How Lent puts us in touch with our limitations
Yesterday morning I took some time to walk down the hall to the small chapel in the church building where my office is located. It’s a special place for me since I was ordained as a teaching elder there several years ago. Going there helps me both to connect to God and also to remain connected to the vows I took when I became a minister.
In my prayer time I used the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer. Some consider this prayer book to be outdated and prefer the 1979 version that contains more modern English. Others find that the language of the later prayer book is too common and others claim that alterations in the liturgy there reflect alterations in the church’s theology.
I’m not competent to judge the merit of either of those claims. I do, however, find the older English of the 1928 version a delight to read.
As I was praying the order for Morning Prayer, I came to a series of passages that are inserted into the liturgy during the penitential season of Lent.
Their starkness moved me and centered my heart and mind on the purpose of Lent, which is to show us how profoundly limited we are:
“Rend your heart and not your garment, and turn unto the LORD your God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repenteth [to] Him of the evil.” Joel 2.13
“The sacrifices of God are broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.” Ps. 51.17
“I will arise and go to my father, and say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called they son.” St. Luke 15.18-19
We rarely come into close contact with any sense of God’s profound majesty, His blinding purity, His biting justice, and His tender mercy. We tend to isolate God and refract Him into a single attribute, which we feel competent to own–love. Certainly, God is love. Yet His is a very peculiar love–a love that incorporates all of His other attributes.
Writes Gerald Bray,
“…[T]he Christian gospel says that, in his love, God has reached out to those who have rebelled against him and embraced evil. It is the wonder of God’s love that he can transcend his own goodness, reach out to those who have denied it, and reconcile them to himself.”
–G L Bray, God is Love, 70.
Lent is an opportunity to realize once again–perhaps in a more profound way than ever before–that God’s love incorporates his divine perfection and we are allowed the chance to see this through a period in which we especially focus on our own limitations.
Lent points to a number of infirmities in our human condition:
- We cannot save ourselves.
- We cannot repent absent God’s grace.
- We cannot keep ourself in the faith.
- We cannot not sin.
- In the end, our bodies will fail and we will die.
The word that comes to mind is “impotent”–we are powerless. We are able, in some small way, to cooperate with God in our growth in holiness, but even that is something that is both enabled and empowered by God the Holy Spirit.
Isn’t this a divine mystery? Doesn’t this fly in the face of our cultural–sometimes even our churchly–values?
Will you allow Lent to help you re-discover your own powerlessness in a new way? We experience powerlessness so infrequently–in power outages, storms, a car accident, when taking off or landing–we are a controlcentric culture.
God’s gift this Lent is allowing you to step out from the mirage of control and embrace God’s loving provision and tender care for you.