phase of our journey with Jesus. We’ve found some humility, which God can always do something with.
Lent is meant to humble us. We follow a Rabbi whose earthly life was a humbling from beginning to end, from an obscure stable birth to the humiliation of a criminal’s crucifixion. And from the humility of Jesus comes the irony, the turning of the tables, the holy ambush, the unimaginable expressed in the remarkable words of the apostle Paul: “Therefore [all because of the love-driven humility], God exalted [Jesus] to the highest place…” (Philippians 2:9a) Moved Him from the bottom to the top, from the lowest place to the highest, as if this reversal is as it should be. And it is. It is with you and me, as well. We are at our best when our humility is strong and our strength is used in humility. That is what the life and death of Jesus teach us. It is in dying to ourselves that we become free to be ourselves.
Lent is the journey, year after year, to this discovery. As we are brought under judgment by the life and death of Jesus, as we confess our pride and our negligence, as we begin to shed the illusions about ourselves, we are clearing the way to becoming our true selves in Christ. The seeds of our true humanity in Christ (our holiness) are sprouting.
Now we can come to Easter, not as tourists looking to be momentarily entertained before moving on, but as travelers arriving prepared to fall on our knees before the ever-living Christ, prepared to receive whatever God will lay on us and to give Him whatever He asks.
Commissioner Philip Needham, a retired officer living in Decutar, GA, is the author of He Who Laughed First, Delighting in a Holy God and When God Becomes Small.