I invite you, therefore in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting and self-denial and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. –Ash Wednesday service, Book of Common Prayer
The observance of Lent has seen a resurgence in recent years among those outside mainline institutions. Years ago, I attended an Easter service at a non-denominational church where the sermon focused almost exclusively on the Crucifixion. I believe the intent was a well-meaning desire to focus on Christ’s sacrifice since they likely had not observed Lent or Good Friday. But little time was left for Resurrection reflections, leaving “Hallelujah, He is Risen” as a bit of a footnote. Consequently, I find the revitalization of the Lenten tradition to be a good thing for the Church. In my experience, Easter’s glory is more stunning if I have taken Lent seriously.
I have noticed, though, a mis-angled trajectory in some of the Lenten reflections I have encountered of late–reflections that direct our focus on the suffering and sin in the world writ large, rather than directing our attention to our individual complicity in that suffering and sin. The first line of thought is really more appropriate for Advent (“Come, Lord Jesus”) than for Lent (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner”).
It is natural, I suppose, to focus on sin and suffering in broad strokes amidst the current tumultuous state of the world. Yet, I believe, this type of thinking is a distraction from the hard work of Lent which is to remember that (to paraphrase Tim Keller) we routinely underestimate the destructiveness of our sin and the price that Christ paid for it. These are realities that should guide the self-reflection and repentance of Lent.
Older versions of the Anglican liturgy include a prayer of confession with these words: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.” Bewail. Manifold sins. Wickedness. Such language, if not offensive, is certainly not fashionable. In fact, I doubt this particular prayer is used much in public worship at all anymore. Yet how might our understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice expand if we were to pray these words? What if we were to–not just acknowledge but–bewail our sin. Bewail the way that our minds are filled wrath toward “the other,” the way that our desires ignite a lustful flesh, the way that petty jealousy foments disdain, the way that greed feeds a gluttonous life, or the way that our words beat down the ones we love most–the way that all of these sins are more than minor, excusable infractions but are true wickedness that darken our souls and cast shadows into the world.
If such thinking makes you uncomfortable (and it should), remember that we are marking a season of self-examination. Christians should not spend their lives in continual self-flagellation or narcissistic navel-gazing. The power and beauty of liturgical observances lie in the rhythms that they bring to our spiritual lives. We need to be honest about our sinfulness and its destructive effects on the world, but we also need Resurrection bells to ring out Easter’s promise of new life.
As we approach Holy Week, let us turn into the dark corners of our heart to grieve and confess our sins and wickedness to our God who is both Maker and Redeemer.