Lent as Joyful Preparation
By Elliott Wright*
The sanctuary at the global mission headquarters of The United Methodist Church was the setting for an Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s Day service of worship that emphasized neither the traditional gloom of Lent nor the commercial merriment of February 14, but instead the profound joy of preparing for death and rebirth in Jesus Christ at Easter.
Noted church historian the Rev. Dr. Justo Gonzalez stressed in his sermon that marking the forehead with ashes at the start of Lent is, “not a sign of gloom, but a joyous reminder that even now, in the meantime, we belong to him [Christ].”
Gonzalez, retired from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and the author of many books on church history and theology, was the guest speaker at a service attended by staff of the General Board of Global Ministries, members of Grace United Methodist Church, and participants in the Women’s Community Kitchen, which uses space in the building now owned by Global Ministries but still home to the Grace congregation.
“Today is a strange day,” he preacher began. “It is Ash Wednesday, and it is also Valentine’s Day. At the same time as we gather here to begin a season of Lent, and to seal our foreheads with ashes, and as Christians think of what we shall give up for Lent, all of society around us, and we ourselves, are celebrating the joy of human love… As we consider fasting, all of society around us is feasting.”
Gonzalez reminded the worshippers that in the early Christian church Lent was a time of preparation for baptism at Easter. It was a time, he said, when the Easter emphasis was on resurrection rather than the cross and crucifixion, as would become the case. It was costly preparation “brightened by the promised joy of Easter.”
Using a text from Colossians 3:1-4, in which St. Paul speaks of dying in Christ, Gonzalez said that for Christians death begins with baptism and is completed in time. “But then, surprisingly enough, this is not a message of sadness. As we read what Paul says, it is clear that having died is not a curse but a blessing: that it is not something to mourn but rather something to celebrate. I have died. Hallelujah! You are dead. Thanks be to God!
“It is a joy to know that his old self whose thoughts and actions I have every reason to bemoan, this self that still gives me so much trouble is actually dead! … By virtue of this baptism to which Lent points, this baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, I am already dead. As Paul says, our life is hidden with Christ in God. When God who is our life is revealed, then we also will be revealed with him in glory.”
Lent, the preacher concluded, is a time to celebrate and practice death and life in Jesus Christ.
The Rev. Stacey Rushing, pastor of Grace Church, presided at the imposition of ashes and was liturgist for the service.
The Ash Wednesday/Valentine’s observance ended with the confession: “Through the death and resurrection of Christ, we are freed for abundant life together.”