I didn’t get a paczki this week, the Polish contribution to Fat Tuesday. I didn’t get ashes on Wednesday either, not that I would mind.
The truth is, I am a Baptist preacher’s kid who grew up without any understanding of Lent whatsoever. I thought it was about something you give up.
But I expect it is more likely about what God gave up. And anything that causes us to contemplate the sobering significance of the cross is worthwhile.
The danger is that we might think our piety atones for our sins.
I’m not suggesting everyone who observes Lent believes this. But some do.
I understand the importance of self-denial, of course. I understand the need to conquer those habits that have conquered us. There is even scientific evidence that “the more you practice it to control one behavior — say, overeating — the more it starts to apply itself to other parts of your life like exercising more or drinking less.”
But Lent is not about our self-control. It is about the cross, and calls us to consider its glory and its power. In fact, when the cross of Christ is emptied of its power there is no gospel at all. Lent can do this, if it substitutes our sacrifices for the one Christ made.
We may want to bring our meager offerings and placate an angry God. But God brings his own offering because ours is not sufficient. God brings his own sacrifice because ours is too small.
The doctrine of the cross is, of course, the atonement. Christ died for us, a full and fitting substitute. Christians rest in this and hope in this.
But the cross of that doctrine is equally real. It towers above us in this Lenten season, reminding us that we have sinned. And that we can be saved.
So what did God give up for Lent?
He gave up his Son. There was no ram in the bush, as there was for Abraham. There was no mercy. As Isaiah prophesied, Christ was bruised, beaten, blamed. He was pierced. Punished.
In fact, the prophet tells us, it was the will of the Lord to crush him.
My God, my God, why have your forsaken me? Christ cried.
But the Father did not answer and He did not look, because He made Christ to be sin for us.
The sobering reality is that we have sinned. Our righteousness amounts to nothing. We are unclean and undone.
But are we ungrateful? Or unrepentant?
Lent points us to questions like these, but only if every urge or self-indulgence reminds us of our weakness and causes us to grieve our sin and mourn the sacrifice it required. The very thought of the cross should take away our appetite and break our heart.
And then it should move us to rejoice. The Father loved us. The Son redeemed us. The Spirit fills us.
This too is the message of the cross.