I Love tradition. As a teenager I used to get into fights with my parents about things like buying a fake Christmas tree, or going out to eat for thanksgiving. I especially love church traditions, partly because I grew up with them, but mostly because they have deepened my understanding of God. Lent is one of these traditions; it starts on Ash Wednesday (February 14th) and continues through Holy week to Easter. What saddens me is the way Lent is misunderstood and forgotten in the church today. While some non-traditional churches may still celebrate Advent, Lent is mostly forgotten. It’s Advent’s less adorable cousin- similar in purpose, but moody and morbid. The beautiful candles and wreaths are replaced with oily ashes and uncomfortable sacrifice. Instead of ending with a cute baby we end in a cold, dark tomb.
Why do we need a season like this? It’s important because it prepares us for Easter- the holiday that defines us as Christians. Paul says, “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith,” (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV). In fact, Easter is so important people regularly compare it to the Super Bowl. Just as the NFL and network spend lots of time and money to create an extravagant celebration to reach millions, so do Church leaders. The analogy weakens however, if you take it any deeper. Most people who tune in for the Super Bowl aren’t even watching. Many aren’t even football fans at all, they just like the party that comes with it and the commercials. And although it’s the most watched sporting event on television, it doesn’t convert many of those casual observers into regular season football fans. I don’t think this is what we want to be saying about Easter.
If we have to use a sports analogy (and apparently in church now, we do,) Easter is more like the Cubs winning the World Series in 2016. After 108 long and horrible years, the Curse of the Billy Goat was finally broken. People who knew nothing about baseball watched that game with complete focus, because they knew history was in the making, and because the plight of the underdog is universal. In the end, even Cleveland Indian fans were secretly rooting for Chicago.
But the elation felt was not just from the Cubs winning the last game, it was from hope fulfilled. 108 years of waiting, almosts, and disappointment were over. It was also a celebration of their endurance to win their division after 6 months of regular season games, about their focus and drive during the post season, and about the nail biting drama of the seven game championship. If you only saw the very last game you missed the depth of their final victory. You weren’t one of those people throwing things at the TV when they almost blew it in the 8th, or screaming loud enough to wake the kids when they finally won. That passion came from preparation: from having spent time following the team and knowing the players, their stats, and their history. This is why we need Lent, to cast off the feeling that we’re cursed to our insufficiency and to prepared ourselves for the victory.
To begin with, the regular season of baseball is far more like Christian life than football because it’s played all week long. Players toil day after day, going through streaks and slumps, working against a handful of pitchers who know their every weakness. Last year the Cubs had a great regular season; with a stellar line-up and bull-pen, they were exciting to watch. Everyone on the team proved their worth, and they finished with the best record in baseball, 103-58. But even in their awesomeness, that means they still lost a third of their games. It’s impossible for a team to always play at 100 percent of their potential day in and day out for six months straight. That much work and stress takes a physical and an emotional toll on the players. Baseball is the worst sport to bet on because you can never predict what will happen in any individual game. It’s one of the things that makes baseball so lovable to its fans, because our lives are like that too.
According to the church calendar, the seasons between the big holidays are called Ordinary Time, our regular season. We struggle through embarrassing slumps, and shine when we’re having a hot streak. Temptation is like a pitcher that hurls relentless curve balls, and even when we’re doing our best we fall victim to its tricks 3 times out of ten. While we may feel like we have a winning record, subtle sins creep in and weaken our relationship with God. We develop bad habits and accidentally hurt people we care about. We start turning to things besides God to numb our worry and pain. Our daily tendency to sin makes it impossible for us to consistently act out our devotion.
Last fall, all baseball fans feared the Cubs. Our attention focused on the teams that would make it to post-season, analyzing all of their stats, trying to guess who might be able to beat Chicago in their bid for the World Series. In the regular season, teams focus on their division standing; but in fall ball, every game matters. A single win or a loss could mean the chance for a wild card. Three or four bad games in a row will kill a team’s hope for the championship title. When the Cubs made it to the post-season, they had to be smart. The staff began strategizing on how they could keep their star players rested, healthy, and playing strong. They adjusted their pitching rotation to optimize everyone’s performance. They looked at their regular season losses to find weaknesses, and made plans to avoid them. It’s important to note again that these things were happening daily.
This is Lent. It’s 40 days (plus Sundays, which are like the rest days) for self-examination and repentance. It lets God rid us of the ordinary sin that settles in our lives during the year. It’s not about giving up something to prove our devotion, or about doubling up efforts to follow all the rules. The fasting of things dear to us means the only place we have left to turn for comfort is to him, but we’re so bad at giving these things up. Even our weak will reminds us we need God’s mercy every hour. If we’re like the team, then God is like the manager, molding us into something stronger, getting us back into our best possible shape.
The season of Lent is not a biblical commandment, but a ritual based on biblical principles and examples of repentance, prayer and fasting, primarily the time Jesus spent in the wilderness before his ministry, but there are other examples too. My favorite is in Daniel, when the 70 prophesied years of Jewish exile was ending. Daniel wants God to redeem the Jews, but he knows the importance of confessing how awful they’ve been, and how they don’t deserve it. In Daniel 9:3-4 it says, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes. I prayed to the Lord God and confessed… ” The prayer that follows (9:4-19), admits the shame and the destruction the Jews brought on themselves because of their sin. He laments the choices they have made, and recognizes how desperately they need God’s salvation. Yet the prayer is still laced with worship, proclaiming that God’s awesome power is in his ability to love above all else. He ends the prayer with the attitude we should all have during lent, saying, “We do not present our supplications before you because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies.” (v.18)
By the end of October, the Cubs had won the pennant, and there was massive excitement because it was the first time they’d even had a chance at the World Series since 1945. The odds were that they would easily win, so who could have expected the heartbreak fans felt midweek when defeat seemed inevitable? Only five teams before them, in a history of 112 World Series, had ever come back from a 3-1 deficit before. Defying all odds, the team continued to hang on in the series until it all came down to the seventh and final game. In that last chance, the Cubs scored in the first inning, and hope began to resurface. When we got through the seventh and they were still ahead it seemed certain that this hope might actually fulfill. But in bottom of the eighth, when game was almost over, the Indians scored three runs. Suddenly the game was tied, and stayed that way through the ninth. The Cubs were now facing extra innings, and announcers were rattling off numerous statistics about how many times the team had lost in extra innings, and how many times over the last century they had buckled under pressure. Their bull-pen was spent, morale was as low as could be.
Little did we know, God is a Cubs fan too, and the miraculous timing of a 20-minute rain delay saved the game. In the locker room Jason Heyward looked around and saw despair on his teammates’ faces. He pulled the team together in the weight room behind the dugout and told them, “We’re the best team in baseball, and we’re the best for a reason. Now we’re going to show it. We play like the score is nothing-nothing. We’ve got to stay positive and fight for your brothers. Stick together and we’re going to win this game.” (WORLD SERIES-It Happened) Then other players began to chime in until everyone was shouting, “We won’t quit.” When the team retook the field in the tenth, people started hitting again. They averted disaster with brilliant base running. Ryan Zobrist batted in the winning run and Miguel Montero another after that. To everyone’s relief Cleveland had no response, and in an instant 100 years of baseball fans were finally vindicated. All of Chicago ran out into the streets celebrating; their joy and excitement so contagious, they made Cub fans of us all.
While it was probably the best week of baseball in the history of the entire world, Holy Week is even more grand and grueling a journey. In this last week of Lent, scripture takes us with Jesus through Jerusalem- reliving His triumphal entry, last supper, death and resurrection. Each event is marked by a holy day on the calendar.
Palm Sunday starts the week with the triumphal parade into the Holy City. People cheer, and throw their coats and palm branches in the street for a King they think is so holy, not even his donkey’s feet should tread the dirt. There is finally hope in the dull roar of the Passover festival- after 7,000 years of promises, there’s finally a Messiah. But this King and the celebration of him infuriates the establishment. They grumble in the shadows, plotting how they can be rid of him.
On Maundy Thursday, the gracious Savior knows what’s coming and tries to warn his followers. He washes their feet, breaks bread and pours wine as a metaphor, but they just can’t fathom what He’s saying. After dinner they drift off to sleep in the garden while prays so hard His sweat becomes like blood. He offers up a desperate plea for mercy, but the cup is His to drink. When they come to arrest Him, He submits peacefully (much to his friends’ dismay) even though the soldiers come ready for war. The people in power who he has publicly shamed and humiliated get there chance for revenge. They gather false witnesses, they hold a charade of a trial, but its working. The public opinion that was so full of adoration at the beginning of the passover is starting to sway. By midnight even his most loyal follower denies association.
The high and mighty continue to flaunt their power over him on Good Friday, battering Hope, ridiculing it, and strapping it to a cross to die; a public warning displayed for anyone who might try to rekindle its flame.
On Holy Saturday we mourn while the King we thought would save us wades through the depths of hell on our behalf. The only people who haven’t abandoned the hope of Sunday’s parade entirely hide themselves away, confused and terrified.
Just when everyone thinks the story is completely over, at Easter Sunrise on the third day, a miracle occurs. It’s more extravagant than anyone dreamed- the man who had the power to raise the dead has actually raised himself. Finally, the cryptic prophecies begin to make sense to His weary followers, who emerge from their despair with only a vague understanding of the implications. The victory is so outrageous that when they try to repeat what happened, even their best friends don’t believe it.
The story is world altering. It changes the way we tell time. It reforms our laws and morals. Hearts should be prepared to receive every part of it. I hope that regardless of what your church chooses to do, you and your family will observe Lent. Being able to follow Jesus all the way to the cross and beyond is a long, rigorous, daily journey that takes resolve. The season of reflection and repentance serves to strengthen our love and faith in Him. People who just show up for the last game of the season don’t care much who wins or loses. If you are going to be as passionate about Easter as a Cubs fan was last fall, then be prepared. Fully accept your own redemption, and the magnitude of the victory.