Bishops Chair, Feb. 2018
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I bid you all a Holy and Blessed Lent!
This is a greeting I offer to many people at the beginning of this important season. Most people offer a greeting in response; others respond with a similar Lenten statement or just say thank you. Last Thursday, I received a different response. It happened when I attended a lecture in the Boston area. As the audience for the talk was assembling, I noticed a retired priest already seated in the auditorium. I had known the priest for several years. When we meet, we always greet each other warmly and share conversations about some theological issue and update each other about church news. I walked over to him and said: "a blessed and holy Lent to you, Father." He shook my hand and said, very seriously: "my church has decided not to observe Lent."
I must have registered shock at this piece of news, for my friend burst out laughing. He said he was only kidding - mostly, that is. But he went on to say that, in his opinion, the church he had served for many years no longer subscribed to the Lenten necessity of abstinence and prayer. Yes, his church went through the motions of counting off the days before Easter - all forty of them. Churches sang the traditional hymns. Church bulletins recorded the numbered Sundays in Lent. They held palms on Palm Sunday. They did all these things, as if by rote.
The priest was most concerned that his church no longer taught the importance of Lent or how best to approach this necessary season. His own individual approach to the season of Lent had remained unchanged for fifty years. He looked forward to Lent for many reasons. It was necessary, he told me, for his physical and spiritual well-being.
At around that time, an announcement was made. We were asked to take our seats. A speaker was introduced and the purpose for my visit to Boston got under way. The lecture was about World War I, the speaker a prominent historian. Though I was certainly interested in the topic, I confess that I heard very little of it. I began thinking about Lent and how we celebrate this season in our church. Here are some suggestions for a holy Lent.
First of all, Lent is a time for abstinence. Many of us make symbolic gestures to that end. Few of us put on sack cloth and subsist on bread and water - when we are not fasting, of course. But abstinence is not about deprivation; it is about opening ourselves to God; it is about removing those extraneous and unnecessary things that fill up our lives and prevent us from embracing the fullness of God's love. Rather than causing us distress at giving up the necessities of life, Lenten abstinence can be an opportunity for a joyful reunion with true essentials of life. Those essentials have everything to do with our spiritual connection to God.
Secondly, we must pray. During my long service to the church as both layman and clergyman, I have experienced the unique power of Lenten prayers. Prayer at this time seems to take on a deeper dimension. It may well relate to our desire to prepare for Easter. It certainly is heavily influenced by the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. Holy Week prayers and services are among the most profound and deeply experienced prayers in the Christian world. Like abstinence, a prayerful devotion will draw us closer to God.
Third, we must read and internalize Holy Scripture. As the collect for Scripture Sunday directs us, we should "read, mark, learn and inwardly digest" the word of God contained in Scripture. This is the true spiritual food that will sustain us in both our spiritual and temporal journeys. Those who practice fasting know that, when you abstain from food for a short period of time, the mind becomes much more open to the spirit, much more available to God's direction.
Following the lecture (of which I remember very little), I waved to my friend. He was eager to buy the lecturer's new book, so we headed in different directions. I was eager to leave Boston before the rush hour traffic made exceeding the speed limit impossible. But I said a silent prayer for his poor church, which seemed determined to forgo the joys of a blessed and holy Lent.
But I do wish each of you, with every good grace of this beautiful season: A Blessed and Holy Lent to you all!
Your Brother in Christ,