Yesterday I had the opportunity to preach at my home church. As it was the fourth Sunday of Lent, I tried to bring out some of the Lenten themes in the lectionary readings. After a quick look at the idea of the interconnectedness of things (a la the spiderweb, something that worked much better in chapel last semester, I think), we spent a few minutes with the three main readings: Numbers 21 (the bronze serpent), John 3 (Jesus and the bronze serpent), and Ephesians 2 (the grace-saved church on display). It was good to get to draw connections between the three passages of Scripture, particularly as it points to what is fitting and appropriate for us in our part of God’s story. As is often the case, though, I walked away unsure of how well anything really connected from an audience perspective. That’s something I have the work on all the time, really (and will tie into my thoughts on community and church when I get back to that thread).
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This past week or so I’ve spent some quality time with Alexander Schmemann’s Great Lent (which I first read about in this post by Rod Dreher). It was definitely the right book at the right time. Written from a Greek Orthodox perspective, there were a lot of things (terms and traditions) that were utterly foreign to me (see chapter three of the “presanctified gifts- a real stretch for a “memorial” guy like me). And while I don’t see myself converting to the Greek Orthodox church anytime soon, I do feel some connection with the more mystical approach they take to the season. From the introduction:
If we realize this [that we have embraced a nominal Christianity in need of repentance and renewal], then we may understand what Easter is and why it needs and presupposes Lent. For we may then understand that the liturgical traditions of the Church, all its cycles and services, exist, first of all, in order to help us recover the vision and the taste of that new life which we so easily lose and betray, so that we may repent and return to it . . . For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.
One of my favorite parts of the book came early in its content, when Schmemann discussed the themes that precede Lent (which means that your prepare for Lent just like Lent is used to prepare for Easter). “Before we can practice Lent we are given its meaning,” Schmemann asserts. This meaning is found across five Sundays focusing on desire (Zacchaeus), humility (the Publican and the Pharisee), return from exile (the Prodigal Son), the Last Judgment, and forgiveness. All of this points to the “bright sadness” of the season, something that can be difficult for the even the most faithful practitioner of the season to remember. All of this preparation for preparation sounds like pre-season conditioning (which I know little-to-nothing about). Schmemann continues:
Such is the degree of our alienation from the real spirit of the Church that it is almost impossible for us to understand that there is “something else”in Lent– something about which all these prescriptions [“formal, predominantly negative, rules and prescriptions”] lose much of their meaning. This “something else” can best be described as an “atmosphere,’ a “climate” into which one enters, as first of a state of mind, soul, and spirit . . . Let us stress once more that the purpose of Lent is not to force on us a few formal obligations, but to “soften” our heart so that it may open itself to the realities of the spirit, to experience the hidden “hunger and thirst” for communion with God.
I suppose I feel about this Lenten season much the same way I felt last year: that I’m learning a lot to try and process and perhaps put into practice next year. If anything, it is the idea of “atmosphere” that strikes me as something necessary for the season. It is an atmosphere of preparation on multiple levels that can help us better understand and celebrate that which comes next.
(image from amazon.com)