We who call ourselves Anglican are often labeled incarnationalists. With our Creator, we believe that what he made is good and acknowledge on Ash Wednesday, “You hate nothing you have made.” With Gerard Manley Hopkins, we exult that “the world is charged with the glory of God.” With N. T. Wright, we experience God’s kingdom “on earth as in heaven.” And with all who stand to reaffirm their baptismal covenant, we vow, with God’s help, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons.” However, those in the pews tend to focus our understanding of the Incarnation mostly on the birth of Jesus—the Word made flesh—and thereby limit one of our surest means of Lenten contemplation and discipline.
On Ash Wednesday, the celebrant invites us “to the observation of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” He reminds us of our mortal nature by putting ashes on our foreheads and telling us that we are only dust; significantly, though, those ashes form a cross—the symbol forever of the sacrifice of the God-Man we call Jesus. Today’s lessons reinforce the message that the holiness we seek is not in a faraway celestial future, but here and now, among those with whom we live our daily lives. Moses receives instructions to tell the people of Israel, “You shall be holy,” and the methods he reveals to achieve that holiness require amendment of their relationships with others (Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18). The gospel reading from Matthew 25 makes the reason for those commandments clear: “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Sadly, in the postmodern, post-sin world we inhabit, even we who profess Christianity tend to observe Lent-Lite. I believe that we can deepen and enrich that observance by contemplating the incarnate Jesus whose suffering we seek to emulate. We know that these forty days of Lent commemorate—whether as biography or parable—the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness as he prepared for his earthly ministry. He was fasting, and he was hungry, and in that physically weakened state, he was tempted by Satan. But what happened in the previous thirty years about which the gospels are silent? Jesus was growing up as the son of a carpenter, living in community with others, dancing, drinking wine—prey to all the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil. And of course, he also endured the anguish of Gethsemane—the crushing weight of the olive press—as he readied himself for the final sacrifice.
The cinema provides us with some powerful depictions of these episodes in the life of Jesus. Mel Gibson’s harrowing vision in The Passion of the Christ (2004) has provided me with my clearest experience of the agony of Gethsemane. In The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), Martin Scorsese portrays the always-present tension between the human and the divine during the life of Jesus. And the eponymous final temptation is not, as fundamentalist critics who never saw the movie maintain, sexual. Rather, it is simply the temptation to live a normal human life—to marry, to worship in the temple, to be a father, to grow old.
How, then, should we, in the midst of our own normal human lives, best enact the twofold aims of Lent—sanctification of the spirit through the mortification of the flesh? Some people, of course, make a specific and intentional sacrifice. They give up chocolate or Bourbon whisky or going to the movies. They fast on Fridays or eat soup and study scriptures with their fellow parishioners on Wednesdays. Certainly, even these simple forms of self-discipline can achieve their aims when approached mindfully and prayerfully. Several years ago, I flippantly said that maybe I would give up buying shoes for Lent. I joked about my sacrifice every time I passed a shoe counter—until I understood that each of those incidents was a reminder of the season and an opportunity to listen more closely for the guidance of the Spirit toward a more meaningful sacrifice.
I have found, too, that simply listening to our bodies can focus our attention on the need to get right with God and our neighbors before we can fully celebrate the resurrection. At my former parish, we always used Rite One and sang Merbecke’s haunting liturgical music during Lent. Hearing the service spoken in unaccustomed words and sung in minor keys forced me to listen more closely and enabled me to understand it anew. One year, as I kneeled during the Great Litany, my hip began to ache, and I started to adjust my position slightly, but then I decided to keep still as a reminder that penitence is—and should be—painful. During another memorable Lent, our tiny parish had morning prayer every Saturday in the effort to discern God’s will for us as we attempted to grow and flourish. “Let us humbly confess our sins unto Almighty God,” intoned the priest. And then we waited and waited and waited—long enough for me, at least, to discover, confess, and be absolved of specific sins that were poisoning my relationship with a dear friend.
Even on regular Sundays, I am grateful for the rituals we perform—bowing when we say the name of Jesus; kneeling for prayer and confession; standing for praise. I know that worshiping with my body in these postures and gestures makes me more keenly aware of the miracle that is going on around me. I cross my forehead, lips, and heart when the gospel is read, intentionally remembering to keep the word in my head, on my lips, and in my heart. I listen for special words in the service and cross myself when I hear them: blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord; Almighty God, . . . forgive you all your sins; we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come; sanctify us also that we may faithfully receive this holy Sacrament. Even when our conscious minds are elsewhere, performing these aspects of bodily worship brings us back to the spiritual happenings around and within us. And the blessing is compounded when we realize that we are doing these things together with our brothers and sisters, engaged in corporate worship as the Body of Christ circling the globe.
As we make the effort to observe a holy Lent with our whole selves—spirit, soul, mind, and body—we grasp the sacramental nature of our lives during that penitential season and always. The Man-God on the cross is an “outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.” During this season of Lent, may we, too—men and women made in the image and likeness of God—turn our daily lives into sacraments and use our whole selves in the effort to become pure, to seek and serve Christ in the lives of those around us, and to live our lives in conscious witness to the grace of the living Lord.