From The Good of Giving Up
We are not ready for Easter. Not emotionally, not spiritually. But we always seem to be ready for the trappings of Easter.
For most Christians, Easter Sunday is a polite and happy occasion. Families, including mine, dress up in pastels and bow ties for the after-church picture. Children paint eggs, hunt for eggs, and consume Peeps and chocolate bunnies. We eat brunch, including delicious ham, and then move on with our lives.
Meanwhile, church leaders see Easter Sunday as an opportunity unlike any other to reach out to the community. Easter is still one of the highest-attended services of the year. As a local church pastor, I appreciate that people are open in a unique way on Easter Sunday. And I feel the pressure every year to preach a homerun sermon and to connect personally with spiritually curious visitors. The reality of church growth competes with Jesus’s resurrection for my headspace and personal energy.
Despite all the hoopla and mixed motives, I believe pastors and parishioners alike sincerely want to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection. You can sense the sincerity in the smiles, the sermons, and the earnest declarations of “He is risen!” – as well as in the half-startled responses of “He is risen indeed!” My experience before I practiced Lent was that this sincerity seemed to be somewhat forced. The attempts at celebration were often awkward. Easter Sunday is a victory feast, but in many churches it feels like a company picnic where everyone is expected to show up and be happy.
When Jesus Christ rose from the dead, history itself took a surprising, climactic turn. Even the people who had been preparing themselves for the reign of God could hardly believe it. To paraphrase Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful companion in The Lord of the Rings, this meant that everything sad was coming untrue. Death itself had been turned on itself. Satan and his demons had run into the mousetrap of the cross, forfeiting their threats. And our Hero was making good on all his promises, sending his Spirit to renew the face of the Earth, giving gifts as he ascended to his rightful throne.
It is the birthright of every Christian and gospel-proclaiming church to celebrate, feast, and exult in Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. We are invited to participate in the stirring worship depicted in Revelation 4–5, giving honor and thanks with a loud voice to the Lion of the tribe of Judah. Every Sunday – and especially on Easter Sunday – we can overflow with hope every time we look upon him whom we have pierced. He is not only seated on the throne, but is also healing our marriages, breaking our addictions, and uniting races and cultures into one family.
Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ will come again! It is all true, gloriously so. Why, then, do we still feel awkward and halfhearted on Easter Sunday? In many cases, it’s because our imaginations have been malnourished along the way to Resurrection Sunday. We have been secretly snacking on lesser stories – such as politics or our children’s athletic success. In theory the gospel is compelling, but in reality we would rather pay attention to whatever Netflix is offering. We are so full on the junk food of our culture that we cannot metabolize the feast on our Easter plates.
Augustine had a phrase for this: incurvatus in se, meaning “curved in on oneself.” We were made to look upward and outward with our imaginations to behold the beauty of God in Christ. But like a Grand Canyon tourist who would rather look downward at his Instagram likes than outward at the breathtaking vistas in front of him, we have curved in on ourselves. We are called to worship, but we have chosen to fantasize. We have exchanged God’s exhilarating and expansive story for lesser stories shaped by our fears, pain, and unhealthy desires.
The truth is that well before Easter, Jesus can wash, prepare, and fill our imaginations for worship. And this is where the practice of Lent comes in. But before I go further, I must tell you about Zorro.
Jumping Into the Story
When I was growing up, my parents set aside Fridays as a family night. After dinner, our family of six would huddle around the TV and watch classic reruns. I was taken with Zorro, the show about a swashbuckling hero who confronted the corrupt, oppressive tyrants of 1820s California. Zorro was everything Batman was, except with an enviable mustache and peerless fencing skills.
I loved watching the nobleman Don Diego de la Vega transform himself into Zorro with a cape, mask, and wide-brimmed hat – all black. Zorro would inevitably find himself in a battle of wits and swords with evil men. After dominating them with his footwork and his horsewhip, he would leave a Z mark on their shirt with three swift movements of his sword. His enemies could only gape and curse in response.
I was so enthralled by Zorro that I wanted to jump inside the TV and become part of the story. But even more so, I wanted the story I was watching to jump outside the TV and transform my life. I wanted to become the type of person who could confront evil men and wield a sword like Zorro. So I started practicing with sticks from our backyard. Making the Z was tougher than it looked on TV! I remember asking my Dad to enroll me in fencing lessons. Zorro’s story had captured my imagination to the extent that I wanted to live in it.
A compelling story has the effect of us wanting to participate, which is why my daughters want to become mermaids and my sons attend Hogwarts. And this, I believe, is why many Christians make, or aspire to make, a personal pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Walking the footsteps of Jesus allows them to tangibly inhabit his life and ministry. You can breathe the air of Bethlehem, be baptized in the Jordan River, and get your feet dusty on the road to Golgotha.
Perhaps you have heard the class Holy Land testimony: “The Bible came alive for me!” I think such declarations communicate that salvation-history is not a spectator sport, but a vivid drama in which they participate.
Can you imagine taking a Holy Land pilgrimage every year in anticipation of Easter? This is the journey of Lent. Lent is an ancient pilgrimage that the Lord uses to recapture our imagination of and renew our participation in the greatest story ever told.
I doubt any Holy Land tour would take you to the wilderness for forty days. But perhaps they should. The desert is where God called his people to make them holy. We might assume that the wilderness is a place of exile and isolation, and it certainly can be that. But in the story of redemption, the wilderness has always been a sacred rendezvous for God and his beloved sons and daughters. In the wilderness, we detox from our false attachments and renew our sacred, primal bond with our loving Father.
Entering the Wilderness
When I am on a flight that is preparing for takeoff, I quietly defy the command to switch my electronic devices to airplane mode. Honestly, I chafe at this federal regulation. The plane will work just fine even if I send a few texts, right? I do not like airplane mode because it cuts me off from the stimulants and freedoms that I feel I need. It forces me to have an actual conversation with the person sitting next to me.
When God calls his people into the wilderness, he puts their whole existence on airplane mode. I resist this, and so might you. It means feeling out of control and out of the loop. Our go-to stimulants and stories are no longer on tap. We can no longer anesthetize our emotions. We can no longer avoid a conversation with our Father. It might feel like a restrictive punishment, but it’s actually a Heavenly gift. Lent is indeed a wilderness, and there are several reasons why we can and should enter it.
We enter the wilderness of Lent because the gospel is true. We do not go into the wilderness to find God. We enter the wilderness because God has found us. He has delivered us, blessed us, and called us his own. The desolation and quiet gives us space to ponder the great salvation we have already witnessed. Even our struggles and failures in the wilderness teach us the truth of the gospel.
Consider the people of Israel. They journeyed into the wilderness after watching their oppressors drown in the Red Sea by the hand of God. Exodus details the song of praise that carried them out of Egypt: “The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation… Pharaoh’s chariots and his host he cast into the sea, (15:2,4).
The wilderness was not where Israel earned their salvation. It is where they internalized what it meant to be saved. In a desolate place, salvation came that shattered the Earth. Bread fell from Heaven; water gushed from a rock. The multitudes were fed by faith and with thanksgiving. The Living Word was in their midst, working beautiful and wild miracles, changing slaves into sons. With each nourishing meal, the tyranny and pretense of Egypt lost its grip. It took Israel forty years to realize they were the Lord’s treasured possession, not Pharaoh’s unworthy slaves.
Consider Jesus, true Israel. He entered the wilderness with his Father’s baptismal endorsement ringing in his ears: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased,” (Luke 3:22). Unlike Israel, and us, he had no false attachments of which to repent. His forty-day fast made space for him to bask in his Father’s love and to draw upon the Spirit’s power. When the devil tempted him with fantasies of dazzling self-love and godless power, Jesus was ready. He shut down the demonic chatter with the Word of God, which lived inside him.
In the Lenten wilderness, our fantasies of glory, fear, or pleasure can give way to the reality of God’s glory, love, and holiness. God acts in history, and we enter the wilderness to give our imaginations a chance to catch up.
We enter the wilderness of Lent to prepare for Easter. Why is Lent forty days? Practically speaking, it takes at least that long to prepare our hearts for Easter. As Dallas Willard put it, “One drop of water every five minutes won’t get you a shower.” We need to be immersed in the reality of the kingdom of God for big doses at a time before we start seeing its impact on our lives. The same is true for Easter Sunday – and the Eastertide Sundays that follow. We need more than a Good Friday service two days in advance to get into the state of mind and heart to celebrate Jesus’s victory over death and hell. We cannot prepare for Easter over the weekend. No, we need to walk a longer pilgrimage to get ready.
Most importantly, the forty days draw us into the gospel drama that Jesus lived. He went into the wilderness before us, and he goes there again with us. He knows that the struggle is real, that our frame is weak, and that we are dust. Because we are united to him, his forty days become ours.
We enter the wilderness to get to the Promised Land. Lent is not our ultimate destination. The wilderness fast is temporary, thanks be to God! The bright light of the resurrection is ahead. Can you see it? In fact, the word Lent derives from the old Saxon word for “spring,” and Christians of Eastern traditions love to refer to the “Bright Sadness” that marks every Christian who will endure the darkness leading up to Easter.
In the Lenten Spring, winter is giving way to summer – life and sunrise and a great feast are ahead. Each day’s light is longer than the last. Lent, then, is a profound picture of the Christian journey. It stands between our deliverance and our home. It is a time of faith and longing, hope and expectation.
No, we are not ready for Easter. Not yet. But with the world behind us and the cross before us, we go repenting and rejoicing one faltering step at a time. And everything sad is coming untrue.