We begin this time of reflection with words, written by Ruth Duck, that proclaim some of the challenges and promise of the Lenten season:
Lent calls us to journey along the edge,
to anticipate that final trip to Jerusalem.
Lent calls us to the cutting edge,
when wheat falls to the ground
and new life comes forth;
the cutting of a new covenant.
Lent calls us not only to give up something,
but also to take upon ourselves as community
the intention of true participation
in the mystery of God-with-us.
Lent calls us to corporate penitence, accountability, and preparation.
Lent calls us to concentrate upon our baptismal vocation
to be a sign of the New Earth.
Lent calls us to face the darkness
without holding a flashlight.
(Ruth Duck, Flames of the Spirit, p. 29, 1985)
Lent is the season in the church calendar that is most associated with an intentional time of reflection and introspection. It is a time when symbolism and symbolic language abound. For example, the forty days of Lent is a symbolic number that reflects the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry; the forty days of storm tossed wilderness for Noah during the great flood; the forty days that Moses spent on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments; the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness before finding their promised land; the forty days the great prophet Elijah spent in the wilderness before hearing the voice of God in the silence of a cave.
The number forty in biblical stories signifies a really long time. All the stories, that I just mentioned, are stories of challenge and adversity in the wilderness where the participants are in danger of losing their faith but in the process of their struggles regain a stronger faith and a clearer direction and purpose for their lives.
In the early days of the Christian Church, the forty days before Easter was the time of final preparation for converts to Christianity before their baptism on Easter Sunday. This time was a testing period to determine whether or not they could live a disciplined, Christ-like way. It was a time of fasting and prayer and intensive study. Sundays were the exception to the fast days as they were celebrations of the risen Christ (little Easters). That is why there are forty regular days of Lent prior to Easter not including the six Sundays during Lent that are set apart for celebrating Christian faith.
Although we, in our contemporary Christian context, have not kept that rigorous time of pre-baptismal testing we have retained the practice of setting Lent aside as a special time of the church year for introspection and recommitment of our baptismal vows. One resource that I read this week put it this way, “Lent is a time of self and societal examination in preparation for a fresh commitment to God’s way”.
The other image that we have retained from the stories of wilderness wanderings is the idea that we are on a journey of faith. During Lent, we are especially aware that we accompany Jesus in his journey from the River Jordan where he was baptized, through his wilderness experiences, his ministry of teaching and healing in Galilee and on the road to Jerusalem – his final earthly journey.
As with any journey, it is important to stop along the way to rest, to be fed both physically and spiritually, and to share the stories of the day with others. Jesus lived a very communal life. He lived and travelled with others and he met and shared stories and meals with many people along the way. Community was central to his life and teachings with his main message being the good news of the community of God where all are welcomed, cherished and valued. I think of this community of God as God’s Commonwealth because it reflects the value of sharing wealth and justice. In Jesus’ day people had a clear and visceral understanding of the meaning of kingdom and the power of a king who reigned over people with absolute power. Because of this, Jesus called God’s commonweath the Kingdom of God. He gave many examples in his parables of how God’s reign and God’s Kingdom was the complete opposite of the way that an earthly king reigned. The Kingdom of God was not an otherworldly realm but one that was present in this earthly life but which took commitment and courage to actualize in a society that did not value the things that God values.
A visible sign of the importance of community in Christ’s life and in our lives as Christian community is the communion table. That is why in most Christian churches the communion table is front and centre in the chancel area of the sanctuary. For me, it is the ultimate symbol of Christian community where we as followers of Jesus gather around his welcome table to share stories from our lives and our faith tradition. It is the table, as I say every communion Sunday, “…where all are welcome and none are turned away.” It is a symbol that, as a contemporary Christian, I can understand and embrace. I grew up in a culture of gathering around the dinner table to celebrate special occasions and for support in times of distress; sharing stories of joys and sorrows with family and friends; sharing food for the body and food for the soul; singing, praying and laughing with others. This was the day-to-day life of Jesus and his disciples as well – sharing lives of faith, hope and action.
When we gather to worship we remember Jesus’ life and ministry and we recommit ourselves to continuing his ministry in the words and actions of our own lives. And, when we gather as Christian community to worship we most often, but not always, gather in a special place – a sanctuary. In this sanctuary are symbols, like the communion table, that remind us of our journey together as Christian community. Another common symbol that we use in worship are candles to represent the light of Christ in our midst and the light of God presence in our lives and in our world. Although during Lent we extinguish candles as part of our Lenten ritual, the light of Christ is always with us.
Every community of faith has their own special symbols and the stories of why those symbols are important. The Prayer Shawl Ministry of this church has become an important symbol of the love and prayer-filled caring of this community of faith. Two weeks ago a prayer shawl was blessed during our worship service. It was a long purple woven shawl and when I saw it I thought immediately of Lent because the colour for this season is purple. I asked the creator of this shawl if it was alright with her if we used this shawl during this Lenten season to symbolize that we are all held in loving prayer as individuals and as a community of faith. The best way to convey this sentiment, I thought, was to have the shawl draped over our communion table as if embracing our entire community in love, prayer and blessing.
Another symbol that is front and centre in our Lenten décor is the rough-hewn wooden cross. At the base of the cross are rough-hewn rocks symbolic of the rocky path we often walk in this life and the obstacles that get in the way of our faithful living. Rocks are often associated with this season of Lent because they remind us of wilderness. The cross itself is a reminder that we travel with Jesus through the wilderness to Jerusalem to the foot of the cross. The cross is draped with purple cloth – the colour purple being symbolic of penitence and humility.
Just below the chancel area there is a baptismal font that is a visible reminder of our baptismal faith. We also remember Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and the reminder that Jesus is God’s Beloved. Through Jesus’ life and ministry he showed others that he was not alone as God’s beloved and that we are all beloved children of God. The baptismal font is a symbol of our belonging to Christ’s family – we are literally and metaphorically members of the Body of Christ in our world. This past week I came across something I wrote eight years ago that speaks to this theme of belonging, “As human beings we can easily forget that all that we have, and all that we are, belongs to God. In the church, as in the world, we sometimes forget to whom things belong. This isn’t our church but Christ’s church. And, as Christians we sometimes forget to whom we belong – we belong to Christ and we belong to each other in this church family and in the global family of God.” We are, in the words of this year’s Lenten devotional book, the “community of the Beloved”. (I Am Listening, p.10) Given this understanding of the symbolism of the baptismal font it is particularly meaningful to have our Lenten candles in a cross-shaped holder on top of the font. Week by week, throughout Lent, as we recall the stories of Jesus’ life from baptism to cross we are reminded that Jesus was not alone. Each week we extinguish one candle, with words of confession and thanksgiving, recognizing that in the challenges and blessings of this journey of faith we are not alone.
All of these things I’ve mentioned remind us of our journey together as a Christian community in this Lenten season. We are a community of memory – people of the story – and we know that Christ’s story and our story as Christian community does not end at the cross with the crucifixion of Jesus. We are Easter people – people of faith and hope – people of new beginnings and promise. As we struggle with things as they are now – present challenges and concerns – we can also see the promise of a future filled with new life and vitality. Ever since I came to Kimberley to serve as your minister I have had the pleasure of looking toward the future with all of you. And, every Sunday that I have led worship here I have had the joy of looking directly at the stained glass windows in the entryway of the church. The brightness and vibrancy of the colours has cheered my soul and the symbols of the rainbow, dove, cross and butterfly, have been reminders to me of God’s presence and promise to each one of us. This week I noticed for the first time that the stained glass windows are memorial windows, in memory of Virginia Edith Murray and “In memory of relatives and members of Kimberley United Church.” We carry the wisdom, values and teachings of this great cloud of witnesses. They are a part of who we are whether we are new to this community or have lived here all our lives. All through the year these windows tell the story of a vibrant community of faith that gathers in joy and in sorrow, remembering our past and looking forward to our future.
With this in mind, and with thanksgiving for the stories of our faith tradition, I’ll end this time of reflection with a Lenten prayer adapted from Seasons of the Spirit:
God who makes rainbows,
we know we hang on to things we shouldn’t.
We can be scared to let go of our comforts,
our riches, the things that make life easy for us.
Like Noah, enable us to leave behind
all the things that hold us back from setting out on the voyage
to which you have called us.
Help us to pick up and carry with us the things that refresh
and enliven our lives and our faith.
We pray in the name of Jesus,
your promise of love and faithfulness
made manifest in our lives and in our world. Amen
(Seasons of the Spirit, March 5, 2006, adapted)