LENT: Learning To Love The Future by Aaron Damiani

Discovering the Freedom of Lent

Learning To Love The Future by Aaron Damiani

From The Good of Giving Up

Maybe your Easter service is held at sunrise at the beach, where new Christians shout their testimonies from the water before being submerged in the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Or perhaps you brew several pots of coffee and squeeze in every last folding chair in the living room that hosts your house church.  It could be that you gather at midnight in a cathedral to welcome Easter with incense, choirs, and bells.  Or you might wear your best hats and hang your best banners and sing your best songs in an old beloved church that your grandfather helped build.  Or maybe your church plant livens up an urban school with vibrant liturgy and an engaging talk that connects with your skeptical neighbors.  However your church celebrates Easter, I want to encourage you to be there.  Without Lent, Easter tends to catch us off guard.  But after the forty-day pilgrimage in the wilderness, we are ready to keep the Easter feast, to exult with all our heart that Jesus is alive.

Inasmuch as Lent has been preparing us pilgrims for Easter, Easter has a way of preparing us for Heaven.  It does so by satisfying our hunger, strengthening our commitment, and restoring our soul.  In short, Easter – including the “little Easters” of Sunday worship throughout the year – is a taste of Heaven, made available now through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The kingdom of God is here.  Come and see!

Satisfied Hunger

When a friend invites you over for dinner, the first way to compliment them is to come hungry.  Hunger involves a kind of pain.  Your stomach might rumble; your head might ache.  Saying no to salty snacks and sweet treats all afternoon might wear you down.  Do you keep delaying your gratification until dinner?  That depends on whether you trust your friend to cook something good.

If you sneak a PB&J before heading out the door, arrive fashionably late, and pick at your food, you likely did not trust the host to satisfy you at their table.  You assumed dinner would be bland, meager, or both.  What an insult to the host!  But if you showed up at their door truly hungry, pining for dinner to start, going back for seconds and thirds until you’re stuffed – and in some cultures belching out your satisfaction – you have truly honored your friend.  You came hungry and you let them satisfy you.  In all likelihood, it will not be the last time you sit at that table.

Jesus has given us an open invitation to come to his house and be satisfied on Easter Sunday and beyond.  That is why he referred to himself as the Bread of Life who satisfies our hunger and the Living Water who satisfies our thirst, (John 6:22-58; 7:37-39).  His invitation reminds me of Isaiah’s call to “Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price,” (Isaiah 55:1).  Those who embrace the forty-day journey of Lent have done so because they trust Jesus is telling the truth about himself: he is a feast for hungry people.  And he was telling the truth about us: we are hungrier than we know.

Who do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?  Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. (Isaiah 55:2)

Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. (John 4:13-14)

To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. (Revelation 2:7)

And so we trekked out to the wilderness of Lent, unsatisfied on purpose, clinging to the promise of something better than the world could ever offer.  So we put one weary foot in front of the other, fueled by the hope of Easter.  And one glad morning we find that the journey is over.  Lent has come to an end.

O God, you led your ancient people by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night: Grant that we, who serve you now on Earth, may come to the joy of that Heavenly Jerusalem, where all tears are wiped away and where your saints forever sing your prise; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

When we come hungry to Easter, Jesus is ready to satisfy us with a Heavenly meal.  The fast is over, and dinner is served.  We are nourished by Jesus as scripture is read, as the gospel is preached, as songs are played, and as communion is served.  And the feasting continues in our dining rooms well after the service is over.

Strengthened Commitments

Easter Sunday not only prepares us for Heaven by satisfying our appetites, it also strengthens our commitment to the Heavenly community.  And let’s be honest: our commitment to Heaven can wane.  This is why Jesus rebuked the church in Thyatira for her compromise and then promised, “The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations,” (Revelation 2:26).  Temptation and suffering can compromise our allegiance to the King and his Kingdom.  This is one reason we show up on Easter: we need the living Christ to rule our rebellious hearts.

I experienced this in a tangible way during my first Easter Vigil put on by Church of the Resurrection.  Easter Vigil began in the second century as one of the first ways to celebrate Jesus’s resurrection, and many churches continue the tradition today.  Laura and I had been attending Resurrection for one year, a year that had been a tough season for me.  I was submerged in the rigors of my Biblical exegesis master’s program and was breathing the thin air of academia, where, even under Godly professors at a Christian institution, a living faith can gasp for breath.  Behind the Hebrew word analyses and the Greek sentence diagrams lay my inclination to sneer at Christian piety, and I modeled the Enlightenment posture of standing over the scriptures with a microscope and a scalpel.

When Lent came around that year, I was half-convinced it was a good idea.  I cannot fully recall my chosen discipline, but I likely chose a weak sauce fast from chocolate.  I was more wrapped up in the tasks that would earn me better grades and recognition among my peers and professors.  When I showed up to Vigil, I felt like I was trapped in a thick astronaut suit of doubt.  As a result, I was unable to finish my first Lent with any sense of hope and joy, and I was plagued by a discouraging thought: This is all a myth.  This isn’t true.  I’m not supposed to celebrate.

Laura and I had signed on to be received as members of the church at Vigil.  So in the middle of the service we stood at the font next to the baptismal candidates and renewed our vows, renouncing Satan and pledging ourselves to Jesus.  (The liturgy makes it possible for all Christians to renew their baptismal vows.  There was a special significance for those of us who were becoming members or getting baptized: we wore white robes over our clothes, which symbolize the white robes worn by the multiethnic assembly in Heaven, (Revelation 6:11; 19:1-8), and harken back to the catechumens who completed their Lenten training and wore white on the night of their baptism.

I was not fully aware of the significance of ending Lent with a public confession of faith.  From the earliest days of the church, baptismal vows were understood as an open declaration of war on Satan and his tyrannical rule.  Showing up for baptism on Easter Eve was akin to showing up for your martyrdom.  Seen in this light, all of the Lenten disciplines were a “sacred fitness program” designed to prepare the body and soul for spiritual battle and victory that would follow your baptism.

One stirring example of this pattern was Perpetua, a twenty-two-year-old wife and mother living in North Africa around AD 200.  After becoming a catechumen, she was placed under house arrest where she was pressured by her father and the local magistrate to recant her beliefs.  And why wouldn’t she?  Perpetua was a mother to a nursing infant and enjoyed the privileges of a well-to-do family in the Roman province of Carthage.  Why not keep her Christian faith private, skip the baptism, and live in peace as a young wife and mother?

Perpetua was resolute.  She stood for baptism at the risk of her own imprisonment, separation from her infant, and eventual martyrdom, holding fast under pressure from her father: “I can’t be called by anything other than what I am: a Christian.”  Soon after her baptism, she was taken from her home, separated from her baby, and thrown into an overcrowded jail.  In her prison journal, Perpetua recounted nighttime visions of Heavenly victory as she crushed the heads of creatures resembling Satan.  These dreams, along with the leadership of her pastor, Sartus, and the encouragement from her fellow Christians, gave her ballast to receive a “second baptism” of martyrdom, (Mark 10:38-39).  Perpetua and her maidservant, Felicity, were mauled by wild beasts and pierced by a sword in front of thirty thousand spectators.

Christians in Syria, Iraq, North Korea, and the Horn of Africa today face similar threats.  Like Perpetua they are pressured by their families, local authorities, and extremist militia groups to deny Christ and to resist the rite of baptism.  Yet, like Perpetua, they are resolute and full of grace toward their persecutors.  Showing up for their baptism is nothing less than showing up for their martyrdom – and victory.  The world is watching.

But what about for me and other Christians in the West?  For us, baptismal vows might feel benign.  But the battle is just as real.  As we take or renew our vows, we are forsaking our lives to gain Christ.  While we may not experience the “red martyrdom” of death, we can willingly embrace the “white martyrdom” of whole-hearted discipleship and witness, (Romans 12:1-2).  Unlike Perpetua, many of us will live to fulfill an Earthly vocation and raise our children to love and serve the Lord.  But like Perpetua, in Christ we are dead to any of Heaven’s rivals and alive to the dominion of God, (Romans 6:1-11).

Whereas Lent is our annual training, renewing our baptismal vows on Easter is our annual reenlistment in the Heavenly community.  No matter how your home church structures the Easter service, your presence there is a pledge of your allegiance.  The entire process of Lent and Easter strengthens our commitment to serve and rule in the Kingdom as God always intended.  The whole of our lives – appetites, loves, commitments, and habits – is set in order as we take our place as kings and queens under the reign of God.  After all, we are not slaves anymore, but sons and daughters to be revealed in glory, (Romans 8:12-25).  We are not minions pushed around by the powers of the age, but noble citizens of the city to come, (Hebrews 11:14-16).  We hold court with angels and archangels, who with the glorified martyrs cheer our faithful passage through the suffering of this age, (Hebrews 12:1-2, 18-23).  In the process we seek the welfare and flourishing of the city in which we live.  And together we will witness God’s Kingdom come on Earth as it is in Heaven.  Not only does Jesus satisfy us on Easter; he strengthens our commitment to the kingdom of God.

Restored Souls

So there I was, with a white robe on my body but a dark cloud over my heart, having just renewed vows I scarcely believed.  I felt like a failure, a doubter, an onlooker – not exactly a candidate for martyrdom of any sort!  Have you ever showed up for Easter, or to any church service, feeling like that?

“He restores my soul.”  That simple promise of Psalm 23 is fulfilled in Jesus’s resurrection and made present to us through his Spirit, (Romans 8:9-17).  When we show up for Easter, we are setting our hopes on his power to restore what has died or become disconnected inside us.  Others may have moved on to a quicker fix, but not us.  We come broken and mortal, in need of the love of God in Christ.  If he has not risen from the dead, we of all people are to be pitied most.

Though our souls are not fully restored in this life, the miracle of the resurrection is at work now.  It is available to everyone, and when we show up on Sundays with our doubting, needy selves, there’s no telling what God will do.

I will never forget how the Lord restored my soul the night I had made my vows.  Eirik Olsen, a pastor to whom I had made confession that year, came to pray for Laura and me and anoint us with oil.  He laid one hand on my forehead and another on my shoulder as he paused, listening to God.

The next moment caught me totally off guard.  He prayed, “Lord, confirm in Aaron the vows he has made, and give him freedom from doubt.”  Speaking to me with the gentle strength of a spiritual father, he interrupted his prayer with a direct encouragement: “Aaron, I don’t know whether doubt is something you’re dealing with right now, but I’m praying for the Lord to deliver you.”

I had not previously spoken to Eirik about doubt.  As one who listened to God, he was simply able to name the spiritual chain holding me back from the joy of Easter.  As soon as he interceded for me, the dark cloud lifted, the astronaut suit came off, and I was surprised by joy.  I felt that I had been given spiritual breath and a desire to worship Jesus for the rest of the night.  Thanks to the faithful prayer of the Godly pastor, I experienced the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.  It was like a down payment of Jesus’s resurrection.

Barely a few minutes had passed after the vows when Stewart Ruch, the senior pastor who was leading the service, emerged to the front of the sanctuary with a full-throated announcement: “Alleluia!  Christ is risen!”

The congregation roared back, “The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!”

Now it was time to celebrate!  Bells rang, children danced in the aisles, and we made more noise than a packed home-team stadium that just won their first championship.  Well, almost.  It was the best kind of loud.

When Jesus Christ satisfies our hunger, renews our commitment, and restores our soul, we are ready to join the chorus of Heaven in worship:

For the Lord our God
the almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and exult
and give him the glory,
for the marriage of the Lamb has come,
and his Bride has made herself ready;
it was granted her to clothe herself
with fine linen, bright and pure.
(Revelation 19:6-8)

On Easter Sunday, in every gospel-proclaiming church around the world, the visible church takes on the perspective and song of the invisible church.  We are called to feast and sing and overflow with joy in the name of our risen Savior.  In his great power and mercy, Jesus has fulfilled all our hopes, defeated our enemy, revived our dead hearts, brought true justice to the Earth, and made all things new.

I was a beginner at Lent, capping a period of tepid fasting with feebly spoken vows.  I had major discipleship work in the years that followed – and still do.  My doubts and personal idolatries had marred the image of God.  So much was – and is – unfinished in me, yet I tasted Jesus’s resurrection power that night, and every Vigil and Eastertide since.  Jesus restored my face so that I could behold his, (2 Corinthians 4:1-6).  He helped me become who he intended me to be, and by doing so, he taught me “to love the future.”

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