A Lenten Rest Stop
Yesterday (the Fourth Sunday in Lent) is known in some parts of the Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions as “Refreshment Sunday”. It’s a day on which Lenten liturgical rules are relaxed a bit: flowers may be placed on the altar, more celebratory music may be played, things like that. Many Anglo-Catholic churches have a special set of rose-colored vestments for this day. The idea behind Refreshment Sunday is that it is good for everyone to rest and take stock of their Lenten progress now that Easter is within sight.
The journey is a metaphor for spiritual process with deep roots in our tradition. The Exodus—the forty-year journey made by the Jews from Egypt to the Promised Land—is the major, formative story of Israel’s life. It is paired with a later journey, the Exile of the Jews into captivity in Babylon. Jesus traveled from Galilee to Jerusalem. Saul became Paul on the road to Damascus. The first name of the Christian movement was “the Way”[Acts 9:2]. Paul traversed the Mediterranean world. In the early church and Medieval period, ordinary Christians made pilgrimages to holy places as an analogue of their spiritual progress.
The 16th century Protestant Reformers (Luther, Calvin etc.) did not much like the idea of pilgrimage. What had begun as a reflective journey had become, in the Roman Catholic penitential system, a “good work” that would provide credit against sins committed. The Reformers wanted to expunge all notions of good works as a way of remitting sins. So the pilgrimage had to go—and when it went, it took with it all its positive associations, too.
If you think about it, Anglicanism is one of the Christian traditions with no holy place. (Pre-Reformation English Catholics made pilgrimages to Canterbury because it housed the relics of Thomas a Becket, the 12th century English archbishop martyr.) If you wanted to make an Anglican pilgrimage, where would you go? England has many beautiful churches and cathedrals, but not even Canterbury can claim to be our Jerusalem or Rome. Anglicans don’t ritually bathe themselves in the waters of the Stour.
Now I’m enough of a Protestant to agree that literal (or even metaphorical) journeys won’t save me. But I’m also enough of a Bible reader to realize that one way we make sense of God’s activity in our lives is to stop, look back, and reflect on where we have been. When you are in the middle of the journey, it can all seem so dark and confusing. When you get a bit farther on, you can look back and see what was really going on. That’s the way the great sweep of the Bible’s stories (what critics call “Salvation History”) works. In the middle of the desert, it feels like it’s all drought and snakes. When you get down the road, you realize that someone was sending you quail and manna, too.
The Epistle reading for Refreshment Sunday yesterday was a passage from the letter to the Ephesians (2: 1-10). Ephesians is a second generation Christian letter, written by a brilliant follower of Paul. It is a profound and beautiful meditation on the life of the church as a community on a baptismal pilgrimage. The early, authentic letters of Paul are addressed primarily to Jewish Christians, and they make the argument that the new Gentile converts (the ancestors of you and me) are real Christians even without being Jewish first. Now in the second generation, the author of Ephesians is writing to a primarily Gentile audience, and he reminds them of where they have come from:
You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ-- by grace you have been saved-- and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. [Ephesians 2: 1-10]
When you think of your life as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey, an excursion on the Way, you realize, in the words of Ephesians, “no one may boast”. We all were dead and have been made “alive together with Christ”. As the Promised Land nears, the Jews realize that they have not gotten here by their own efforts. As Easter nears, we begin to understand that someone has been with us all the way.
As we enter the Fourth Week in Lent, let us pause for refreshment, look back, and take stock. We’re on a pilgrimage not of our own making to a place we cannot even entirely imagine. Lent is not about Lent. It is about Easter. Looking back, you might just see signs of new and risen life appearing where you thought there was nothing but desert dust. Stopping, looking around, and taking in are the ways you and I can share in God’s abundant refreshment.