Transfiguration, Mardi Gras, and Lent

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all record an event in which Jesus glowed with light. He had gone to the top of a mountain to pray, bringing with him Peter, James, and John. While he was praying, his face began to shine like the sun, and his clothing turned brilliant white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Moses and Elijah joined the four men on the mountain, speaking with Jesus about the rescue mission he was soon to fulfill in Jerusalem. (Note—this is the first time that Moses was permitted to set foot in the Promised Land. This indicates that Jesus, in his rescue mission, was completing the work that Moses had started centuries earlier.) After Peter babbled something about setting up three tents for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, the group was surrounded by a cloud—not a natural cloud of water droplets, but the supernatural cloud of God’s glory. From this cloud came a voice that said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased—Listen to him!” The disciples fell to the ground in terror, but Jesus touched them and told them not to be afraid. When they opened their eyes, it was just the four of them again, and Jesus was no longer glowing with light.

In recent times, the custom among traditional churches has been to hear and contemplate the descriptions of this event on the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany. (The traditional Christian calendar begins around the start of December with roughly four weeks of Advent. Next come the twelve days of Christmas, followed by the season of Epiphany. During this season, Christians consider the evidence that Jesus is God’s Son and the world’s Savior. After Epiphany comes the penitential season of Lent, consisting of forty days plus six Sundays. Lent concludes with Holy Week, which ushers in the seven weeks of Easter. After those seven weeks, the Church celebrates the holiday of Pentecost, and then about half a year passes before Advent starts again.) The thought of Jesus glowing with light in the presence of three apostles and two Old Testament heroes seems a fitting conclusion to the thoughts of Epiphany while Christians prepare themselves for the somber observance of Lent.

In the days that fasting was more common in Lent, Christians used up the last of their luxuries—milk, eggs, and the like—on Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday kicks off the season of Lent. How this sensible consumption of items that would spoil if they were not eaten turned into the modern Bacchanalia of Mardi Gras is not hard to guess, sinful human nature being what it is. My point is not to criticize the excesses of Mardi Gras; that would be too easy. But remembering the Transfiguration of the Lord on the last Sunday of Epiphany is itself, in a way, a Mardi Gras for traditional Christians. During Lent, Christians remember their sins and their need for a Savior; we repent. At the same time, we recall that Jesus is the Savior we need, and so we experience the joy of our salvation even in the gloom of Lent. This last Sunday of the season, remembering Christ’s Transfiguration, wraps up the glory of Epiphany for Christians.

At times Christians have overemphasized Lent and penitence and gloom and sorrow. Currently, the opposite trend seems to be stronger. Many Christians want all their spiritual experiences to be uplifting, exhilarating, and inspiring. They prefer not to talk about sin and repentance. They marginalize the cross, reducing its importance. They want to feel the glory today, to bask in the glow of Jesus, and to make every day a celebration. Like Peter, they want to extend the good times, to make permanent what God intends to be only a passing event in the life of a Christian.

God can provide beautiful times like the Transfiguration where and when he pleases. The useful times in the life of a Christian, though, are not the mountaintop experiences. The useful times are the dark nights of the soul, the times when God seems distant, the times when we believe not because faith is easy but because faith is needed. Those are the times when we grow. Those are the times when the Lord does his best work through us.

Someone has said that anxiety and depression are a normal reaction to the world as it is right now—that anyone who is not anxious and depressed simply is not paying attention. That position is overstated, but it contains a kernel of truth. We see the joy of salvation best when we understand from what evil we have been saved. The celebration of Easter is made greater by the observation of Lent. Or, as Richard Nixon said, “Only if you have been in the deepest valley, can you know how magnificent it is to be on the highest mountain.” J.

Ash Wednesday is St. Valentine’s Day

This winter contains several odd conjunctions. January ended with a Super/Blue/Blood moon. February has no full moon, something which happens roughly every seventeen years. March will have a blue moon. And in the middle of February, St. Valentine’s Day will fall on Ash Wednesday, the first day of the season of Lent.

At least two, and possibly three, Christian martyrs named Valentine are remembered on February 14. Popular tradition associates one of them with messages about God’s love, but evidence of such letters does not exist. Probably the romantic aspect of St. Valentine’s Day reflects preChristian celebrations in Europe. Already in midFebruary the new life of spring can be felt or anticipated. Birds gather to migrate north. Early flowers begin to sprout through the snow. Spring training camps open to get ready for the baseball season. No matter what the groundhog said on February 2, by the 14th the world is ready for spring.

From early times, Christians have used the last weeks of winter as a time to prepare for the observance of Good Friday and the celebration of Easter. The season of Lent consists of forty days plus six Sundays—each Sunday being a weekly reminder of the resurrection and so not counted among the forty days of Lent. Traditional churches treat Lent as a time of somber reflection and repentance. Christians remember that Jesus suffered and died on a cross to pay for our sins. Thinking about his sacrifice and our sins during Lent, traditional Christians change even Sunday worship. Praise songs are replaced with Lenten hymns. Flowers on the altar and other decorations are eliminated or reduced. Additional services are added to the schedule, often with a theme that prepares for the coming of Holy Week.

Many Christians choose to fast during Lent. They voluntarily surrender some usual pleasure during the forty days and six Sundays of Lent. Some give up candy. Some give up alcohol. Some give up video games. Fasting is not intended for self-improvement in a worldly sense, although giving up certain foods and beverages might have that effect. Fasting does not force God to provide blessings that he has withheld. Instead, fasting shows dedication to God. It provides evidence that God is more important than worldly pleasures. Fasting teaches self-control. When a Christian can say no to candy or video games for six-and-a-half weeks, that Christian is made stronger, able to say no to temptations to sin. Fasting also teaches compassion. When we go without luxuries, we understand how it feels to live without those luxuries because of poverty rather than choice.

The sinful world can take even the most noble customs of the church and pervert them into something twisted and strange. Plans to fast during Lent lead to a desire to use up the luxury before it is forbidden. What was once a simple matter of eating the last butter and eggs in the kitchen, or having one last piece of candy or one last martini, has become Mardi Gras and Carnival—riotous celebrations of worldliness that have more to do with darkness than with light. Perhaps those people who take part in Mardi Gras are more inclined to repent when they awaken on Ash Wednesday than their sober neighbors. All the same, a day and a season focused on repentance is not intended to encourage greater sin in advance, even if that does offer more reason to repent.

Setting aside the excesses of Mardi Gras, the odd conjunction of February 14 leads to a dilemma. Should one offer candy and other goodies to one’s family and one’s coworkers to honor St. Valentine’s Day, or should one consider the possibility that a person might be starting a fast on that day, choosing not to eat sweets until Easter? The Valentine treats should probably be shared earlier, to avoid the risk of undermining a time of fasting at its very beginning.

And, speaking of odd conjunctions, Easter Sunday this year will be observed on April Fools’ Day. J.

The season of Lent

This Wednesday many Christians around the world begin observing the season of Lent. This is a time of repentance, a time of somber reflection about our need for a Savior, and a time to prepare for the joyful good news of the resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter.

From early times, Christians used late winter for these purposes. Some had shorter seasons of Lent and some had longer seasons of Lent; eventually, they united in observing a penitential season of forty days, remembering the forty days Jesus fasted in the wilderness as he battled Satan and his temptations. Those forty days are prefigured in the forty days and nights of rain during the time of Noah and the forty years the Israelites wandered in the wilderness between Egypt and the Promised Land. From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday actually includes forty-six days, because the Sundays during Lent are not counted. Even in Lent, Sunday marks the weekly celebration of the Lord’s resurrection. Therefore, these Sundays are labeled Sundays in Lent, but not Sundays of Lent.

Even on Sundays, though, traditional Christians scale back during Lent. The Hebrew word “alleluia,” which means “praise the Lord,” is not said or sung during Lent. Some congregations do not decorate with flowers during Lent, and some do not use handbells or chimes during Lent. The hymns of Lent are somber and reflective, placing emphasis on our need for a Savior and on the work our Savior accomplished for us. Some of the traditional hymns of this type are: Come to Calvary’s Holy Mountain, Go to Dark Gethsemane, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, and O Sacred Head Now Wounded.

Many Christians use the time of Lent to fast. Fasting means going without something for a time. Sometimes a fast means no food at all—people are required to fast before some medical procedures. (Because people do not eat while they sleep, the first meal of the day breaks a fast—hence, breakfast.) Other times fasting means going without one kind of food or activity. Those who fast might give up candy, chocolate, soft drinks, coffee, alcohol, television, electronic games, or Facebook. Although the Bible does not command Christians to fast, Jesus clearly expects Christians to fast. He does not say “if you fast,” but “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16). The instructions that follow warn Christians not to fast to impress other people; if so, impressing other people is the only reward we receive. Instead, we are to act normally while we fast. We are, of course, free to tell others we are fasting, especially if they offer us something we have chosen to give up for Lent. But we do not fast to show off our faith. Likewise, a fast for physical benefits—giving up desserts to lose weight—is not a religious exercise. Those who lose weight during Lent have received their reward in full. When we fast, the purpose is spiritual benefits, not mere worldly benefits.

Religious people (not just Christians) have observed three spiritual benefits that come from fasting. First, fasting increases dedication. By giving up something I love for God, I prove to myself that I love God more. Second, fasting increases self-control. If I can say no to chocolate or to electronic games for nearly seven weeks, I will be strengthened to say no to temptations to sin whenever they come. Third, fasting increases compassion. When I fast voluntarily, I understand the poor around me who fast, not for spiritual reasons, but because they cannot have what they want because of their poverty.

Some Christians treat fasting lightly. When I was a child, my father gave up fresh watermelon for Lent, and my pastor gave up swimming in Lake Superior. I have found that fasting does help to focus my attention on Christ and his Word. Moreover, I have learned about myself through fasting. (I have learned, for example, that it is harder for me to live without coffee than without alcohol.) Fasting cannot be used to bargain with God. We cannot make demands upon the Lord and insist that he fulfill them because we have fasted. Like all Christian activity, fasting helps to build a relationship with the Lord. In our fast, if we are not seeking other rewards, we draw closer to Jesus and understand better both what he expects from us and what he promises us.

Fasting is not required. Every Christian may decide whether or not she or she will fast, during Lent or at any other time. Lent is not required. We are told to let no one judge us about Sabbaths, seasons, holidays, or matters of food and drink. In the history of the Church, fasting and Lent have been found to be helpful to Christians. However you spend your time between now and Easter, may the Lord bless your observances and use them to draw you closer to him. J.