Faux Lenten penitence can only be followed by faux Easter joy
What is the wisest thing your father ever said to you? Perhaps the wisest thing my father ever said to me was, “Human nature — there’s something wrong with it.” My own familiarity with human history and my own acquaintance with the man who looks at me from the mirror every morning confirm my father’s statement.
Although the Christian tradition speaks of man as “the crown of creation," no one can seriously claim that humans easily and readily fulfill the call of human dignity. This observation brings us to the season of Lent. Lent only makes sense if we keep in the forefront of our mind and heart that human nature has grown up twisted, that is, human nature has developed in a way that God surely did not intend.
Because this understanding of human nature — that is, human nature as wounded and bent — tends to be overlooked, misperceptions of the meaning and purpose of Lent abound. Some think that Lent is simply a season of self-imposed and sullen self-discipline, the purpose of which never seems to be made clear or fruitful. Some view Lent as a kind of theater. That is, we paint on a sulky face for Lent and then we paint on a happy face for Easter. But if we only play at being sinners, then we can only play at being saved. Faux Lenten penitence can only be followed by faux Easter joy.
Here is the challenge we face. The graces of Lent are inextricably linked to the graces of Easter. We need both so that we may live fully our Christian vocation in a world that now clearly suffers violent deprivations — both physical and spiritual — from the lack of credible, consistent and fervent Christian witness. For the love of God and neighbor we have to embrace the full Christian vocation, which will entail a fierce clinging to the cross, even while proclaiming the resurrection. We can live this Christian paradox only if we are clear about human nature — its calling, its falling, and its promised glory. Let’s start with what God intended for human nature.
Our good Creator God can only make a good creation. He crowned that creation with man, made in His own image and likeness as male and female. Like Himself, He made us to be free, rational, and communal, that is, made for love. Even a brief review of human history, or an honest glimpse of one’s own individual history prove that humans rebelled against the divine design. I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a five-year-old boy about what he learned that day in Vacation Bible Study. Jacob said, “Adam sinned, and Eve sinned because they listened to the snake and they didn’t listen to God. And then they got in BIG trouble!” Jacob’s summary has the merits of being both accurate and concise. We made ourselves spiritual orphans when we rejected our Father’s love. Turning away from His light, our minds were darkened. Turning away from His goodness, our wills were corrupted. Turning away from God’s wisdom for His creation, our bodies became subject to pain, sickness and death.
The story of the creation and fall, writ large across human history, is also inscribed in each individual human heart. I know that I am a sinner. I know that before God I am a rebel, a traitor, and a usurper. But that is only half the story. I know that by the grace of God, I am also a loved sinner, one who is defined by the grace of his baptism rather than by the malice of his sin. Because I know that my Heavenly Father would not abandon me to my own wickedness, even at a terrible cost to Himself, I wish the world to know the wonders of grace offered by God through His Christ. As a son adopted and restored, I wish to make known to other self-made orphans like myself, our Father’s plan to reclaim His children and His creation.