There are plenty of legitimate concerns with a season like Lent. Some people can only smell oppressive Roman Catholicism, works righteousness, legalistic burdens, scoring brownie points with God, competing for holiness, superficial-hypocritical spirituality, pharisaism, washing the outside of the cup, white-washed tombs, making a show of piety, and why would forgiven saints want to wallow in their sins for forty days anyway?
And in so far as people take up a Lenten observance with any of that in mind or in their hearts, I say to hell with Lent. God hates all of that.
But consider me an optimistic hold out for the benefits of reclaiming a joyful, faithful Lent.
Lent comes from the old English which means “lengthening,” and it originally referred to the fact that the days were getting longer. It means Springtime. And I can’t think of a better way of getting geared up for Easter.
In other words, Lent is the season that celebrates Postmillenialism. Postmillenialism is the name for the view of eschatology that says the story of this world is the story of God remaking this world into the garden-city it was always meant to be. Rather than planet earth bursting into flames and the rapture occurring just in time to medivac the last few faithful survivors into another dimension, the Bible teaches that the death and resurrection of Jesus was the down payment for the glorification of this world, this planet, this universe. The Spirit was poured out at Pentecost in order to re-create this broken paradise, and postmillenialism is one theological name to describe the basic gospel proclamation that Jesus wins and everyone might as well come along cheerfully. Whether it takes another few hundred years or thirty-thousand more years, the history of this planet will be the story of salvation, the victory of grace, and the vast majority of humanity will be saved. Hell will be a small, dark speck populated with a tiny band of gollums making love to their darkness.
In other words, the story of history is an enormous Springtime. It is the story of Lent, the story of days getting longer, the world getting lighter.
The darkest night in the history of the world was the night before Jesus was born, the night before the Light was born into this world. That night was the winter solstice of all human history. In Adam the world could only grow darker, but when the Light of the World burst into the world, it began to get lighter. And the last two thousand years are the story of this world getting lighter, the days getting longer, the nights getting shorter.
Lent means it’s getting lighter. The Sun is risen, and the Light of the World is growing.
And this means that Lent is always a call to walk in the light as He is in the light. It is a call to cast away all the works of darkness, to cast away the shadows and to come into the light. Lent is a call to join the mission of this Kingdom of Light, the mission of being light and bringing light to this dark world. Lent celebrates God’s victory over darkness and rejoices in the shadows fleeing away.
So far as people try to cover up their guilt with false pietistic fasting, they are only hiding in the shadows. In so far as people try to make a show of their piety through pharisaical fasting from Facebook and coffee, God is not impressed.
But in so far as Lent is a wonderful annual reminder that the Sun is up, and it is getting lighter, Lent is a call to come into the light, a call to hope, a call to struggle against sin, the flesh, and the devil. And in so far as faithful believers take up their crosses and cry out to God with tears and fasting and prayer, God will see in heaven and answer the cries of the weak and the broken. In so far as Lent is a cry of defiant hope, a battle cry that insists against all odds, against what seems impossible, against the patterns and habits and powers of this dark world, in so far as Lent insists that it is getting lighter, and that nothing can stop the Light, in so far as that is what we celebrate and renew year after year, that is good news. That is the wonderful gospel of Lent.
Lent means it is getting lighter. Lent means that the Sun is risen, and it will continue to rise until it bursts out at the last great Easter, when the saints rise up in glory like the Son.