There’s only one thing, one Holy Being (which we nickname “God”), and we’re part of it. But we don’t get it. We believe, and act as if we’re our own little worlds. We see ourselves as individual physical units, contained in and defined by our bodies. (Paul call it “living according to the flesh.”) This is by nature self-centered, and what we call sin. But God is infinite; there is nothing outside God. We are part of God. We are emanations of divine love, members of the Body of Christ. To trust this, to willingly be part of God, is what Paul calls “living in the Spirit.”
Our sinfulness doesn’t mean we’re “bad.” It means we’re afraid. It means we’re inherently self-centered. We don’t know how to trust God, and trust our belonging in God. We focus on the survival of our bodies and possessions and outward appearances, and not on the life of God within us.
We are created by Infinite Love, and Love is our life. We are imprisoned, enslaved by our self-centeredness and self-protection, which cuts us off from love—cuts us off from God—and therefore from life. So we say “sin is death.” But Love doesn’t let go of us. Despite our selfishness God stays connected. God reaches through our selfishness and self-protection and holds us in love. Despite our illusion that we are separate from God, in love God claims us and includes us anyway! This is not anything we can affect: we are unable to save ourselves from our own self-centeredness. It is a gift of pure grace.
Salvation doesn’t mean going to heaven after we die. Salvation means being rescued from the selfishness that destroys our lives—our distrust of God, our alienation from the divine breath/Spirit in us that is our our true and only source of life. God overcomes all this; it is not the result of our effort, but God’s grace. The “heaven” we go to is not the afterlife, but the paradise of being in harmony with God.
So we attend to the work of repentance: confronting our ego and its fears and desires, our self-centeredness and its consequences; letting go of those false fears and demands; and opening ourselves to being animated by the Spirit instead of our sin. Lent is a season of forty days of repentance and purification in preparation for Easter. We confess not only our individual sins but our collective sin, the systems of injustice that our sin produces and sustains. We acknowledge that we are dust in need of Spirit. We pray for the gift of repentance through fasting, prayer and works of love, that we may be healed and transformed according to the grace of God. Our guiding images in Lent are Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, facing his temptations, and his journey toward the cross
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. The ashes represent the frailty of our faith—they are made from last year’s Palm Sunday palms. As with anything we loved but have lost, ashes represent the sorrow we feel upon facing our sinfulness, our regret over having hurt ourselves, our neighbor, God, and all Creation. (It may seem odd to speak of God being hurt, but that’s the very meaning of love—and the cross.) In the beginning God took dust up from the ground and breathed life (breath, spirit) into it, and it became a living human. We are dust and spirit. Sadly, what we see and touch seems most real to us, so we believe in the dust more than the Spirit. Ashes remind us that we are made of dust, dependent on God’s grace. And they remind us of our mortality. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The future is not guaranteed: now is the time to let go of our illusions about ourselves (burning them to ashes) and to live the authentic life God has given us. Mindful that life is short and precious, we devote ourselves to using every moment we are given for the sake of love, to give and receive God’s grace while we can. We place ashes on ourselves as a sign that we are Creatures and God is Creator; that we are to die to sin, and that it is not our efforts, but God’s grace, that redeems us. Remembering that in Creation God formed a human from the dust of the ground and breathed life into it to create a living human, we present ourselves as dust to God, that God may breathe God’s Spirit into us and create us anew.
Repentance is not what we do to be saved, but what we do because we have been saved. When we let go of our self-contentedness and accept God’s love, our hearts are changed: we want to live in harmony with that love and grace. Repentance is accepting the love we’ve been resisting. It’s allowing God’s grace to change us. We allow that Spirit within us to take over and re-direct our sinful impulses. We renounce our denial of the fears and desires that control us. We confess our sin. We recognize our distrust of God, and turn again (and again) to God, practicing trusting God’s grace, breathing in that divine breath. Repentance is not about beating ourselves up, but seeking “truth in the inward being.” It’s a time of facing up to our denial of our deep need for God—and changing our ways, and our consciousness, to receive that grace. With Jesus in the desert we face our temptations, the ways our desire for life get distorted into desire for power, security and belonging in sources other than God. Repentance is about turning to the divine life that is there inside us that we’ve been neglecting. Remembering that we are dust, and to dust we shall return, we place our trust in God alone for life. Beholding the cross of Christ, we enter into the mystery of our salvation. Giving our lives to God, we die and are raised to new life.
The cross is the cost of love. In Jesus on the cross we see God’s suffering love in the face of our sin and violence. Jesus did not die “so that God could forgive us;” God forgave us already. Jesus died because we killed him. Jesus suffered the consequences of our sin, our injustice, but he did not “pay for our sins:” sin can’t be bought off. To say we have been “purchased with a price” doesn’t mean Jesus “bought” something. Our salvation is a gift, not a transaction—though it costs God. God did not arrange for Jesus to be killed; that was our doing. God didn’t “plan” the cross. Jesus didn’t set out to die; he set out to do justice. Jesus opposed unjust religious, political, economic and social systems of oppression—and the powerful struck back. In his death we see evil exposed. We see God as the victim of all injustice and oppression (“whatever you do to the least of these…”) And we also see God’s love and forgiveness in the face of our evil. Jesus suffered our judgment, and brought God’s judgment in return: God’s absolute, eternal, infinite love and forgiveness.
To contemplate the cross is to behold our sin, God’s grace, and our calling all at once. In the cross we see the scandal of God’s vulnerability with us. God doesn’t demand suffering; God suffers with us and even because of us—to stay with us. In the cross God lives out the reality of being in a body, with all the beauty and pain and even mortality that entails: such is the price of incarnation. God suffers with us. In the Cross God absorbs everything that separates us from God: our fear and violence, our shame, our judgment, and our death― and God embraces us, with nothing in between. In the cross we exercise the power of death and violence and God receives it and transforms it, overcoming even the power of death with love. Because Jesus trusts God absolutely, and serves God fully in the cause of justice and healing, he is not afraid to face violence. Having already given his life to God, Jesus enters into life that is infinite and can’t be taken from him (this, not the afterlife, is the meaning of eternal life). On Good Friday the Resurrected One was crucified.
To take up your cross is to willingly surrender your life to God, die to your old self, and allow yourself to be raised—re-created—as a new person, like dust that God breathes new life into. And to take up your cross is to be willing to suffer for the sake of love and justice.
Lent is not only about repentance; it’s also a time to lament. The Ashes of Ash Wednesday evoke not only our sin and our mortality; they also speak of our sorrow. We are sorry for our sinfulness; and we are sorry for the suffering of the world. In Luke 13.34 (Second Sunday in Lent) Jesus laments over Jerusalem. Repentance is never just a personal thing; it’s a communal movement. Our whole society needs to repent of our injustice. But to begin we need to lament, to let our hearts be broken by the suffering of the world, with Jesus weeping over Jerusalem (Lk. 19.41). It’s easier to make pronouncements about the world’s problems than to stand (or sit) with the people who suffer because of those problems. Let them have a voice in your confession and repentance: those who suffer because of racism, poverty, violence, sexism, heterosexism, consumerism, mass incarceration, the climate crisis, the assault on democracy… Of course the list goes on and on, and you don’t want your worship to be nothing but grievance. But don’t overlook our need to lament and grieve with those who are the crucified ones among us.
Lent: Living beyond death
The story of Lent is the salvation story. Salvation doesn’t mean going to heaven after we die. It means being rescued from the power of self-centeredness that rules our lives. Just as the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, we are slaves to sin and death. Sin works in us in ways we can’t seem to control, and death creates bounds for our lives that we can’t escape. But just as Moses led the people out of slavery in Egypt, Jesus delivers us from slavery to our self-centeredness. In his death and resurrection we see the grace that sets us free from the power that sin and our fear of death have over us. Jesus leads us to life in Infinite Love.
During Lent the scripture lessons will take us on a journey through and beyond death. We go with Jesus into the desert to face our temptations. Jesus teaches us about the penitential disciples of fasting, prayer and acts of generosity and justice. We discover in the parable of the lost sons a lesson on dying and rising with Christ. As Mary anoints Jesus for his death, we too accept our mortality. As Jesus goes to the cross with love in his heart, we learn to confront the evil powers of death in this world. By God’s grace, we learn to live the resurrection life.