Resurrection Chapel National Cathedral, Washington, D.C.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lent: A Time To Know Ourselves

“I don’t see the point of Lent - it seems like a time when we’re supposed to whip ourselves just for being human.”

The opinion is common enough, and often comes from misunderstanding the purpose of Lenten disciplines.

Lent comes to us with the accumulated wear and tear of nearly 20 centuries of interpretation and misinterpretation.  It began in the early church as a period of preparation for baptism and confirmation, which took place on Easter.  Candidates for baptism were required to examine their lives, which always included the mixture of good and evil common to all people, and often included pagan religious practices, which had to be renounced prior to baptism.

Over the centuries this practice of self-examination was extended to all believers, the focus being on the events of the year past.  Our forebears understood that the mere fact of becoming a Christian did not abolish our tendency to, in the words of a classic confession, “do those things we ought not to have done, and leave undone those things we ought to have done.” 

There are at least two reasons why a Lenten discipline is a good idea.

First, and most obviously, we make mistakes, and our awareness of them can become a great burden.  Since God promises to forgive the sins of all who confess, intending to change, a time of self-examination is a very useful way to recall those things for which we need God’s forgiveness.  It’s not whipping ourselves to bring our needs before God - it’s simply accepting God’s offer.  If we do it in trust, we lose the burden.

The second reason for Lenten disciplines is less obvious, but equally important.  We are called to help one another deal with the shortcomings and obstacles that get in the way of full and faithful living.  This sometimes requires that we correct each other.

Now, if we are supposed to correct each other when we do things the wrong way, we’d better make sure our own house is in order first.  As a matter of fact, Jesus absolutely insisted that we attend to our own shortcomings before we try to correct anyone else’s.

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?   Or how can you say to your brother, `Brother, let me take out the speck that is in your eye,' when you yourself do not see the log that is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother's eye.”  Luke 6:41-42

If we honestly examine our own ways of doing things, trying to see ourselves as others see us, we can be led to see others differently.  It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about what we believe are moral lapses, personal shortcomings or just the way the other person runs a meeting or leads a group.  Knowing our own flaws takes away our self-righteousness, and allows us to approach the issue that divides us more openly.  Jesus tells us that if we imagine a log in our eye and a speck in our neighbor’s, we’ll be seeing the situation as God does.

Two reasons, then, to observe Lent, and join in the ancient practice of self-examination.  First, to avail ourselves of God’s mercy and grace, to be relieved of the burden of sin and guilt that so many of us carry.  Second, by thus dealing with our own shortcomings, we can gain the humility and perspective we need to live with others in our family, among our friends and associates in our church.  Such observance is not morbid; it’s realistic, and it opens the way to a deeper and fuller relationship with God and with the other people in our lives.

Howard MacMullen
© February, 2012

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