Amidst the hurried distractions of our lives comes the regular liturgical heartbeat of this time of year known as Lent. And yes, we peculiar Baptists do observe Lent. We find that the tried and true rhythms of Christian liturgical worship carry a deep resonance.
Lent comes from a word meaning "lengthen" and during these days our souls will lengthen and hopefully become more pliable, open, and receptive of the Holy Spirit. May God lengthen our spiritual "attention spans" during this Lent.
The opening stanza of this hymn contains this beautiful lyric:
Lord, who throughout these forty days
For us didst fast and pray,
Teach us with thee to mourn our sins
And close by thee to stay.
Just as Christ experienced the harrowing of his soul for forty days and nights in the wilderness, so too are Christ's followers called to fast, repent, and reflect. Listen as you sing or read these words for some ancient cadences and peculiar vocabulary.
The hymn uses words like "sin" and "mourn"...and later it asks Jesus "to teach us, gracious Lord, to die to self." There's not much talk in popular culture about "dying to self." The Church uses ancient words which have an increasingly difficult time finding purchase in modern parlance. But these words are both richer and more capable of leading to spiritual growth than the language of pop psychology or something purloined from the self-help aisle.
Imagine going to the bookstore and asking "where is the dying to self aisle?" That might occasion a puzzled look. Christians understand that the resources we have independent of God are so inadequate and scarce, that we cannot take the first step without the enabling power of God's grace. Lent without grace is like the law without mercy: nobody wants to be subject to such a regime. So, may grace come.
On Ash Wednesday we will talk of sin and of repentance and of grace. Sin as a deep theological category, not the convenient list of Things We Don't Approve Of. Sin has an ontological and existential condition, and therefore on Ash Wednesday we are encouraged to reflect deeply on the ways in which we have harmed self and others. The good news is that there is forgiveness. The good news is that Easter is coming. The good news is that grace always trumps the law.
The ashes we'll receive on our foreheads are a sign of both our belonging to God and our status as sinful creation. We are not perfect. We have sinned. But under the sign of the Cross we continue our journey, seeking repentance, renewal, transformation, and finally: Resurrection. Lent begins with ashes, signalling this great truth of all human existence that we all will die. Each one of us. And yet death will not have the final word. We are an Easter people, so death can never have the final word.