As Lent begins we prepare ourselves for our celebration of Easter. For much of my life, the Easter cycle was divided into two parts: Lent, with a focus on sacrifice and death, and Easter, with a focus on Resurrection. Part one was a long 40 days, part two was about a week. When I began to work in the atrium, the liturgical calendar quickly corrected the misperception about the length of the Easter season, and consistently announcing both the death and resurrection of Christ began to bring balance to the focus of Lent.
But on Ash Wednesday there persists in me a certain expectation that Lent is a somber season, preparing for death rather than death and new life. It is a serious time, when we may not say “Alleluia!” even though Christ is risen. Part of my difficulty is that parishes use Lent as a season for special classes and programs about our faith, but the readings of the season they build on don’t reflect the joy and hope of our Christian tradition, and all classes cease after Easter Sunday.
And finally, there is a tradition of teaching that the death and resurrection points to me as a person whose sins nailed Jesus to the cross. He saves me from punishment for this unimaginable crime by suffering and dying instead of me. God “sent him” to do this.
It is hard to let go of this baggage as I work with children in the atrium during this time. But I must. Furthermore, year after year I must allow the children to lead me into a new and joyful understanding of Lent. Like the joy that Christmas casts on Advent, can we allow the joy of Easter to enlighten the days of Lent?
At age three, a little boy from our atrium was brought to a Holy Week service by his mother, during which the passion was read. At the quiet moment following the death of Jesus, the congregation knelt. And Ben stood and announced in his biggest voice, “But he rose!” He knew that despite the necessary inclusion of death in our Lenten observance, the Resurrection is not “undone,” even for a moment. Death is not a final moment but a passage to new life, and so we consider and prepare for the death of Jesus, as well as our own, with this in mind.
While we do not question the death of Christ, there are many questions we might ask about this death. Various ways to consider the meaning and purpose of his death that have developed in the centuries since Jesus died and rose. These reflect the faith, the cultures and the circumstances of the times in which they emerge. Some no longer serve us well.
I do not believe that Jesus was sent to die, but to live, proclaiming the Kindom of God. I do not believe that God needed a perfect blood sacrifice to garner God’s forgiveness for our sins. I do not believe that Jesus’ death somehow restored God’s honor, lost because of our sins. I do believe that Jesus chose to continue his work of proclaiming the Kindom of God, even when his life was threatened. In this way he offered his life so that we might have life to the full. This gift of himself to both God and the world is transformed into a Kindom life that does not end, and does not stop giving, nourishing, healing, and guiding us.
Two texts help us and the children grasp the meaning of death leading to new life.
“Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies it produces much fruit” John 12, 24.
Death is a necessary part of the cycle of life. We pass from life through death into new life. Plants and animals and even the stars model this. Jesus would participate in this cycle by virtue of his birth. He made the fruit of this participation infinitely clearer through his own death and resurrection.
“I lay down my life for the sheep.” John 10, 15.
A wolf is a threat to the sheep in the parable of the Good Shepherd. Just as the children grasp that the Shepherd represents Jesus, and the sheep represent people, they perceive that the wolf also has a greater meaning. By the age of moral development (6+) they are able to say that the wolf represents evil. (This insight passes through several steps: it’s Hitler…it’s danger…it’s evil.) The fruit of this evil is that it “scatters” the flock. We are divided from ourselves, one another, and creation by fear, jealousy, greed, and violence.
Jesus steps forward to defend us from evil, even to the point of death. The fruit of his gift is eternal communion. Jesus works to unite us to God, to one another, and to creation in the Kindom of God.
The date of Easter is determined by the coming of spring, not vice versa. And so, as the renewal of the earth progresses this year, let us embrace the joy of the flowering earth and allow the “Alleluia” within us to grow into a mighty chorus of rejoicing at the mystery and gift of life, death, and risen life in the Kindom of God.