A sermon for the First Sunday in Lent
Trinity Episcopal Church
in Easton, Pennsylvania
February 18, 2018
“The Catechumenate not the Penitentiary.”
The First Letter to Peter makes a rather surprising statement about baptism: “And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ . . ..” It raises the possibility of a “good conscience,” that is to say—the ability to make good, wise, holy and helpful decisions because of the power of the resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ as a daily reality in our lives.
One of the most interesting things about being part of a Liturgical Tradition is that one hears the same words again and again. And yet, when we reflect on this reality, I think that most of us will admit that we really do not hear them, in the same way, each time. As listeners, we are always in a different frame of mind. We are impacted by the things which surround us. And these influence what we hear. For instance, I am always astonished—and delighted—when I discover something new in an old passage which I have heard many times before. Although this is especially true of readings from Sacred Scripture, it is equally true for me in my reading from the Holy Rule of Saint Benedict, and in the passages which I hear from the Book of Common Prayer.
Just a few days ago, on Ash Wednesday, I heard once again that powerful invitation to a Holy Lent from the Book of Common Prayer. This year, though, I heard and then reflected on something quite different than I have in the past. May I ask for your indulgence for a moment as I remind you of the introductory passage from pages 264-265.
“Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith. I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.”
There are several important thoughts contained in this passage
-One prepares to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ by a time of penance and fasting
-Lent was originally a season in which converts were prepared for Baptism
-Notorious sinners were restored to the Church through penance and forgiveness
-Christians must continually renew our repentance and faith
Here are suggested ways to observe a holy Lent
-read and meditate on God’s Holy Word
-receive the “mark of our mortal nature” (the final point
is my paraphrase).
This is a very rich offering—but quite an agenda. A part of me feels overwhelmed–and just a bit tired from even thinking about trying to do all this. The good news, though, is that this is not a time for a New Year’s resolution. I do not have to make an unreasonable—or even impossible—promise that my life will be completely changed by Easter. Even a few simple changes could yield a huge outcome: I could, of course, pick just one of these things, and, if I did, I think I would truly have a holy and productive Lent.
There is a more fundamental issue here. In our Christian tradition, we chose to combine two strands. We combined the practice of the Catechumenate (the time of preparing those who were to be Baptized and Confirmed for their reception into our community) with the Reconciliation of “Notorious Sinners.” These two strands have competing and conflicting theologies. I will even go so far as to suggest that they might even be—on some level—contradictory or incompatible.
As is often the case, though, when trying to hold conflicting perspectives in harmony, there is always a “winner” and a “loser.” And in this case, there is no doubt to me that the “Notorious Sinners” soundly defeated the “Catechumens.”
As an aside, this seems to be the very kind of thing that our friends at Forward Day by Day were thinking about when they created “Lenten Madness.” In a word, they invited us to completely re-think Lent—and in a fun, and thoughtful way. That is a very good thing!
The early church appears to have really been confused by the reality of fully initiated Christians appearing to commit serious sins. For them, the big three were “Murder,” “Adultery,” and “Apostasy.” The latter term, unheard these days, means to publicly deny one’s faith. Some Christians proposed a “one-strike” approach—do any of these things and you are out—no questions asked. Later, some loosened up a bit—more of a “three-strike,” approach. Even that, though, was accompanied by a very harsh penitential regime.
The “Notorious Sinner,”—frankly, I cringe whenever I hear that term! What makes any sinner more notorious than another? Only the ones who are caught? And what constitutes a “notorious sin anyway?” Why should your sin of choice be any worse than mine? And really, to paraphrase a famous contemporary thinker, “Who am I to judge?” This smacks of the kind of legalism and narrow-minded thinking which has been used to brutalize and demean people for millennia—in every faith tradition.
In the end, though, this is exactly the kind of thinking which came to dominate our approach to Lent. On one level, it had the advantage of being fair. We were all supposed to be treated as “notorious sinners.” On the other, Lent was a real downer. We were told very negative things about ourselves: “we are all fallen sinners, there is not much to be said about us which is good. We need penance, sacrifice, denial, mortification and suffering.” This is all primarily tied into the temptations of Christ in the desert—and into the Passion of Good Friday. There is almost no connection with the Resurrection!
When all is said and done, it produced a series of overly introspective and cranky Christians. It caused us to suffer for forty or more days—like someone serving a long prison sentence. We “did our time,” but all this suffering had limited impact on our spiritual lives. When Easter came we returned to the “status quo ante bellum,” or to “life as normal,” until entering the same tortured cycle the following Ash Wednesday.
What if we were to consider another paradigm? What if we were to focus on the “Catechumenate” rather than the “Penitentiary” as our primary model for Lent?
It is always helpful to have an outward and visible symbol for “sacramental moments.” What about a hug? When each person comes up for the administration of the symbol, the celebrant might say something like, “You are loved by God-Absolutely, Entirely and Unconditionally. Now extend that same love to every person you meet.”
What about giving each person a small bag of palm ashes—and ask them to mix them in soil with a fast-growing flower seed (is there a lovely plant which would grow and flower in 45 days)? The symbolism would be to invite us to consider that our mortality will give way to the “Resurrection of the body?” And then the flower could be gifted to someone—to brighten their life and to encourage them—a real sign of Easter!
It could also be a time to contemplate how we would act if we always felt loved, cared for and valued? We are! And yet, most times we have been made to feel like notorious sinners rather than someone who is loved and sealed as Christ’s own forever. Does that help us to make better decisions or to be holier people? I am sorry to say that I do not think so.
Lest I be accused of being naïve, I readily confess that I believe that evil exists. I believe that we often choose to do horrible things. And yet, under other circumstances, we might well choose to do good rather than evil. When we are wounded, broken and fragile, we are not always able to do the best that is in us. Throw in addiction, poverty, injustice, cruelty and systemic evil—and it truly is a miracle that any of us are still alive. And yes, throw in easy access to firearms and ammunition! I do not have to say anything more.
We need to give this a great deal more thought and prayer. I do know this, what we have been doing—rather routinely—does not seem to be transforming our world—or us. I can’t help but wonder if something more loving, encouraging, and empowering might produce a better outcome. When all is said and done, that is what Lent seems to be saying to me these days—” with the help of God’s love and grace—and with the support of others, things may yet be better.” That is truly good news!
Here are the photos which I took this morning in Easton.