At the midpoint of Lent, we Christians now brace ourselves to enter more fully into the passion of Jesus prior to the rejoicing of Easter. Without the darkness and sense of painful futility, the brightness of resurrection holds little significance. In this season Jesus is beckoning us to “watch with him,” which is the chief discipline of Lent.
The Rule of St. Benedict offers this instruction on the observance of Lent. Blessed Benedict tells us “to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times” (Chapter 49). I have been pondering the many areas I neglect as routinized behavior scurries past attentiveness and contemplation.
With abundance, I neglect gratitude for small things. With a packed schedule, I do not give myself fully to regular intervals of prayer. With a surfeit of opportunities, I do not prioritize what is really most important. With a vocation I love, I take for granted the privilege that it is. With people I love, I give only cursory attention at my convenience.
“I have been pondering the many areas I neglect as routinized behavior scurries past attentiveness and contemplation.”
At our seminary chapel this week, we decided to follow the Stations of the Cross, not a particularly Protestant spiritual practice. We processed around the building with the cross, reading and hearing Scripture, singing songs of response and offering prayer. For most of Christian history, following the way of the cross has been a spiritual practice that invites reflection on the passion of Christ, and we found this retracing deeply meaningful.
In 1991 Pope John Paul II (of blessed memory) initiated a renewal of this devotional practice by adhering less to tradition and more to the biblical story. He eliminated some extra-canonical scenes and added Jesus’ prayer in the garden, the betrayal of Judas, Peter’s denial and Jesus’ words to his mother, among others. It was a way for us to watch with Jesus as he walks inexorably toward the cross.
The Gospels elongate the passion narrative as they ratchet up the confrontation between Jesus and temple authorities. Conflict escalates as Jesus challenges the leaders about who is really faithful to the traditions of Abraham and Moses. Especially in John’s Gospel, Jesus claims to bring to fruition all that had gone before him as Word has become flesh. This direct challenge ultimately leads to arrest, trial and death by crucifixion. While ultimately he submits to what he believes his sacrificial mission entails, he has been deliberately provocative throughout his ministry – far from the docile portrait many assume.
Before we even get to the Garden of Gethsemane, we are watching Jesus reconfigure the identity of the people of God. He was always finding ways to welcome, to forgive and to share a meal. We watch him extend healing touch; we watch him protect a vulnerable woman dragged before him; we watch him building community by providing wine for a wedding or an abundance of bread and fish for a multitude.
Although his ministry is a renewal movement internal to Israel, the implications that his message will travel far beyond the historic people of God are nascent. Whether it be the Syrophoenician woman who sought healing for her daughter, the centurion who believes his word that his son would be healed, the Greeks who wish to see him before the festival of the Passover or the Samaritans who receive his message, these outsiders find their place in the messianic story of Jesus.
“Week four of Lent offers an opportunity to live in these Gospel narratives with new insight.”
Week four of Lent offers an opportunity to live in these Gospel narratives with new insight. The Spirit is inviting us to overhear words of challenge, mercy and struggle. Jesus’ own desolation is growing as he realizes the most likely outcome of his ministry. After all, as he taught in Jerusalem, he remembered that this was the city that “slays the prophets.” He had seen the fate of his cousin John; why would his own prospects be any different? Weeping over the city was prescient and fitting.
The Gospels narrate his final days with artistry and poignance. New Testament scholars contend that the passion narratives were the earliest parts of the Gospels and that special care is devoted to the dramatic events that lead to Golgotha. Without the rich vignettes of the Gospels, the witness of the earliest credo in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 stresses the centrality of Jesus’ death, resurrection and appearances.
For I handed on to you as of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve.
So, in these 40 days we continue to follow Jesus so that we might observe the intimacy of his relationship with God, his expansive love of those in need and his willingness to be faithful to drink the cup set before him. Though tempted to shrink back from what lies ahead, as did many of his followers, we pray to remain faithful as we watch with him.
Editor’s note: We invited some of our opinion contributors to write reflections for the season of Lent. Published previously:
Molly T. Marshall | March 21 | ‘To love is to suffer.’ Saints like Julian and Hildegard point us to Jesus’ way of suffering love
Wendell Griffen | March 19 | A Lenten reflection about repentance, reparations and resistance
Kate Hanch | March 15 | A case for making the sign of the cross — even for us Baptists (and other Protestants)
Doyle Sager | March 14 | Compassion is the work of seeing, of making invisible people visible
Timothy Peoples | March 13 | Hunting for the divine spark in ourselves and others
Paul Robeson Ford | March 11 | Lent has come amid a moment of moral reckoning for American culture and the Church
Mark Wingfield | March 5 | I became a pastor who had trouble praying