Today is the start of the season of Lent.
Lent lasts 46 days (40 days + Sundays). The tradition of Lent is that for that 40 day period, Christians surrender a certain practice or habit in anticipation of Easter. It serves as a way to repent, as well as to, in a small way, participate in the suffering of Christ.
But why does Lent have to be so long? 46 days is a long time to go without something. It’s a long time to deprive yourself. Usually by the time I get halfway through Lent, I’m counting down the days until I can return to my regularly scheduled habits.
The first few years that I practiced Lent, I hated how long it was. I wished (and sometimes still wish) that Lent was a week long thing. Something that you felt, but not anything substantial. But no, it’s 46 days. 6 and a half weeks. Or, as it felt that year I gave up caffeine, an eternity.
It’s a long time to be deprived. It’s a long time to fast.
And it’s supposed to be.
Easter is an important day in the Christian calendar. The celebration of the resurrection is huge and powerful event in the lives of many Christians. For many Christians, Easter is the big event. The most important part of the whole process.
But as important as Jesus’ resurrection is, I don’t think it’s actually the most important part of the passion narrative.
When the Gospels talk about Jesus’ resurrection, they have surprisingly little to say about it. The Gospel of John spends 8 chapters on the last week of Jesus life, and less than 2 chapters on the resurrection and post resurrection appearances. The Gospel of Mark spends a whopping 8 verses on the resurrection, and includes zero post-resurrection appearances.
Also, there are nine stories about individual resurrections recorded in scripture (Ten if you include Matthew 27:52). There are 34 miracles of healing recorded in the Bible and nine of them are people being raised from the dead. That’s a surprisingly high number. So it’s really not the resurrection that makes Easter unique. Rather, it’s the manner of Jesus’ death that gives the resurrection its meaning.
Which is not to say that the resurrection isn’t important. It is incredibly important. But it is important because it is the conclusion of the larger story of Jesus’ suffering and death as the lowest of the low.
Jürgen Moltmann said it this way “It’s not his resurrection that shows his death on the cross took place for us, but on the contrary, it is his death on the cross for us that makes relevant his resurrection before us.” (The Crucified God, 183).
Lent is the season of the Christian calendar that keeps us from jumping too quickly to the triumph of the resurrection. Without a season of fasting, repentance, and reflection, we can easily lose track of what it is we’re celebrating.
In the crucifixion, Christ became the lowest of all men. He died the type of death reserved for runaway slaves. There was no honor at all in his death. The crucifixion contradicted everything we know about the glory of God. The crucifixion was the event in which the eternal, glorious God was spat on, beaten, and humiliated for being a blasphemer and a rebel.
Even his followers didn’t stick around. His closest followers saw nothing but defeat on the cross, and so they abandoned Jesus. It was a hopeless situation.
But without that hopelessness, there’s no Gospel. Without the taking on of shame and suffering, the Resurrection isn’t good news. The hopelessness of the Cross, the great humiliation of the cursed God who died on a tree is what allowed God to be truly revealed to the world.
By dying abandoned and shamed, Jesus rescued the shamed and abandoned.
We want so badly to jump to the joy of the resurrection, but the season of Lent helps us dwell in the suffering of Christ, so that we who suffer can be saved in his death. The resurrection of the suffering Christ brings life to all who suffer.
So we shouldn’t seek to avoid the suffering of Christ. We shouldn’t seek to jump to the end of the story. It’s through Christ’s lowlyness, suffering, and shame that we join Christ in his death, and through that death that we join Christ in his resurrection.
Lent helps us do that. Lent helps focus our minds on the unique nature of Jesus’ death, where God Most High was killed like the lowest criminal. Where God became one of us, and then became all of us by becoming the least of us.
The season of Lent becomes a sustained period of repentance and reflection in which we adopt a lowlier position in order that we might join with Christ.
And on Easter Sunday, we will commemorate the breaking of the suffering. We will rejoice in the resurrection that broke death. We will rejoice that God entered into death and rendered it impotent against us, by becoming the lowest of us and willingly taking it on himself.
But until then, we dwell on the death. We look forward to the resurrection, but we don’t rush it. Because without the suffering and shame of the Passion, there’s no glory of reversal in the Resurrection.
So during Lent, we give up of ourselves in a pale imitation of the way Christ gave himself up for us. We participate in the faintest shadow of the suffering Christ underwent with us.
Because the depth of God’s love is revealed more in the suffering of the crucifixion than in the joy of the resurrection. The totality of God’s desire for us culminates in the fact that God was delivered up to death so that we could be delivered up to life. The depths of God’s love for us led God to take on the greatest suffering imaginable. If we skip past the suffering, we skip past the greatest expression of love ever offered to us.
Many people in my faith tradition still look at Lent with suspicion. Most of my friends at church will not give anything up for Lent, and that’s totally fine. But I hope that as a Church, we can use the time leading up to Easter to really reflect on the significance of the God who loved us enough to betray God’s nature and surrender to the greatest suffering imaginable, so that we would be united and raised with God.
That’s what’s important. Not that we get ashes on our head. Not that we deprive ourself of something small for 6 weeks. But that we really take time to dwell on the death of God. Because it’s that death that brings life. It’s that suffering that brings liberation. It’s the Passion that gives us something to celebrate in Easter.