I was once told a story about a group of Sunday school children who decided to have a sleep over at one of the children’s home. It was a fairly small group of boys and girls ranging in age from about seven to twelve. Some of the parents had decided to stay overnight as well, and after supper they gathered around in a circle on the living room floor. One of the parents there was apparently a very good storyteller. It was about this time of year, which is to say just before Easter, so the parent decided to tell them the story of Jesus. Now this is a story that the children had all heard before, but they didn’t mind hearing it again because the parent telling it was such a good narrator. Now they had all heard the story before with one exception. One little boy had invited a friend of his from school, and he had not been to Sunday school before and had never heard the story of Jesus.
As the parent started to tell the story this little boy who had not heard it before began to listen with great interest. He was amazed at how the angel came to Mary and said that she would have a son who would become the king of kings. He was astounded that this important baby would be born in a barn, and that as a boy he would learn the craft of carpentry. But what interested him the most was what Jesus did in his ministry. The fact that Jesus healed the sick, helped the helpless and made friends with people who others would push away made this little boy really start to like Jesus.
And then the parent started to talk about how some people were plotting against Jesus. The boy didn’t understand how such a good person could have enemies. A part of him wanted to ask the question why, but he was to caught up in the story to interrupt; he wanted to find out what happened next. Then the parent said what happened next – Jesus was betrayed, beaten, mocked and nailed to a cross where He was left to die.
The little boy who had been silent up to this point couldn’t hold his emotions any more and said, “Ah man, that’s awful”! The parents and the other children in the circle looked over to this boy and could see the disappointment on his face. But his friend who was sitting beside him, the one who invited the little boy to the sleepover, leaned over to him and said in a reassuring voice, “Don’t worry, that’s not the end of the story”.
I was reminded of this story a short time ago, after I had a conversation with a good friend of mine. We were talking and I mentioned in passing something about Lent. He is a non-churchgoer but had heard of Lent and so asked me what it is all about. I told him that it is the time between Ash Wednesday and Easter. There was a pause in our conversation and he said, “That’s nice, but what is it all about”? I answered that it has evolved over time, starting with fasting for a few days and moving to what we have today - a forty-day period of reflection, penitence, giving things up in your personal life and reminding yourself to give to those in need. Now I should say that my friend has known me for almost forty years and as such knows me well. He looked at me and said, “Those sound like very good Christian things to do”. Then he said, “So, why don’t you like Lent”? I said to him, “I don’t dislike Lent”. He said, “Patrick, whenever you use a double negative I know you are having trouble”. “So”, he said again, "why don’t you like Lent”? I said, “I don’t really know”. And he said, “Maybe you should use this time to reflect on that”. It is interesting that sometimes it takes a good friend to point out something so incredibly obvious about yourself.
So I reflected upon it. I prayed about it. At first I wasn’t sure exactly why my feelings toward Lent were so ambivalent. I suppose part of the reason is that it feels like an unnecessarily long version of the New Year’s Eve party where one makes resolutions to do more of this or less of that or cut out something bad for you altogether and I have never been a huge fan of that. I also considered it could be that I don’t like the feeling of guilt I get when I don’t make such resolutions, or worse yet do make them and then don’t keep them. But then I reread carefully today’s Gospel passage from Mark and realized there is an important reason why it is read during Lent and why I have some difficulty with this season.
This passage, as all such passages in the four Gospels, indicates the ending of Jesus’ public ministry and the beginning of His journey to Jerusalem, His walk to death and His triumphant resurrection. In a way it reminded me of the little boy in the story. I think of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry and in my mind I say to myself, “Ah man, that’s awful”! I want Jesus to continue to heal the sick. I want Jesus to find justice where there is none, to create equality in a world rife with inequality, to build peace from discord and distrust, to plant the idea of love in the soil of hate and despair. I want all that, and I want it to continue. But it doesn’t. It ends, it’s finished and I don’t like that. Peter doesn’t like it either and when he tells Jesus this Jesus says, “Get behind me Satan”. The rough road to Jesus’ torture and death is clearly marked and not to be altered or impeded.
It also occurred to me that Jesus is unsettled by this turn in His ministry as well. He says to His friends if you want to follow me you have to take up a cross and in a way walk this same walk. As we just heard he compares Peter to the devil. At the same turn of the story in the Gospel of John Jesus says, “Now my soul is troubled”, and He questions whether He should ask God to, ‘save Him from this hour’. Whatever your theological understanding of Jesus may be regarding His full divinity, I think we sometimes put out of our minds, or perhaps we shy away from the unmistakable notion that He was fully human as well. The human in Jesus didn’t want to be tortured, ridiculed, nailed to a cross and left to die. But He knew it is what he had to do. He said, “It is for this reason that I have come to this hour”.
It is a paradox of nature that life comes from death. The complex ecosystems of the rain forests or the tropical jungles would come to a dramatic crashing halt if the element of death and decay were eliminated. In this sense death is regenerative it literally nourishes new growth. It is interesting that in this gospel passage Jesus says, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it”. I believe Jesus is saying there needs to be some sort of death in our life; not a literal one but a symbolic one where we let go of some earthly things and so become closer to God. Jesus is saying if we do this it will transform us and in the process change how we view the world. It is a death and a rebirth, and this is not always easy. For Jesus it wasn’t easy, it was the way of the cross.
My reflection on Lent has led me to consider that this passage from Mark can be a metaphor for our own relationship with God. God has a plan for each and every one of us and that plan existed before we were born. But I think a part of that plan is letting something go – letting something specific go that is very near and dear to most of us - that is letting go of our sense that we alone are in control. Taking up our own cross is a way of saying we are called by God to let go of the idea that it is all up to us and without us nothing can happen. We are asked to let go of the niggling little concerns about work, family, friends or whatever that hamper our connection to God. As well we are asked to let the larger concerns that perhaps ache our heart and trouble our minds, to be controlled and taken care of by the One who knows how it is all going to play out. We are asked to let go of our sense of control, and let it die. To coin the phrase, we are asked to let go and let God.
I can only speak for myself on this, but I find letting go and letting God take complete care of me, even letting God take complete care of things I have absolutely no control over, to be a scary proposition. When I fall down – figuratively or literally - I don’t particularly like the feeling of hitting the ground. It hurts. I would like to know that if I put my complete trust in God that everything will be okay. But I don’t know that. What I do know is that when I did put my complete trust in God about fifteen years ago my life changed in ways I could not even have imagined at the time. I have fallen and hit the ground a few times since then – figuratively and literally - and it hurt, but my life is so much richer, so much more full of peace and so much more filled with wonder and joy that I thank God for giving me the courage, from time to time, to let it go, let it die, and let God take care of it.
So my reflection on lent and why I have some misgivings about it led me to a deeper understanding of myself and my connection to God. Perhaps that is part of the point of Lent. It has been my experience that putting your complete trust in God is always a work in progress and it would seem to me that Lent is a perfect time to do some of that work. It is a time that we can all reflect on God’s plan for us and what it means to let that plan play itself out in the way God intends it to.
It is not easy, I know, but remember this; the rough road to Jerusalem was the beginning of one end, but the cross was the beginning of a new forever. Whatever your feelings about this purple season, remember when Lent ends. The little boy leaned over to his friend and said in a reassuring voice, “Don’t worry, that’s not the end of the story”. Put your trust in God and God will give you new life. Put your trust in God and for the next few weeks listen carefully. Listen carefully and you should almost begin to hear it…. It is the expectant and divine sound of thousands and thousands of church organs gearing up and millions upon millions of people getting ready to sing, “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today”.
The Rev. Patrick Blaney