There’s a saying that goes, “familiarity can lead to unfamiliarity.” We can become so familiar with certain people, places and situations that we easily lose sight of what makes those people, places and situations distinct and unique.
Last weekend my wife and I were having diner with some friends. As were enjoying the evening and one another’s company, one of my friends asked me how my Lent experience was going knowing that I was practicing Lent for the first time. I told him that it was going really well and that it is something I plan to do again next year. From this question another friend of mine begin to pose the question whether or not Lent was really all that important or necessary to our faith? I had a few quick comments in response to my friend’s question, most of which weren’t that great, but in the week that followed I began to take his comments to heart and ask whether or not it is all that important.
After some reflection and thought, and now after having engaged in the practice of Lent, I have come to the conclusion that while Lent isn’t necessary for salvation, it is an important part of the churches history, tradition and faith. Why? Because, familiarity can lead to unfamiliarity.
This Lent season I have come to realize that I can be so overly familiar with Jesus’ crucifixion that I actually take this history changing event for granted. As a pastor, I find that I’m always talking, thinking and writing about the cross. I’m constantly trying to point people back to the cross. I’m always looking for new and fresh ways to share about the cross. And in the process, the cross becomes a subject matter I attempt to master. I feel the need to become ‘the expert’ on this topic so that I can be the one who dispenses my acquired wisdom and knowledge to others. Lent has served as a reminder to me that instead of mastering Jesus as a subject matter, I need to be mastered by Jesus. I need to be overtaken with the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in such a way that it becomes the controlling reality that shapes my life. I can become so familiar with the information about Jesus that I actually become unfamiliar with the person of Jesus.
In the movie Love Happens, the main character is a man named Burke. Burke is a best-selling author and a widower. After the tragic death of his wife Burke writes a book on the grieving process and becomes a self-help guru who travels the country, leads seminars and is in the process of negotiating a television and radio deal. However, as the movie unfolds it becomes obvious that while Burke is an expert on helping others work through their grief, he hasn’t properly worked through his own grief. He is able to walk other people through the grieving process, but he has never really entered into the process himself. As the movie goes on, each time he is confronted with his grief Burke distracts himself or runs from it.
I find a lot of Burke in myself. I love being the expert about Jesus, but when it comes to entering into the life of Jesus, I easily run from it. The reason I run is because the life of Jesus is a life of self-denial, in a sense it’s a life of dying. Jesus says,
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (Mark 8v34).”
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15v13-14).”
Jesus is concerned that we not only know information about him, but that we know him. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians that the way we come to know Jesus is through participating in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3v10). We become unfamiliar with the cross in that we believe in the cross (i.e. – we intellectually assent to it), but fail to enter into it. We fail to daily pick up our cross and lay down our lives. And if your anything like me, you run from the cross.
I’ve come to realize that the reason Lent is important is because Lent shapes something in us. By engaging in a season of self-denial and self-examination we are compelled to practice something we normally avoid. It creates space for us to practice the story of the gospel and have it shaped in us. And yes, while we can become all to familiar with Lent as well and simply give up chocolate, coffee, technology or whatever for the forty days cause “it’s what we are supposed to do”, I’m convinced that by ignoring Lent all together we are missing out on a significant season in the church year of which the intent is to be shaped into likeness of Christ.
I think many people avoid Lent all together because, like myself, they are either misinformed or uninformed (see Exploring Lent for the first time – part 1). This year the practice of Lent has been reframed for me. It is no longer seen as “just something catholics do.” No longer is it a meaningless religious ritual. No longer is it void of significance. I now see Lent as a time of formation and preparation; formation of Christ’s character in me and a preparation for the glorious proclamation of the resurrection. The tomb is empty and Jesus is on the loose!!
So, if you participated in Lent this year I pray that the gospel worked its way deeper into your imagination and soul. And for those who, like me, were/are skeptical, misinformed or uninformed about Lent or any other spiritual formation practice, I pray that we would be willing to open up more of ourselves to God and engage with Jesus in new ways so as not to become unfamiliar with who he is.
Grace and Peace to you.