By Bill Carroll
A parishioner recently observed to me that the liturgical year does not provide enough room for joy. I don’t know whether this is right or wrong, but it certainly feels that way sometimes. This year, the season after the Epiphany is particularly short, exacerbating the problem. Ready or not, Lent is right around the corner. The question I ask myself is: what does this season have to do with joy?
Lent is, of course, a penitential season. It is a time for self-examination, reflection, and discipline–even for sorrow. Lent is a time to clean house, as we open ourselves up and let God turn our lives around. It provides the occasion to be converted all over again, both to God and to our neighbor. Lent highlights the work of repentance that is always central to the Christian life. This need not be maudlin: it involves turning from sin by the grace of the Spirit, abiding in the mercy of Christ, and living toward God with joy.
This past weekend, I read a book by Archbishop Rowan Williams that I’ve been meaning to read for some time. It’s based on a series of meditations that he offered in Canterbury Cathedral during Holy Week of 2005. Williams gave the book the title Tokens of Trust, because he wished to highlight that the triune God described in the Creeds is the utterly trustworthy Creator and Savior of the world. The most interesting part to me concerns the death and resurrection of Jesus. It will certainly influence my Easter sermon this year. As we enter the season of Lent, however, I thought it would be useful to share some of the things he says about repentance in his final chapter on death and judgment:
…[A] Christian community doing its job is a community where people expect to be repenting quite a lot, and where the confident calling of others to repentance, which Christians enjoy so much, needs to be silenced by self-scrutiny and self-questioning before God.
But the miracle is that a repentant community, a community of people who are daily aware of their own untruthfulness and lack of love and are not afraid to face their failures, is a community that speaks profoundly of hope. The Church does not communicate good news by consistent success and virtue–as we have noticed–but in its willingness to point to God; and repentance, which says that you don’t have to be paralysed by failure, is thus one of the most effective signs of the Church’s appeal to something more than human competence and resource…
One of the oddest things in our culture is that we seem tolerant of all sorts of behavior, yet are deeply unforgiving… We shouldn’t be misled by an easy-going atmosphere in manners and morals; under the surface there is a hardness that ought to worry us. And this means that when the Church in the Creed and (we hope) in its practice points us to the possibility of forgiveness, it is being pretty counter-cultural.
Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust (Westminster/John Knox, 2007), pp. 151-152
Ash Wednesday is February 17. As we pray the long litany and receive the ashes as a sign of our mortality and penitence, may we rediscover the inexhaustible abundance of Christ’s mercy and truth. May we rediscover that “something more” than our own competence or strength, which empowers us to be God’s Church. We call it grace. It is the source, framework, and goal of our life in Christ.
Our Lenten journey is a gateway to Easter joy, a long fallow season that begins in ashes and tears and leads us, inexorably, through the narrow door of the Cross. Even during this season, however, the liturgy reminds us that we are to “prepare with joy for the paschal feast.” The Good News is too irrepressibly good to remain hidden away. Even in Lent, the Easter fire remains burning, pervading creation and conveying Christ’s risen life to us all.
The Rev. Dr. R. William Carroll is rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio. He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. His sermons appear on his parish blog. He also blogs at Living the Gospel. He is a member of the Third Order of the Society of Saint Francis.