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The Congregational Church of West Medford is now doing business as Sanctuary UCC.

The Appalling Strangeness of Divine Mercy (Why I Love Lent)

“To make the Easter story into something that neither startles, shocks, terrifies,
nor excites is to crucify the Son of God afresh.”
—Dorothy Sayers

lent-40-daysIt’s an odd sort of thing to say, “I love Lent,” but then I suppose I am considered by some to be an odd sort of soul.  Anyone who feels called to spend their whole being in The Church and preach and teach the story of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection and call it “good news” has to be a little bit odd.  Nonetheless I learned years ago, mostly because it was reflected back at me by a beloved friend and deacon that my writing and preaching was at its most meaningful during Lent, that it is my best spiritual season.  Why, I am not sure.  It is not because of the whole giving-something-up-for-Lent thing – that is not a practice that I follow very effectively.  I am less concerned with giving up chocolate than I am in giving up my own excesses of emotion, self-centeredness, anger, or fear (or a thousand other character flaws with which I am gifted).

But it does have something to do with the deliberate nature of the journey and the idea the Jesus ‘sets his face’ to Jerusalem because he is called to go in that direction and that somehow, 2000 years later, I get to walk beside him and deepen my relationship with him along the way.  It is about moving slowly towards something profound that is not wrapped up in presents or glitter (although I have been known to glitter-up on Easter Sunday) or over-the-top expectations about family and food.  Lent seems so much simpler and it lasts long enough for me to notice.  Without the expectations there is room for me to be startled by Grace, which allows me to be shocked by my shortcomings, terrified by my sin, and excited by Love.

Of course I know the end of the story, I know that Love wins. But before that happens there is the appalling drama of Holy Week – the heady excitement of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, the traitorous cunning of Judas, the guilty recognition of the disciples’ own cowardice, the terror of Jesus’ slow suffocation and then, the disarming wonder of an empty grave.  His followers experienced this, cowardice or not.  But how many of us go beyond acknowledging the drama?  How many of us embrace the pain and promise of the story?  How many of us get right down into the dirty, damning passion and give Christ’s experience more attention than the weather?

It has been said that to observe Lent is to strike at the root of this complacency.  Lent (literally “springtime”) is a time of preparation, a time to return to the desert where Jesus spent forty days readying for his ministry.  Jesus allowed himself to be tested and we may want to do the same if we take seriously the call to be Jesus followers.

Centuries old Lenten practices call for penitence, fasting, almsgiving and prayer, striking a balance between ‘giving things up’ and ‘giving to those in need’.    Yet, whatever else it may be, Lent is not a time to be morose, requiring us to begrudgingly sacrifice a handful of already guilty pleasures.  Instead, it should be considered an opportunity, “…the church’s springtime, a time when out of the darkness of winter, a repentant, empowered people emerges.   Lent is the season in which we ought to be surprised by joy.  Our self-sacrifices serve no purpose unless, by laying aside this or that desire, we are able to focus on our heart’s deepest longing: unity with Christ.  In him—in his suffering and death, his resurrection and triumph—we find our truest joy.” (Editors introduction, Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter)

I think this is why it matters so much to me, why I find it to be a time that touches me so deeply.  If I pay close attention to the lection and themes of the liturgical season, I have eyes to see and ears to hear the lessons Jesus was teaching on his way to Jerusalem.  Framed by the story that I know so well, in touch with the pain of the part I play in the hammering of the nails and bolstered by the knowledge that Grace abounds—I can surrender to (as Graham Greene puts it) the appalling strangeness of divine mercy, and the Love from which it springs.  Did I mention that I love Lent?  I pray that you might surrender to it as well.

With blessing and prayer, Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade/


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