Sermon Text: Lent is Overrated
Lent is overrated.
The season of Lent begins this Wednesday. I have mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand, I gotta like a season when people renew their faith practices. Some church people become more disciplined. Some take more time for reflection, prayer, and study.
On the other hand, Lent is a secondary, not primary, season of the church year. The only purpose of Lent is to get ready for Easter. Easter is way more important than Lent. The celebration of the resurrection is central to Christianity. The resurrection is the source, the reason, and the center. Until the resurrection, there was no Christianity.
From the very beginning of our faith, the first day of the week, Sunday, the Lord’s Day, was always a celebration of the resurrection. Sunday was the primal Christian celebration. We know this from the first Christian documents, including the New Testament writings. And we know this from writings by pagan observers, such as Roman officials who were suspicious about this new group.
Sunday came first. And Easter Sunday was the most important Sunday of all.
So eventually, church people developed customs to get ready for Easter. At first, it was a three-day preparation.
On Thursday, the Last Supper of Jesus was commemorated. It came to be called “Maundy Thursday.” The Latin word for “commandment” is “mandatum,” from which we get our word “mandate.” Jesus gave a new mandate, a new commandment, on Maundy Thursday, when he said, “Do this for the remembrance of me.” And from the Latin “mandatum,” they got the slang “Maundy.” Maundy Thursday helped Christians get ready for Easter.
On Friday, the cross was the focus. Jesus died on that Friday which was eventually called “Good.” Good Friday is not good because of the torture and execution, but because God brought good out of all that pain and suffering.
And so, at first, it was all about those three days (in church, we always do things in threes): Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. The old church leaders even had a word for the 3 days. They called it the “Triduum,” Latin for “three days.”
So later, in the Middle Ages, the church took a darker and darker view of human nature. They made the preparation season longer by pushing it back. First they pushed it back a week. From Palm Sunday to Easter Day is still called “Holy Week.”
Then they pushed it back more. It would be good to have a time to train brand-new Christians, so they made it forty days. Jesus was in the wilderness forty days. The children of Israel wandered the desert for 40 years. So forty days made a neat parallel.
The forty-day season of Lent became a time for teaching pagans to become Christians, who then got baptized at Easter. Originally, Easter was the only time for baptizing people. So it was all focused on Easter.
Every Sunday is Easter — even in Lent. If you don’t believe me, count the days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day. It’s only forty days if you leave out the Sundays. Every Sunday is an Easter celebration. Even in Lent.
So I think Lent has gotten too big for its britches. The forty days of Lent have become a bigger deal for some Christians than Easter, and the Great Fifty Days of Easter. That’s backwards.
But it’s part of that dark strain of Christianity which views human beings as totally depraved sinners, utterly rotten. And that view has had way too much influence. Many of us who grew up in church acquired a whole lot of guilt. There was a constant drumbeat of teaching about us being miserable sinners.
But just as Easter came before Lent was invented, creation came before redemption. In other words, human beings were created good. That’s what the first chapter of the Bible says. Original blessing came before original sin. Goodness and blessing have priority.
My daughter may be challenged intellectually, but she gets this. When she was a little girl living with us, she came to church all the time. And she did not like Lent.
One time she walked into church when it was set up for Lent. The colors were dark purple and black. It looked very stark and serious. She looked around and said, “Death fixation...Death fixation.” I think she’s on to something.
I am not saying we should junk Lent. I love Ash Wednesday, and Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday. They really help me get ready for Easter.
But the rest of Lent should not be that big a deal. It should never rob us of the joy of the resurrection. EVERY Sunday is Easter. EVERY Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection. EVERY Sunday is an alleluia.
Bob Peterson and I have decided it’s time for the revolt this year. We decided we will still use the “alleluia,” even in Lent! (This will provide more material for my heresy trial, which I expect any day now.)
If you want to give something up for Lent as an act of discipline, fine, do it! But don’t make that what your faith is about. Your faith is about the resurrection of Christ.
In today’s Gospel text we hear about the Transfiguration. Jesus is glorified up on a mountain, and God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen...Listen to him!” Following Jesus means listening to his teaching. Not a bad practice for Lent — or for any season! Listen to Jesus. Listen to the people around you. Listen to this world in which we live. That is a a great Lenten discipline.
Christianity is not about Lent — it’s about Easter.
Church is not about gloom — it’s about joy.
Faith is not a death fixation — it’s about resurrection.
Every Sunday — and, in fact, every day — is Easter Day.
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!