Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Royal Way of Repentance

The color used at St. Timothy’s for the Lenten season is purple (although the use of unbleached linen in the parish’s past is another, equally valid tradition). This rich, royal color may seem at odds with the austerity of Holy Lent, but this is not the case; rather, purple teaches us something vital and important about how to experience this season.

During the Roman Empire, the highly-prized purpose dye extracted from the murex shell was so valuable that it became a State Monopoly. To own fabric dyed with this color was reserved for the Imperial family. Thus, purple became known as the “royal color.” Yet, it also was seen as a somber color, and eventually treated as the color of repentance. These two meanings of the color – royalty and repentance – go together very well, actually. Jesus said that repentance was the key step in following him (Mark 1: 15, Luke 5: 32, &c.). It has been seen from the beginning of Christianity as the “Royal Road” back to God, for repentance literally means a change in direction. Our repentance takes us from the way of death and puts us back on the way of Life. Lent sets this choice before us: will we take the “onramp” to Life or not?

And this is the good news of the season of Lent. It is a time of what one writer has called a “bright sadness,” an awareness of how we have come to accept a mutilated, diminished form of life rather than the abundant life available through Christ – and of how we are offered forgiveness and renewal if we but turn back to “our first love,” (Rev. 2:4). All of our Lenten disciplines are about recovering that fullness of life, getting back on the Royal Way of salvation.

As we celebrate a Holy Lent, we need to decide whether or not this is yet another self-improvement project in life, or a unique opportunity to embrace what Christ our King offers us. If the former, then Lent will come and go with little significance, joining all of our lonely efforts. If the latter, we will date our lives not from our birth, but from this Lent! May this be a highly-prized time for all of us, and may we join together in a rich and full observance of this Holy Season, without which Easter cannot be truly appreciated.

Lent's 'Midwinter Spring'

Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

- from ‘Little Gidding’ (No. 4 of “Four Quartets”) by T.S. Eliot

This Sunday forms the transition in the Lenten Season from the focus on our own need for repentance to Christ’s work of bringing about our reconciliation with God. Thus, it turns our attention from our sin (which can become a sort of obsession if we are not careful) towards God’s love. Like Eliot’s ‘Midwinter spring,” we have come to a moment that is between two seemingly opposite things: Ash Wednesday and Easter Day… yet this moment is but part of a reality of which both Holy Days partake.

Mid-Lent Sunday (also known by an entire raft of other names: Laetare, Mothering Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, The Sunday of the Five Loaves, &c.) is a brief respite from our usual Lenten observance; it is also an open invitation to take the season seriously if we have previously not. As St. John Chrysostom will remind us at the Easter Vigil (in his famous sermon), it is not too late to begin our preparation!

On a deeper level, though, today moves us from our sinfulness to the freedom and forgiveness we receive in Christ. The Gospel reading for today makes the choice very clear: either we are like the man born blind, who received the gift of sight from God as a gift, or we are like the Pharisees, whose love for God had become twisted into a bitterness that could ignore the miracle in their midst and instead condemn both the recipient and the giver – God in Christ.

Mere religion will side with the Pharisees. They were simply “following the rules.” True Christian discipleship will choose the riskier path of Jesus, though…because it brings freedom and the capacity to love. As has been said, humanity is always suspended between the law of this world and the love of God, and it must choose. Let the rest of Holy Lent be a conscious examination of our preferences, so that when we arrive at Holy Week, we will choose love and follow Christ because we know in our deepest selves there simply is no other way.