Lent is an odd season for the American church. In a culture that so rarely values self-reflection, service, and asceticism, we yearly engage in a season of penitence, discipline and self-denial for the sake of Jesus Christ. Or…we talk about doing it and then forget about it because Ash Wednesday came and went before we decided if we should give up cokes or not. But whether we participate in the ancient rituals of discipline or not, Lent is still odd. It’s the somber season of purple when purple just 3 months ago was anticipation and joy. It’s the season where our preachers talk about sin more than they have in the last 9 months in total, the season where Jesus transforms from the transcendent and witty guy we know and love to a weeping, blood-soaked martyr. Lent is…uncomfortable for us. Why?
Perhaps its because we like to focus on Easter so much. And really, who can blame us? It’s like the beginning of this morning’s passage, all light and reconciliation: from now on we recognize no one according to the flesh; even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him in this way no longer. Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creature; the old things passed away; behold, new things have come. Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation…” Yeah, that’s it. We are new creatures because of Christ. We are a part of the new kingdom that is coming, not the old one that is passing away. We are reconciled to God and he gives us ministries of reconciliation. Yeah, that’s what we like. We can usually get through Lent because we’re looking forward to the nice parts of scripture where God is happy, where Jesus is alive, and where we don’t have to feel any guilt or culpability at all.
But it’s not Easter yet. And skipping Lent is a bad idea liturgically and in terms of our faith growth. The same reason we can’t skip the end part of this morning’s passage. Which honestly, I think Paul knows full well the emotional impact of slipping it on at the end: Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Ouch. There’s the sticking point, the reason that Lent makes us squirm and the reason we avoid Maunday Thursday or Good Friday services even though we know we should go. Because there was a cost for all of our “made-new-ness.” Because the reconciliation came with a price-tag. And because our lives and the lives of all of humankind determined how high that price was going to be. “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf…”
“Made to be sin on our behalf.” Devastating words. Words that ring with intent and with honesty about the human condition. Words that pierce deeply into us and the fog of our own well meaning self-deception. Words that hold within them the heart of the Lenten season.
I tend to think of Lent as the season of mirrors. It is during Lent that we hold up a mirror and look closely at ourselves and name out-loud our failures and need for healing. It is during Lent that the church holds up a mirror to itself and sees it’s own presence among the crowds that hailed and then hurled Jesus towards his crucifixion. It is during Lent that God holds up a mirror to the world so that its brokenness, selfishness and deceitfulness are revealed. Mirrors that I would rather remained dusty and dim, mirrors that reveal too much that I would rather remain hidden.
It is during Lent that we are no longer able to avoid the truth of our lives, of our churches and of our world, a truth that tells us that we are desperately in need of reconciliation with God and that that reconciliation is approaching on a horizon decorated with crosses. It is during Lent that we are humbled by the power that was necessary to offer us grace, a power so great that the earth trembled and the dead rose from their graves. It is during Lent that we remember that the Christ Child has become the Christ who became sin so we would no longer have to bear it.
Heavy stuff. Uncomfortable stuff. Truthful stuff. And perhaps that is why the apostle Paul couches it within a brighter message. Because Lent is followed by Easter. Because reconciliation is achieved. Because we are new creations. Because Christ rose from the dead. But not yet.
Though Lent may be uncomfortable to us because of its starkness, because of its unwavering darkness, because of its sharp-edged mirrors, it is my prayer that you remain within it. That you savor all of its pain and incisive truthfulness, that you submit to the Spirit which calls you to repentance. Because re-creation is worth it. Because reconciliation is worth it. Because Easter is calling you.