For millions of Christians this past week marked the beginning of our most Holy season–Easter. We start with Ash Wednesday, a day devoted to recalling God’s embrace of our humanity. Many believers wear the mark of the cross, made with ash and oil, as a reminder of just how costly God’s grace has been. We hear the words as the ash is applied, “Remember, you are dust.”
Thus begins the season of Lent–a 40-day vigil devoted to reflection and repentance. Lent is often trivialized as a time when Christians give up some bad practice, like eating chocolate or drinking coffee. But Lent is more than just giving up something. For Christians, Lent is a time to take on something–we are challenged to take on a renewed faith.
Properly understood, Lent is a time for Christians to reclaim and restore the meaning of their faith. For far too long now segments of the Christian church have allowed the faith to become narrow and judgmental. In many quarters Christianity has become synonymous with meanness and the harsh treatment of a select group of sinners, so defined.
But a proper understanding of Lent will not allow such behavior to stand. The long journey to the cross is intended to remind us that we are all sinners. Traditionally, in Christian theology, all sin carries the same weight. In fact, one of the books of the New Testament makes the bold claim that when we fail at one point of the law we violate the whole law. For any of us to live as if we were above such failure makes a mockery of the cross.
The purpose of all this is not to crush us under a weight of guilt. The theological claim that all of us are sinners is intended to put us in touch with God’s grace. And accepting as true that no human is without sin, that no one among us may claim moral superiority over any one else, creates the possibility for real community. We are the community of the broken, and the restored.
Unfortunately, sometimes we forget. We forget that forgiveness is a gift that comes to us freely, not as some sort of reward for personal righteousness. We forget that we are forgiven and accepted by God, but that does not mean we are conferred with some exalted status or have some special privilege. If we are to take seriously the words of Jesus, it is not privilege and status we are given, but a call to humbly serve others.
The season of Lent recalls these themes. We are confronted with the dark places in our lives–dark places that remain even after grace has come. We are also confronted with the challenge of the Gospel imperative to love God and our neighbor. And we are reminded that our neighbor is anyone who is in need. Just because someone is a sinner does not mean we are exempt from loving them. Love your neighbor, Jesus said, as you love yourself.
Putting an angry, judgmental face on Christianity betrays the grace that gives us peace. But when we put a human face on our faith, the same way God did, then the possibility begins to emerge that we may actually be able to live together. Not as a community of morally superior beings, but as humble human beings who all share the same needs and hopes.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.