On Lent & Faith

To talk about Lent, I need to talk to you about my faith journey. 

I was baptized as an infant at St.John’s Episcopal Church, in Norman, Oklahoma. In our faith tradition, we believe that through infant baptism we are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. We also believe that sacraments, like Holy Baptism, are outward, visible signs of inward, spiritual grace. I firmly believe that God’s grace is constant and abundant–but also that sacraments are efficacious. They do what they set out to do.

I’ve always had fond memories of St. John’s. I remember so clearly the smell of the library that permeated the hallways. The photos of the priests and bishops in the hall. The columbarium. The red carpet and stained glass and the needlepoint kneelers. 

There is some space between my baptism and the rest of my time in the Episcopal Church. We attended a Southern Baptist church for much of my childhood, and then an evangelical non-denominational church, and I visited the Church of Christ and Nazarene churches extensively with friends. I attended Nazarene and Southern Baptist summer camps. I declared myself ‘on fire for Christ’, responded to altar calls, and allowed my faith to be open and free, while never feeling quite at home. I won’t disparage these faith traditions, but I moved away from them. 

When I was 12, I started walking to St. John’s by myself, while my family attended another church at the end of our block. I loved the ceremony. I loved the sermons. I loved the theology. I loved the freedom. I felt so grown up, ready to confirm my faith and membership in my beloved church.

I started confirmation classes and learned so much about our faith tradition, theology, and the traditions of other faiths. I learned about transubstantiation, why we kneel, the sacraments, the polity of the Episcopal church. My grandfather, whose love for the Anglican church matched mine, served as my Confirmation sponsor. I received the laying on of hands from the Bishop just a few yards away from the font where I had been baptized. An outward, visible sign of inward, spiritual grace.

And then, in college, I stopped believing in God. I questioned, for a time, before altogether abandoning my belief. When my grandfather, my father figure without question, my Confirmation sponsor, died at only 67 my junior year, I sat in the pew of St. John’s and wept not only because of the loss of my beloved Poppie, but because I no longer had the connection to God to help me through, and I couldn’t summon it.

A year later, on the anniversary of Poppie’s death, I rose early (well, early for a 21 year old) and walked to St. John’s, again. Even though I hadn’t reunited with my faith, it was important for me to memorialize his loss, and sitting in those pews felt appropriate. 

The priest who had presided over my grandfather’s funeral (who would come to be instrumental in my return to faith) gave a sermon about Christ’s death freeing us to do His work of reconciliation in the world. Before this, Christ’s death and resurrection had always felt to me like a gotcha. Why I felt that way is a topic for another post, but I remember that through the sermon I began to understand the resurrection as an act not only of freedom but of responsibility. 

One sermon didn’t restore my belief entirely, but I kept coming back. I sat in the pews throughout February. And March. And April. I sat as Lent began, with the imposition of ashes, and I kept coming. I felt faith begin to return. And I began to understand that faith was a muscle, that faith was an act, that faith was dynamic and, like God’s grace, ever present.

I requested time off of work for religious observance for the first time ever that Good Friday. It was cold and rainy, sleeting off and on. Very on-brand.

We walked the stations of the cross around the church grounds. We participated in the somber Litany of Good Friday. We read the names of every member of the church aloud and prayed for each.

I knew I had loved the liturgy of the church, but I didn’t know it would lead me back to God. I didn’t know that the solemn time of Lent would forever be my return to faith.

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So now, Lent.

Lent is the quiet, contemplative, and penitent season before the church’s greatest celebration of Easter. It mirrors in a way the 40 days that Christ spent in temptation in the wilderness. Indeed, it is associated with giving up things like meat, alcohol, coffee, chocolate, gossiping, and, sure, Facebook. 

It’s so much more than that. Penitence, atonement, repentance– all are only opportunities to accept the grace we do not deserve because grace isn’t earned or determined by worth but freely given, all are only opportunities to do the important, neverending work of reconciliation. When we repent, we *turn* from the sin (separation from God) that has hurt ourselves, others, and God. We don’t hide away and cry. We know better and we do better.

The silence of Lent can seem dark, and indeed it is a season of darkness. But the darkness is just a visible form of quiet, an opportunity to listen, to be still, to think before we act or speak, and to reflect. 

On Ash Wednesday, we read:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

    to loose the bonds of injustice,

    to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

    and to break every yoke?

This is our fast. To loose the bonds of injustice. To let the oppressed go free. And we must do this work. It is the work of Christ, who uses us–US!–as instruments of reconciliation. 

Yes, we did and do the oppressing. Our consumption. Our disregard for others. Our wealth. Our indifference. But through Lent, we have the opportunity to pause, collect insight, and right the wrongs. 

During Easter Vigil, we read the stories of our faith in near darkness. We renew this Baptismal Covenant, which reads:

Celebrant: Do you believe in God the Father?
People: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
Celebrant: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
People: I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.

He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Celebrant: Do you believe in God the Holy Spirit?
People: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Celebrant: Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
People: I will, with God’s help.
Celebrant: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
People: I will, with God’s help.

It’s the same covenant our parents and godparents read for us at our Baptism, and we reaffirm as we grow. And after we read the covenant we hold with God, the lights come on, the bells ring, and we proclaim, ALLELUIA, CHRIST IS RISEN! THE LORD IS RISEN INDEED, ALLELUIA!

Christ, who suffered temptation and emerged victorious. Christ, who suffered death in a human body, a body with blood, with lungs, with a heart. CHRIST IS RISEN! The light and the joy and the promise that come with that. The freedom to do the work of reconciliation, not for our own salvation, not to earn our place but to work to loose the bonds of injustice, to break every yoke.

You can’t have that light without shadows, though. You can’t have those bells without the quiet preceding. You can’t have revelation without contemplation. 

And that is why I sit, breathing in every moment of Lent, awaiting the light of Easter.

 

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