Here it is the week of Lent 2, the second full week of Lent. In Year A, that means two readings that focus on Abraham (from the start of Genesis 12 and Romans 4) and the encounter between Jesus and Nicodemus from John 3. Seems like a good time for a Lenten checkup. Every Lent I pick something to add and something to give up, and I revert to a very old-fashioned view of the Lenten table: meat once a day only and not at all on Fridays. I find the planning necessary for the latter provides a constant reminder of why I am doing it and what Lent is for. This year as I already mentioned I gave up social media – that continues to be a wrench, but I think I am breaking some bad habits and that I’ll have a healthier approach when I do come back. And we decided to add some devotional reading to our home prayers, which is working so well that we have plans for making regular readings part of home prayer after Lent.
So Lent is going really well, and I should just relax and enjoy it, right? Wrong! Any time you put the words “relax” and “Lent” in the same sentence, you should sit up, take notice, and look for the catch. This is the hidden trap of giving something up for Lent, which isn’t helped by the newer practice of taking something up for Lent. Now you’ve got a scorecard and can tick things off day by day: “ate no chocolate on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday” or “carried out Lent devotions on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday”. And before you know it, Lent has lost its real point and meaning.
When that happens, we need to ask a simple question: what is Lent for, anyway? It’s for getting ready to walk with Jesus from the Palm Sunday crowds through the week to Friday’s despair and finally to Sunday’s joyous eucastrophe, to use a word J.R.R. Tolkien coined to talk about the reversal of fortune from bad to good that comes at the end of so many cherished stories, as it does at the end of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and at the end of the gospels themselves.
Our Lent conventions of giving up and taking on, of fasting, almsgiving, prayer, study, self-examination, and repentance, are necessary and important guides and aids to us in getting ready for that week-long walk with Jesus. We couldn’t do it without them – I know I couldn’t. But they are a means to an end, not the end itself. The end is so to embrace the mind of Jesus that we can “walk the walk”, at least for a time.
The Lent 2 Gospel contains Jesus’ deliberately punning conversation with Nicodemus, which turns on the untranslatable Greek phrase “anōthen gennēthēnai”, meaning both ‘begotten/born from above’ and ‘begotten/born again’. On Sunday we saw how Nicodemus failed to take that ambiguity into account and simply rejected Jesus’ statement. He failed to see both that the phrase has a double meaning and that Jesus was deliberately playing with that double meaning. So we need to be more attentive than he was and see that what we need is to be born again from above. The practices of Lent exist, and have done for so long, because when we faithfully observe them they open up our hearts and minds to the Spirit who accomplishes our rebirth from above, not just once at our conversion or our baptism, but again and again through our lives as we come ever closer to the mind of Jesus. As St Paul wrote, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”