So this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which is often one of the busiest days for churches around the world. We’ll have four services on Wednesday and I’ll be driving around bringing ashes to the elderly and the infirm, but all that is manageable; places like St. Patrick’s cathedral in the city have so many of the faithful streaming in that they will essentially be on a continuous service loop, with priests at stations so that everyone can get their ashes. The low drone of “You are but dust” interrupted only by giggling children asking what Butt Dust is.
Like most priests, I really like Lent. Most parishes buckle down in Lent; most have extra services and those services are often rather moving both spiritually and emotionally. We pay more attention to our faith in Lent, and our faith becomes easier to talk about in the street and on social media. We are expected to slow down, to turn the volume down on the outside world, and listen for Jesus.
That’s the great command from today’s Gospel lesson, straight from the mouth of God the Father Himself: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” St. Matthew tells us that when Peter, James, and John heard those words, they literally fell on their faces with fear. And since we’re supposed to listen to Jesus, what were the first words He said to them? “Get up, have no fear.”
Have no fear. Get up, and don’t be afraid. Easy for Him to say. The disciples Jesus took with Him to that mountain, Peter, James, and John, were not known cowards; they fished tumultuous waters and were known to be a bit blustery themselves, to put it kindly. James and John didn’t get their nickname, Sons of Thunder, from nowhere. Yet there they were, scared stiff, and rightly so. And so Jesus comforts them, tells them to have no fear, and then tells them not to tell anyone about what they have seen until He is raised from the dead.
Wait, what? Until you’re raised from the dead? I can imagine those three disciples thinking, “Soooo, you’re going to be dead, and then you’re going to be raised from the dead?” Sure, that’s not scary at all. I hate to push this but this episode runs like: Don’t be afraid. Okay, we’re not afraid. You will be.
Lent is a time of holy fear. Touching the divine exceeds all that we can ask or imagine, and so the nearer we draw to the Lord, the more He inspires fear and reverence, wonder and awe.1
And so Lent, properly lived, can get a little intense. This isn’t the Lent of giving up chocolate or bourbon, or even the Lent of taking up a devotion or spending an hour a week at the soup kitchen. This is the Lent of following Jesus to the mountaintop and seeing just who He is, and then listening to Him.
What does all that look like? Probably a little different for each of us. It might well start with giving up chocolate or bourbon or taking up a devotion or spending an hour a week at the soup kitchen. It definitely starts with discomfort, the discomfort of giving up whatever mitigates our relationship with Jesus, whatever stops us from seeing Him as Peter and James and John saw Him. It starts with having the ashes of our once celebratory and royal palms imprinted on our foreheads, consigning ourselves to the same death our Lord suffered before us.
We do all of this so that we may see who our Lord is, to touch the divine, to follow our Lord not only to our death but to our life. This Lenten season we will, as always, follow our Lord on the way to His death at the Stations of the Cross; we will deepen our faith and understanding in Sunday morning classes and forums; we will serve those in need, as commanded. Fr. Petitt’s pamphlet once again helps us on our way – they’re on the back table – on top of suggested ways of making this Lent holy, it has the full schedule for Lent.
Lent is a time of both holy fear and of learning that, in Christ, we need not fear anything in this life. How will you spend Lent this year?