by Bishop Wayne Smith

The two penitential seasons of Advent and Lent may speak most directly to the hurts in our place and time. Advent, plumbing the heritage of God’s people, reminds us of the future and tells us that present circumstances are not as good as they get. Advent reminds us to yearn. Lent lets us savor all of salvation history, and that history’s culmination in Jesus rising from the dead. The season looks to baptism for its meaning, as the means by which God joins the Church to the mystery of Jesus dying and rising. Lent reminds us to repent, for the sake of this mystery.

“Penitential,” however, does not mean “dreary.” It does suggest simplicity, directness, and honesty. Though Lent and Advent invite us to name our sins fearlessly, the focus is on the redemption and forgiveness which God has won in Jesus, and which God is working out in the world and in our lives. Lent, in particular, pushes us toward glory, not groveling.

Percy Dearmer’s great (and somewhat eccentric) hymn-text, number 145 in Hymnal 1982, gets to the point of Lent. These are the words, in one verse of his hymn:

To bow the head
in sack-cloth and in ashes,
or rend the soul,
such grief is not Lent’s goal

but to be led to
where God’s glory flashes,
his beauty comes near:
Make clear where truth
and light appear.

These words align with the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday, Matthew 6, the part of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus teaches about prayer and fasting. Prayer and penitence are not about the sack-cloth and ashes, the “show” of it all. They are about being drawn God-ward.

I pray for a robustly penitential Lent, a good and glorious one, for us all.


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