Over the past few days we’ve been bombarded with cartoons and memes following the surprise resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. My favourite is a simple drawing of St. Peter’s Church with a speech bubble coming down from heaven saying “You’re giving up WHAT for lent?”
Today is Ash Wednesday – the first day of lent and, although there are big differences in how it is marked, both Christians and many others will make changes to their lifestyle for the (almost) 40 days before Easter.
Like most corporate activities, Lent has enjoyed a great variety of different incarnations. Before the protestant reformation you could be dragged off to court for eating meat during lent, immediately after the reformation you could be in equally hot water for NOT eating meat in lent and despite the religious vacillation which followed, the idea prevails to this day that the discipline of lent is unnecessary when ‘every day is Easter Sunday’.
More recently the rhetoric has been that we shouldn’t give things up, but instead take up something new – acts of random generosity, regular communication, or even just a new hobby. Two years ago the pendulum swung back and it was fashionable to do a social media fast during lent, so Facebook and Twitter fell silent for a while. It’s interesting to see how few people repeated that exercise last year – maybe Facebook and Twitter have now become so ubiquitous that the withdrawal symptoms were just too overwhelming.
So what can we do to observe this historic season of preparation, penitence and humility? I want to suggest that we give something up, and we take something up – but not tweeting or acts of kindness – lent can be about something much more powerful.
The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the church in Philippi is a reading traditionally associated with lent. In it, the apostle urges his readers to have humility as they think about their own attitudes to the themselves and to others. Instead of giving them good reasons to do so, however, he sings them a song, a creed which holds up the example of Jesus as a mirror to our own hearts.
And as we reflect on the example of Jesus here, we see that lent can be a time when we choose to give up our rights, and to take up our cross.
Paul begins by describing Christian community at it best.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
Did you notice the words Paul uses here? Encouragement; comfort; fellowship; tenderness; compassion; joy; like-minded; the same love; being one in spirit and purpose. These are all descriptions of how family life can be at its best. And Paul continues with an exhortation to root our enjoyment of christian community in the conscious act of thinking that others are better than we are.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Now Paul is not at all thinking of a kind of Uriah Heep humility where we ‘well aware that we are the umblest person going’ but really inside we seethe with jealousy and crave power. What Paul is describing is a recognition of our rights and our status (after all, Paul is writing to children of God) and then the decision to set them aside, to give up our rights.
And in this hymn of Praise, Paul shows us why:
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
The first half of this song of praise describes three remarkable steps that Jesus took as he humbled himself. The first is that he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but instead became a man.
We are familiar with people who grasp onto power. Pope Benedict is a wonderful example of a man who is prepared to relinquish his position of authority for the good of those he leads, but the world is full of people who won’t. For every Benedict there are a hundred Mugabes or Gadaffis who grasp what they have and hold on tightly. But the one person who really has something worth grasping, give it up willingly and the uncreated creator became a part of frail creation. He took the nature of a slave.
But this act of humility is not the end of the story and then we see that it was not enough for Jesus just to become part of creation, it was also necessary for him to die – he humbled himself and became obedient to death. No wonder Charles Wesley was moved to write:
’Tis mystery all! The Immortal dies!
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love Divine!
But even that was not the nadir of Jesus journey. These verses finish with the simple words “even death on a cross” and this reminds us that the death Jesus died was not just a break in the cosmic order (the immortal dies), but he was subjected to the most brutal and excruciating method of execution ever devised. In fact, that where the word excruciate comes from – crucifixion – death on a cross.
And where Jesus has gone, he calls us to follow. Take up your cross and follow me is a call to die to self interest and self importance and to be willing to give anything, even our lives in the service of Jesus.
So as we follow Jesus’ example in lent, we are called to give up our rights and take up our cross.
But saying this is not to be a act of naive optimist, forgotten as quickly as the disciplines of Lent. (after all, how many saint’s days can we find in lent to justify breaking our fast?). No, this hymn gives as confidence that we can follow the example of Jesus because the final verses give us two antidotes to selfish ambition and vain conceit – Jesus’ name and God’s glory.
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
As we reflect on who will be worshipped and glorified in Heaven, and who is at the centre of the church, we cannot possibly maintain the pretence that we are the most important person. It is the name that the Father has given to Jesus that will cause all people to bow ‘in heaven and on earth and under the earth’. And all this is for one purpose, to bring Glory to God the Father.
So amid the dieting, the extra communication, the acts of kindness, the abstinence and the extra visits to church, let’s also remember the call to give up our rights and to take up our cross as we follow the example of Jesus and as we worship him and bring glory to the Father.