Thursday, February 24, 2005

"Both...and" in Lent

Happy Second Wednesday in Lent.

"Ah, sorry," a wise man might say, "but you're off a bit. Isn't this the 'Third Wednesday in Lent' (if we ever counted such things)?"

"Ah, sorry indeed," a much wiser woman might say, "but we don't count Ash Wednesday as a 'Wednesday' in Lent. It's the feast day (or famine day, depending on your view). So, yes, this indeed is the Second Wednesday in Lent."

Church folks who follow this "church calendar" thing find these kinds of discussions very interesting. For those of you who could give a rat's patootie about this stuff, a brief explanation. The liturgical calendar, or church year, is a cycle that starts with Advent (anticipating the birth of Christ) through Christmas (Christmas and the 12 days following) and Epiphany, then the Easter cycle (Ash Wednesday, Lent, Holy Week, Easter) and then what is either called "Common Time" or "The Time of the Church," after Pentecost.

It mirrors, in some ways, the life of Christ - birth, death, resurrection, and living in the world after the resurrection. It also brings a great deal of structure and symbolism to the worship life of churches who follow it. That's a hideously-simplified description (through which I'm sure my truly-seminary-trained friends will poke endless holes), but it's close enough. Folks who care about the church calendar also care a lot about where they are in it - that's why they note that November 13, 2005 is actually the 26th Sunday after Pentecost (!). According to them, it's important to know where you are in the liturgical calendar. (I've never been one of those people, in case you wondered.)

Now, two years ago, on the First Sunday of Lent (the Sunday after Ash Wednesday), my pastor in Kansas did an odd thing. He, along with the Sunday school kids, buried the word "Hallelujah." On the church grounds.

You see, among some churches (the Lutheran tradition among them), the time of Lent is a time for reflections on our sinful selves, a time (for some) of fasting and physical mortification. Part of the Lutheran worship tradition is that for Lent, there are no hymns or songs sung in a major key - they must all be minor-key. And these Lenten observers also forbid the use of the word "Alleluia" (or "Hallelujah") during the time of Lent. So the word "Hallelujah" went "into the tomb" - to be dug up and rise again with Jesus on Easter. It's an interesting image, and Joe pulled it off well.

But I really struggled with it. You see, there's something wrong, here. (Forgive a little lecturing...)

We understand the season of Lent to be 40 days - 40 being a number of great significance (Moses spent 40 years in the desert, Jesus spent 40 days and 40 nights fasting in the desert, etc.). But Lent starts with Ash Wednesday (this year, February 9th) and finishes on Saturday of Holy Week (this year, March 26th) - forty-six days later.

"Ah, that's an easy one," says the local liturgi-geek. "Sundays aren't considered a part of Lent. There are six Sundays in Lent (five "Sundays in Lent" and Palm Sunday), and (six Sundays) + (40 days of Lent) = 46 days. Ta-da!"

Here's where we get back to Pastor Joe, burying the little box with the word "Hallelujah" in it. The question becomes, "But why are you doing that?"

Because it's not "Lent" on Sundays.

On Sundays in Lent, we still celebrate the Eucharist. "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." Death is not in the future; resurrection is not pending. All the joy of eternal life with the risen King of Kings is still very much present. So why the long faces and songs in the key of moping-around?

It is, perhaps, the best indication of the "Both...and"-ism of Luther. We are doomed and we are saved; Christ is on the way to the cross and Christ is risen. We are examining our sinful selves and yet we rejoice in our justification and impending sanctification. We are a mess - and we are made white as snow.

This is true every Sunday. We are all of these things every day of the year. So why don't we focus on our "both...and" status every day of the year? Why don't we live in the tension between Good Friday and Easter Sunday every single day?

I'd suggest that the Church would be much more relevant in the world if we acknowledged our sinfulness and brokenness more the other 325 days of the year, and found more joy in the resurrection during these 40.

I know - it's heresy. It's probably a damn good thing the Lutherans won't ordain me. But there's at least a grain of truth in every heresy, isn't there?

1 comment:

Nick said...

I think the transition from "either... or" thinking to "both... and" thinking is one of the hardest to accept. It is a daily challenge to tally both the good and the bad of the day. If I'm saved, shouldn't I act like it?

Is man made to serve the Church, or is the Church made to serve man? If the Church appears to be making men serve it, there had better well be a damn good reason.