Winter in Wisconsin is very Lenten, especially if you shovel your own driveway. Your skin dries out, splits, leaves your hands cracked and bleeding. Even hours later, when you’re prodigally indulging in the excesses of central heating, the dry skin keeps you itchy, even if your bed sheets are sinfully soft, leaves you itching all over. And there’s a certain justice in this. Jonesing for soft bed sheets, after all, is almost as spiritually misguided as your midwinter impulse for a day without the need for extra leggings, just one spring day with green grass and flowers sneaked into this season of snow and ice and blue sidewalk salts. Is that too much to ask? A single, spring day with green grass, warm sun, frisbees, and attractive people not wearing their whole wardrobes all at once, you know, with their knees and shoulders showing. Lent teaches you not to long for these things.
Lent is for realists, the ones who know how silly and disappointing hope can be. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Grey skies and gloom. Lent is for people with the good sense not to call every invention of humankind progress (see here Tinkles the Toilet Cat – you can look it up – and waterboarding). It may sell and impress the neighbors - as seen on TV - it may seem essential to the protection of national and/or international securities, but Lenten types sense the futility of it all. Not just the pointlessness of it, but the seeming impossibility of it being otherwise. So Lent is for people who ride the engine of progress in ironic protest.
The question in Lent is how you step off the moving sidewalk, which I tried once, when my daughter got nervous, got cold feet that day at the airport. She was pushing the green stroller and it was on the rolling walkway, she was off it, just on the edge, and I was sailing along, out in front. She stopped, and I didn’t. Lent is like that. Awkward and hopeless. Like middle school. As a general rule I don’t trust individuals who remember middle school with fondness.
“What are you giving up for Lent?” That’s the question I remember from middle school at the Episcopal school I attended. And we’d talk about chocolate and Cokes and little brothers. A clergy spouse I know makes a joke of giving her husband up for Lent, what with the obligations Lent brings on for him. A friend of mine tried a kind of fast once. He gave up desserts, except for Sundays, which are feast days after all. But then he would transfer Sunday feasts to Tuesdays or Thursdays, swap them out, for convenience, and cash his chips in early.
You can start to see how it’s easy to get there - to that place where Lent means shoulds and shouldn’ts and rules and guilt and every time you ever got in trouble for anything, like Mrs. Tennison’s kindergarten class, when she saw you reach for the scissors that time and accused you of having plans for mischief that you later wished you’d really had. It’s not hard to see how people start talking about their being spiritual without being religious.
But another friend of mine says that, despite its burdened reputation, Lent is really only ever about two things: preparing for baptism and remembering your baptism. Preparing to be baptized or remembering that you are.
A French writer once wrote (because that’s what writers do); he said, “In the end, life offers only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” When Lent points us to baptism, it calls us to the life of the saint. The Transfiguration of Jesus, our gospel lesson today – and every last Sunday before Lent – is a picture of what it means to be a saint; a picture of what Lent is for.
When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain with sleepy eyes and stay awake just long enough to see their Lord transfigured, they see Jesus as he is, God’s only begotten Son. Very God of very God. Begotten, not made. By whom all things were made. When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they learn that to look on Christ is to look on God.
But when Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they also see a picture of themselves as they will be, in their Lord, transfigured. Glowing with the glory of God. Adam as Adam was created to be. When Peter, James, and John climb the mountain, they learn that to look on Christ is to see who they are made to be, and by whose power this is possible; as the disciples look on Christ, they enter the cloud; they shine with the glory; they begin their participation in the life of the triune God.
When the disciples look on Christ, they see both the face of God and the face of humanity, fully alive, in the presence of God. In this way, the Transfiguration of Jesus on this last Sunday before Lent means to show us God’s dream and our destiny. Lent is about preparing for glory. Lent is about becoming a saint. That’s why, in the end, Lent can only be about two things: preparing for baptism and remembering your baptism. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
As much fun as religion-as-aimless-and-heavy-burden can be – cf., the surprisingly popular philosophy that says that if it feels good, it must be bad – consider, instead, that every practice taken on, every habit surrendered, might be examined this Lent in light of your baptism or its preparation. Of your would-be Lenten discipline, hasten to ask, “How does taking this on or giving that up immerse me more fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ?”
Giving up chocolates and Cokes are fine things, even for Lent, though they risk leaving you on the surface level of self-improvement. But this year, I’m thinking of disciplines that keep the focus on baptism squarely before me. This year, for example, I intend to memorize the Exsultet, that great hymn that begins the Easter Vigil, as a way of allowing the joy of that great feast to enter my bones. And because memorization is an under-appreciated practice these days, I think. I also plan to take five minutes each day at noon this Lent to reread the promises of my baptism as they appear on pages 304 and 305 in the Book of Common Prayer; trusting that by reading them in the middle of my ordinary day, my eyes might be opened to see new places in this life wherein the death and resurrection of Jesus find real currency, makes new claims on me.
You can begin to see the possibilities. Possibilities not simply to be made better, but to be made real. Putting on Christ, to be made a saint, even. Shining with the glory of God. This is what Lent is for and why Lent, in the end, can only be about two things: preparing for baptism and remembering your baptism. Baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus.
I’ll see you in the desert.