Lent is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. On the one hand, it’s fairly unpleasant. My daughters, for instance, spend Gesimatide lamenting the fast approach (no pun intended) of Ash Wednesday and a return to a more disciplined life after Christmas and Epiphanytide excesses. (Who are we kidding? Ordinary Time is pretty lax for us too!) Even I, who love Lent, have found over recent years that the older I get the worse I am at fasting. (My younger metabolism deceived me as to how easily I could forgo food.)
On the other hand, it’s fairly popular. Despite Ash Wednesday not being a holy day of obligation, it tends to be one of the best attended liturgies for many churches. A working theory among some friends and I is that people like going to church when they know they’re going to “get stuff” (e.g., ashes or palm fronds). Beyond this, I’ve known many people who don’t really identify as Christian who will give something up for Lent. And, heck, in the days of “meatless Mondays” for the sake of lowering our environmental impact, the restoration of Friday abstinence might be a marketing plan made in heaven!
Nevertheless, none of these things are really the point of Lent. From its inception, the season was one of preparation, and specifically of preparing converts to the faith to receive the sacraments of initiation at the Easter Vigil. This emphasis has been most prominently recovered in the Roman Catholic Church through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, but Episcopalians who are so inclined can do the same with the liturgies provided in the Book of Occasional Services.
Both of my children were baptized in early adolescence upon their own professions of faith. In both cases, our parishes utilized the season of Lent in this way, one in an especially intentional manner. And it was like seeing the season with new eyes, as I came to realize that this is primarily a season for making Christians, and that making Christians is a community effort (it takes a village and all that). This sets the ascesis and self-discipline of Lent in its proper context. As Rowan Williams reminds us, Lent is “not about feeling gloomy for forty days,” nor even about mere self-improvement, but rather about making way for new life.
The new life begun in baptism distills the essence of the Christian life: union with and dependence upon Jesus Christ in his death and resurrection. It is a beginning that we never surpass, but to which we continually return. It perfectly encapsulates that into which we are being initiated and sets the course of all the rest of our life.
And so it is that Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s The Way of Love is perfectly suited for Lent. Bishop Curry has outlined for the Episcopal Church, and really for all Christians, a simple, feasible rule of life which helps to flesh out the journey of discipleship inaugurated at our baptism. It reminds us of what a Jesus-shaped life can and should be. Whether we are new Christians, preparing for baptism, or cradle Episcopalians who will renew our baptismal promises for the nth time, The Way of Love can both give shape to our Lenten ascesis and prepare us to live the life of discipleship the whole year through.
Over the next several weeks, as the Christian churches journey into the Lenten wilderness, following the Lord “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP, p. 265), Covenant will proceed through The Way of Love, taking each of its elements in turn. Our goal is to provide a blend of biblical and theological reflection and practical suggestion, so that our readers are able to appropriate this rule of life for themselves and better prepare to keep the feast. We begin tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, a day of repentance, appropriately enough, with a reflection on the first element of The Way of Love: Turn. Please do join us in this journey to a new way of life.
Eugene R. Schlesinger is lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and editor of Covenant.