One of the interesting aspects of the season of Lent for me is that my earliest and in some deepest encounters with Lent came not through the liturgical cycle of contemporary Christianity, Episcopal or otherwise, but rather because I was trained as a historian of Christianity. Lent’s roots grow deep in the Christian tradition, dating back to the practices of early Christianity. In the fourth century, and perhaps earlier, it was common practice for baptism to occur primarily at the great Vigil of Easter, the wonderful celebration of Christ’s resurrection that begins in darkness on Saturday night, and traditionally ended at the first light of Easter Day. In preparation for baptism, those who had committed themselves to undertake initiation prepared by a season of fasting and learning.
In the Middle Ages, with Christianity becoming the dominant religion in Europe, those practices changed and Lent became a penitential season. By the later Middle Ages, say the fourteenth century, the church’s focus was on preparing the faithful not just for Easter, but for what had become a widespread custom that everyone had to make a confession and be absolved of their sins before receiving Easter communion. Accordingly, a whole industry of preachers developed, focused on encouraging the people to penitence. Then as now, preachers often resorted to imagery of an angry and vengeful God in order to inspire their listeners to repentance.
Even in so namby-pamby a denomination as the Episcopal Church, Lent often seems to be a time when we focus on God’s anger and justice, the terrifying prospect of an eternity in hell, in order to inspire appropriate repentance. We fast and pray, wallow in our misery and sinfulness, as well as in the suffering of Jesus Christ, in order to turn ourselves away from evil and toward God.
As I said last week, I’m increasingly uncertain of how Lent is experienced by most Christians. Perhaps the extent of it is to notice that we’ve changed liturgical colors, and perhaps if we really pay attention, we’ll realize that “alleluias” have been banned, that the confession is moved from the middle to the beginning of the service. That may be pretty much it. And it may be that even that makes us a little bit uncomfortable—a season of repentance? All that talk of sin? For some of us, for many of us, Lent may make us very uncomfortable, bringing up feelings of shame and guilt, of an angry God who we can’t please or placate. Some of us, many of us, may carry scars from encounters with Christianity in our past that deeply wounded us.
On the surface, our lessons may do little more than reinforce such negative stereotypes and reinforce our feelings of guilt and fear. The gospel story mentions the antipathy between Herod and Jesus. Jesus’ reference to Jerusalem stoning and killing the prophets is itself a foreshadowing of Jesus’ crucifixion. The eerie story from Genesis describes the covenant Yahweh made with Abram, includes killed animals, terrifying darkness, a fire pot and a torch. If we put an image of that story in our minds, we may be more reminded of a ghost story or a horror movie than a biblical text.
Nonetheless, closer reflection opens up for us images of a very different God.
The story tells of the covenant Yahweh made with Abram. It consists of two promises made by God. The first was to give Abram a son, to make of his descendants a mighty nation. The second was to give to him and his descendants the promised land. What’s interesting about those promises is that they are so long deferred. Isaac, Abraham’s son is born when Abraham is 100 years old and there’s no sign that either will be the father of a mighty and numerous nation. And the promised land is even less of a reality. Throughout the book of Genesis, the only land that Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob actually possess legally is the piece of property Abraham purchased on which to bury his wife Sarah. The promise remained unfulfilled, but the faith of the patriarchs and matriarchs persisted.
Although covenant is a key theme in scripture, it’s almost as strange a notion to moderns as the subsequent description of the ceremony. We might think of it as a treaty, for in many cases, biblical covenants share a great deal with ancient treaties that have been discovered. At its heart is God’s promise. As we see in this text, Abram has a hard time trusting in that promise. He wants to work out his descendants on his own (here in c. 15, later with Ishmael, too). Here, Yahweh shows him the stars in the sky, and says, “So shall your descendants be.” And in that powerful verse used later by Paul, “Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.”
Then comes the ceremony. Abram splits animals in half, lays them out, and “a smoking fire pot and a torch passed between these pieces.” In ancient covenant ceremonies, parties to the treaty passed between similarly-killed animals and promised that if they broke the covenant, the offender would be destroyed as these animals were killed.
In this eerie story, we encounter both the otherness of the text and the otherness of God. Various details contribute to its spookiness–Abraham falls into deep sleep, there’s a terrifying darkness. The story’s ambiguity contributes to its strangeness. Does this take place in a dream, a vision?
In spite of all of that strangeness and otherness, relics of a far distant age, there is also reassurance. There is God’s promise, and those wonderful words, Abram believed, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Here “righteousness” doesn’t have to do with holiness, but rather with being in right relationship with God. Whatever his doubts now or in the future, Yahweh’s promise to Abram will remain true, and Abram will know that God is with him, and he with God.
The Psalm speaks of a similar experience of a God who is trustworthy and protective: The Lord is my light and my salvation, in whom then shall I fear? The Psalmist sings of his experience of a God who delivered him from his distress, his joy in that, and his desire to express that joy in worship in the temple. As comforting as the words of this Psalm may be, there may be no more reassuring image of God in all of scripture, than the words Jesus uses to describe his feelings for Jerusalem: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”
Think about it for a moment. Perhaps you don’t find it surprising but Jesus is using feminine imagery, and an image from the animal kingdom, to describe his love and care for Jerusalem. And by extension, because we believe that Jesus himself reveals God, we can infer that to use such imagery of God may help us understand God better. I suppose it’s possible to be offended that God might love and care for us like a mother hen cares for her chicks. I for one, find that image of great comfort and consolation.
To imagine, and yes, to experience God in all of these ways, as a loving mother, as helper in time of need, and as a God who keeps God’s promises, all of that should be of great comfort. To know that, in spite of who we are and what we’ve done, in spite of our experience of our own frailty, humanity, and shortcomings, to know that God loves us, cares for us, that God’s promises of salvation are as true for us as they were for Abram three thousand years ago, what wonderful good news that is! And if that’s the message of Lent, we should proclaim it all year round!