In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Today is the last Sunday before Lent. The traditional name for this day is Quinquagesima, which I just like saying. It’s a Latin word that means “Super Bowl Sunday.” Just kidding. It’s a Latin word that means “fiftieth,” because today is the fiftieth day away from Easter .
And today’s Gospel lesson – the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus – we find already an intimation of the resurrection glory of Easter. A little glimpse, a little foretaste, is given to Peter, James, and John.
But standing between us and the resurrection lies the season of Lent. What is Lent? The word is related to the word “lengthen,” and its rooted in the primary realities of creation, because this season of the Church’s year coincides with late winter and early spring, when the days begin to get longer, to “lengthen.”
Lent will begin on Wednesday of this coming week. “Ash Wednesday” we call it, because at the mass on this coming Wednesday evening, we will have ashes sprinkled on our heads and hear the priest remind us that we were formed of dust and that we will return to dust. It’s a sober reminder, and if you’ve never experienced it, I encourage you to come. It’s the first day of Lent – and it is a day of fasting and abstinence from meat for Christians (BCP p. 17). And just as I encourage you to keep the feasts of the Church’s year, so I encourage you to keep the fasts and, apropos of this coming week, I encourage you to fast on Ash Wednesday. That doesn’t necessarily mean not eating anything at all – and in particular if you have medical reasons that would make fasting dangerous, you should not fast. But barring that, please do keep the fast. Go without a meal and go without meat on Wednesday, as an intentional act of self denial for the glory of God. Fasting creates an emptiness inside of us that God can occupy. And remember that Jesus told his disciples to fast (cf. Matthew 6.16-17). Fasting is not optional for Christians.
So Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. What is Lent? It is the forty day period that leads to Easter. If you tally up the days, you will find that there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. That is because we don’t count the Sundays during Lent in the tally. The whole of Lent is a period of self-denial and repentance, and the Church has always maintained that every Sunday is a feast of the resurrection, and you can’t fast when you’re feasting. So the six Sundays during Lent are subtracted from the 46 total days, and the result is 40 days of self-denial leading up to Easter – the season of Lent.
The number 40 – for reasons I’m sure God understands – is associated in the Bible with periods of preparation.
Before Jesus began his public ministry, he spent 40 days in the wilderness, fasting and praying. And the Christian practice of Lent is a conscious imitation of that. Similarly, the children of Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness, being prepared by God to enter the promised Land. And there’s a little hint about these connections in today’s Gospel reading. When today’s Gospel says that Jesus was speaking with Moses and Elijah about his coming “departure” at Jerusalem – the Greek word for “departure” used in that verse is “exodus,” which subtly connects what Jesus is doing with what Israel was doing before. He who has ears to hear, let him hear. Jesus is fulfilling the history of Israel, and establishing a pattern for the Church, the new Israel.
Christians have been doing this – preparing for Easter with 40 days of self denial – for a very long time, maybe from the very beginning. St. Leo the Great, writing in the 400’s, says that this practice was taught by the apostles themselves (P.L., LIV, 633). And St. Athanasius of Alexandria, writing to the members of his church, about a century earlier, in the year 339, encourages them to fast in some form for the forty days leading up to Easter, because that’s what Christians everywhere else in the world did: Fast! he says, “so that while all the world is fasting, we who are in Egypt don’t become a laughing-stock by being the only [Christians] on earth who do not fast but instead take our pleasure during [the 40] days [of Lent],” (“Festal Letters”). So there’s another reason to keep a holy Lent – so as not to become a laughing stock.
But as I mentioned, fasting is not an end in itself. And really “keeping a holy Lent” means more than just “giving up something for Lent,” as is popularly said. I have prepared a guide to keeping a holy Lent, and I hope everybody will take one home and really pray about it and really do it.
As I have said, Christian self-denial is about creating an emptiness inside of us that can then be filled with the things of God. That’s why fasting and prayer go together in the Bible. For example, in the Old Testament, the prophet Daniel says, “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes,” (Daniel 9.3). That in itself is a pretty good synopsis of Lent. Prayer, supplications, and fasting. And he even mentions the ashes of Ash Wednesday.
And note that we modern Americans, even Christians, have a tendency to look on these rituals of the Church as being kind of weird. I mean things like the ashes of Ash Wednesday, or incense, or candles, or holy water. But we need to get over that. The fact of the matter is that all of this stuff – and more besides – has been the NORMAL way that Christians have practiced the faith from the very earliest days of Christianity. Lately some Christians have gotten away from it, but NOT using these things is what is abnormal. Using them is the normal way. The people of God have been putting ashes on their heads without interruption for a VERY LONG TIME, all the way back to Old Testament times, as the reference in Daniel attests.
Be that as it may, Daniel also attests another feature of self-denial in God’s economy – namely, that it goes with prayer. “I turned my face to the Lord God, seeking him by prayer and supplications with fasting and sackcloth and ashes.” Lent, considered as a period of intentional self-denial, is for the sake of SEEKING HIM – seeking the Lord. And it goes together with “prayer and supplication.” Self-denial empties us. Prayer and supplication fills us. You can’t pour the Lord’s stuff into your life – into your heart and mind – if your heart and mind and body are filled with other stuff. You have to get rid of the extraneous stuff in order to become full of the Lord’s stuff. We are like vessels – Scripture even speaks of us as being like vessels – we are like buckets. If you are full of sand, you can’t be full of water.
So, Lent is about CREATING SPACE. Whatever you “give up for Lent” needs to be accompanied by some mirroring thing that you take on. So, for example, say you give up watching the nightly news for Lent. Spend that time reading Evening Prayer, or reciting the Rosary, or doing SOMETHING prayerful that will draw you closer to the Lord. Or say you give up eating meat throughout Lent, or maybe you give up meat on Wednesdays and Fridays (you shouldn’t be eating meat on Fridays outside of the Easter season anyway – that is not something Christians do). Then you should use your abstinence from meat as an opportunity to remind yourself that the food you are eating, and indeed all the good things in your life, come from God. And you should take a moment to thank him, sincerely, from your heart, for those good things.
These are just examples, and the handout I have provided has more thorough guidance. But the point is this: we are coming to the period in our year when we take extra time and effort denying ourselves, becoming empty, so that God can fill us.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.