A Sermon for Lent 1, Year A
Sunday, February 10th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Matthew 4:1-11
“I invite you to keep a Holy Lent.” These words are spoken by the Celebrant in the Ash Wednesday liturgy. The word “Lent,” itself, is derived from a middle-English word meaning “spring.” Thus, when we speak of Lent, we speak of a springtime in which what was once dead is now coming back to life. Well, in Canada, at least, it is difficult to imagine the season through which we now journey to be a season of springtime. There are no flowers or buds or returning birds, nor have the hibernating animals begun to wake up. We are decidedly in the dead of winter. However, if we take a closer look around us, we will come to realize that all is not dead; even in the chill of winter, there are signs of life. Some birds still sing, some squirrels still scurry, and even beneath the mounds of snow, seeds wait quietly to burst forth. There is life, perhaps it is fleeting, perhaps it is drowsy, but there is indeed life.
And so it is with our Christian faith. Lent appears to us, to be a time of death. Traditionally, Lent has certainly been a time of doing without. I suspect, in many cultures, and indeed in our the early days of our pioneer culture here in Canada, a Lenten fast may have been as much out of necessity as out of piety. In a world in which we have whatever we want, whenever we want it, it is difficult to imagine a day in which some things, some foods, resources, medicines, even contact with other people, were simply not available, all because of the prohibitions of the winter environment. Thus, I suspect that the discipline of giving up something for Lent is indeed a good one, for it reminds us that there are others who do without, and it reminds us that there are some things that we simply do not need. And ultimately, it reminds us that what we truly need might not be things at all but something much deeper, much more profound, much more eternal. Sometimes, though, the presumed austerity of the season might seem to speak more to death than to life, and more to darkness than to light, more to wintertime than to springtime.
We seem to forget that the season of Lent is actually a springtime season and that spring is a time of gradual awakening, of gradually putting down roots, and gradual blossoming into beauty. I must confess, that the contrast between Lent and Easter has always seemed to me quite stark. There is Lent, which is all about darkness, winter, coldness, austerity, and then there is Easter, which is all about light, spring, warmth, new life, and overflowing abundance. Upon closer examination, though, the seasons of the year change slowly, do they not? Surely, we have examples sudden snowfalls, flash floods, and unexpected heat waves. But for the most part, our seasons slide into one another, and we rely on newscasters to tell us that it is now spring, or summer, or winter, or fall, and for the most part we say either, “It doesn’t seem much like winter yet,” or “Wow, I thought it was fall already!” This is all to say that our movement from season to season is a gradual one. And so, I say, is our movement from Lent to Easter. The movement is gradual, and the signs somewhat deceptive. Yes it is dark, yes it is cold, but lo, there is life.
In the history of the Church, Lent, as with springtime, has been a time for putting down roots. Lent is the time for catechesis, that is, for learning about the faith, for deepening our life of prayer, and for disciplining ourselves, or regulating our lives, that we might grow. We do all of this so that at Easter we can glory in the flower of our faith in bloom.
Again, the celebrant in the Ash Wednesday liturgy outlines what a Holy Lent might look like, namely a time of “self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and reading and meditating on the word of God.” It is tempting to look upon Lent simply as a time of “giving up” something in order that we might experience what it is like to “do without.” I do not want to disparage this practise or its piety, but I suggest that our Lenten Spring should be something more akin to the cultivation of a garden. It should involve the care and quality of the soil, the quality of its tilling, its location with respect to sun and shade, the planting of the vegetation and the subsequent care and tending to its growth and blooming.
With this image in view, I think I am discovering that the Lenten Spring is a time of discipline for growth. This is why Lent has traditionally been a time of Christian Education and Baptismal Preparation programs. This is why Lent has been a time of regulating our diets and tending to the care of our bodies. This is why Lent has been a time for looking to our past failings and false self-expectations and readjusting our hopes and dreams and expectations. This is why Lent has been a time for examining the injustices of our society and our world and seeking to assist others out of our abundance so that the unjust chasm between rich and poor might be closed in order that the world might more closely resemble the kingdom of God in which there is neither rich nor poor. This is why Lent has been a time to read and meditate on God’s word in order that we might more closely align our lives and wills to the divine life and the divine will. Each of these aspects of Lent speaks of discipline, and not the kind of discipline that breaks us, but the kind of discipline that gives us growth. These are the disciplines of spring.
And what of the forty days faced by Jesus? Forty days in the wilderness. Forty days of discipline. Forty days of temptation. It is easy for us to imagine the austerity of Jesus. It is easy for us to imagine a dirty, broken man, emaciated by the elements a lack of food. It is easy for us to imagine a man overwhelmed by the darkness of the cold desert nights. Instead, St. Matthew gives us the opposite image – a man truly alive; a man who, having journeyed through his own Lent emerges mature, blossoming, resisting the temptations of the devil; a man with a wellspring of depth and confidence and reliance on his Father in Heaven, a man who could not and would not be broken by temptation.
What also emerged was a man who wanted more. He was famished, but not for things temporal, but longing with an increasing hunger for things eternal. Just as the forty days strengthened him against his enemy, the forty days deepened his appetite and longing for God. God was faithful, for we are told that when all was said and done, the angels came and ministered to him.
May this forty days be for each of you a time of self-discipline, of self-discovery, a time of deepening your faith, and a time of growth in your love of God. Remember it is the springtime of your faith. May you meet the bright Sun of Righteousness at your joyful Eastertide, with a renewed hope, a strengthened resolve, and a hunger in your heart for the living God. And may the angels of God minister to you on your Lenten journey.
Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This sermon may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.