My first Lenten season as an Anglican is now completed (actually for a whole week). I currently remember and probably will continue to remember it as a very powerful time for me. It allowed me, for the first time, to experience Easter, rather than just a time for me to remember the Resurrection as an individual, instead a time that I could experience a tradition of Resurrection celebrations, handed down from generation to generation.
Many evangelicals are wary of following church traditions, particularly based on Jesus’ rebuke of the Pharisees in Matthew 15/Mark 7, in which he chastises them for following “the traditions of men.” For some, this means that most if not all ritual is dangerous, because it allegedly causes people to mindlessly engage in practices and lose focus on the saving power of Christ.
However, I can attest that, speaking for myself at least, the liturgy and church traditions have served to enhance the powerful Gospel of Christ. It is often as though the biblical narrative is being re-enacted during a service. The inadequacy of the human and the grace of God are illuminated, through the collect for purity, the Scripture readings, the prayer of confession, the hymns that are sung, the collective prayers of the people, the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, and in the Eucharist, during which Anglican theology teaches that Chris is spiritually (NOT physically) present and gives grace to His people.
The practice of Lent is another church tradition that powerfully illustrates the Christian narrative. The purpose of Lent is primarily twofold: to reduce indulgent distractions so that the energy is focused on God, and to allow the believer to experience a very microscopic version of the suffering that Christ went through at the time of his death.
At the start of Lent I chose to give up sugar, all TV besides sports (Pittsburgh teams are rarely televised here, so I thought it was a reasonable stipulation), watching mindlessly funny YouTube videos, and several other things. I have to confess, for the first few weeks, I didn’t budge. I felt extremely righteous; I was really demonstrating my devotion to God.
However, within about three weeks, I had caved to all of my “sacrifices”. The impulse reaction was to feel as though my Lent was ruined. For while I never believed those sacrifices would play any role in salvation, it was all too easy to feel like a “better” Christian for adhering to them. But this is not what Paul tells us in Romans 7:
Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh, the sinful passions which were aroused by the law were at work in our members to bear fruit to death. But now we have been delivered from the law, having died to what we were held by, so that we should serve in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter.Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another—to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God. What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet.”
This is Paul’s assurance that the law was created to reveal the darkness of our hearts, and to show how impossible it is for us to measure up to God’s holiness. However, God’s grace has given us newness in the Spirit. Because of this newness in Christ, I can have assurance of my salvation, and rather than something I have to do, Lent is something I get to do.
The other main idea I found espoused in the season of Lent was how the Bible demonstrates God’s work of salvation to be a holistic endeavor, for as both the spiritual and physical realms were tainted by the Fall, so the promised Messiah provides hope of redemption of these things.
I saw this reflected several times during Holy Week. On Wednesday night, I attended a Catholic Tenebrae service, complete with Gregorian chants and monks. During one portion of the service, the chapel is darkened and a host of chilling and repulsive noises are made, to illustrate the convulsion of all creation when Christ was crucified. On Maundy Thursday, I attended a service centered around foot washing, in which the act was done, and reminded of the humility Christ showed. The Good Friday service likewise reminded one of the agony and shame suffered by Christ on that day.
However, the most powerful experience of the season was the Easter Vigil, an extremely somber service that lasts three hours, and is done in the very late evening on Holy Saturday. Essentially, it goes through the biblical narrative through Scripture readings, songs, collective prayers, and a homily. More than anything else, this service highlighted to me the holistic nature of the Gospel. The portion on the Fall highlighted the tainting of the entirety of creation, such that both their souls were in trouble, but also death was introduced to the world, physically, noted by the killing of the animals for clothes. As we get through the time following the Flood, we see God’s promises to the Patriarchs, incredibly morally inept men, who God nonetheless chooses for the Savior’s lineage, who demonstrably trust God to provide for their eventual salvation, and for their physical needs, as God cared for the sad and barren Sarah. God also is noted for using society’s “lessers” to accomplish this, as Christ’s lineage is not through the firstborn in several generations (Isaac instead of Ishmael, Jacob instead of Esau, Judah instead of Reuben). The Exodus shows that God was on the side of the oppressed Israelites, and delivers them from the Egyptians. From the wanderings in the wilderness, to the time of the judges, up through the days of the kings and prophets, there is a constant dual preaching against both the morality of the population, sexual and otherwise, and against the oppression of the poor, both by the Israelites and by outside oppressors. In these cases, the coming Messiah is illustrated as hope for the future.
The Advent of Christ likewise illustrates his concern for helping society’s forgotten. It was the ultimate act of condescension for God to take on the form of humans, a sinful race. He was born to a virgin young woman from poor background, from a town with a sizable Roman garrison that would likely be accused of being the reason for her pregnancy, and then was born in a little cave with animals and probably shady people all around him. Adding to this, his first visitors were shepherds, one of the least honorable professions of their day.
Throughout his ministry years, Jesus preached the need to BELIEVE, and also a need to ACT. He preached high personal moral standards, but with himself as the one to be looked to, and also showed how to put it into action, by spending time with prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, and lepers, people the society loathed.
He gained the hatred of the powerful, which led to his crucifixion, in which he suffered the greatest aspect of the fall: both physical death, and the feeling of complete separation from God, which epitomizes hell.
Back to the vigil, it was very somber, up to the Crucifixion portion, and his being laid in the tomb. Silent reflection ensued, in complete blackness. However, after several minutes, the lights come on, and the priest yells, “Christ is Risen!” The Eucharist is served in a festive atmosphere, and songs of joy are sung.
The Resurrection illustrates, again, the holistic nature of God’s victory over the fall. Spiritually, it made God’s accessibility to fallen humans complete, as Christ was now our Advocate, whose perfection overrides each of our failings. But physically, it demonstrated that the ultimate earthly effect of sin, death, was conquered. It serves as hope of the eventual victory over all our world’s problems. Liberals must be careful not to overlook our need for Christ’s salvation in our insufficiency, and conservatives likewise must not dismiss as “social gospel” the idea that Christ serves as hope and inspiration for the ending of systems of evil on this earth. Christ is our hope, for our victory over each of our own sins and eternal life, and for here, as someone who would fight against depraved systems of poverty, human trafficking, unjust wars, exploitation of God’s creation, cruelty towards His human and animal creatures, and racism.
Chris is risen. Let us go and preach the Gospel, and LIVE the Gospel.