“What are you giving up for Lent?”
How do you react to that question? I personally have always felt a bit uncomfortable about it. Reformers like John Calvin saw great danger in adding rules and expectations beyond what is in Scripture to the Christian life. To believe we are obligated to do anything different for the 40 days leading up to Easter puts an unhelpful burden on the Christian’s conscience, making us feel somehow less faithful to Christ if we don’t give up chocolate, or whatever. It’s important to recognize the place of Christian freedom here. There’s nothing particularly biblical (or unbiblical) about using the traditional church calendar to guide the rhythms of our attention, and a Christian should feel no obligation to do anything different during this period of time.
But here’s why I personally find value in (flexibly) following the liturgical calendar: our attentions need guidance. While some might argue that we should always be reflecting on the centuries of waiting for the birth of Jesus and then his incarnation, on his life and his death, on his resurrection, ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit, the reality is that we cannot be focusing on all of these equally all the time. As with any big project, we need to schedule this out across a year so that we can contemplate each of these holy events in turn.
I am grateful for a period of time each year dedicated to turning our gaze upon the cross of Christ. More and more, I find myself joining with the hymn writer in praying, “Jesus, keep me near the cross.” The cross, and all that it signifies, is the foundation for my identity, my hope, and my joy. I need to keep coming back to it. We need to keep coming back to it. And Lent invites us to do exactly that.
We’ll be taking the next five Sundays in our preaching series to gaze at the cross together. Perhaps you might also want to implement a personal practice to coincide with this. What would happen, for example, if you decided to take a month off from closely following the political vicissitudes of the present moment and instead use that time to reflect upon the meaning of the cross? If you’re looking for something to help you do that, John Piper offers a freely downloadable book entitled 50 Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die. Each of the 50 chapters are only two pages, offering something that can be used as a family or personal devotional. Or you could read John Stott’s classic work The Cross of Christ.
Whatever you personally decide, I look forward to joining with you this Sunday in song, Word, and sacrament, as we gaze upon the bewildering, awful, and yet beautiful cross of Christ Jesus.