Thursday, March 10, 2011

Lent: Journeying to the "Dark Side" With Jesus

Lent calls us to journey to the “dark side” with Jesus and contemplate his suffering and death on the cross. Many choose to skip this journey, and focus almost exclusively on resurrection. But if we choose not to follow Jesus to the foot of the cross, how can we possibly grasp the full significance of the empty tomb on Easter Morning?

Lent is a season in our Christian calendar when we focus on the hardship, suffering, and death of Jesus—we might call it that “dark side” of Jesus. During this season, the lectionary scripture readings follow Jesus from the “bright light” of the Mount of Transfiguration as he descends to the “darkness” of cross of Calvary… and in due time… rises again on Easter morning.

Lent is certainly not as upbeat as Advent and Christmas. Most of us would probably rather skip directly from Christmas to Easter Sunday. In fact, many Christians take that quite literally—i.e., they attend church on Christmas and then don’t come back until Easter. There was a time when Lent was the season where new converts to Christianity were prepared for Baptism, but that isn’t so much the case anymore. (We usually do this on Easter or Pentecost Sunday since attendance is higher those weeks.)

In our modern Western individualistic, consumer-driven culture, it seems that entering into the Lenten journey is now seen as optional. (Until fairly recently, you would be hard pressed to find an Ash Wednesday service in most Protestant churches.) If you choose to do the whole sackcloth and ashes thing during Lent, that’s great, but it’s not required. But if we choose not to journey to the “dark side” with Jesus during Lent then I have to wonder just how meaningful his resurrection can possibly be to us?

In general, our modern world is a world of unbelievable personal comfort and convenience and we don’t like to spend too much time thinking about the “dark side” of life. We are apt to “change the subject” quickly and move on to more pleasant conversation. That may explain why churches are often packed to capacity on Easter Sunday, but not very crowded during Lent. It’s not all that difficult to understand really: Resurrection is simply more uplifting than hardship, suffering, and death!

Jesus experienced a bit of this during his ministry. Every time Jesus bought up the idea that the Messiah would have to suffer and die, his disciples really wanted to “change the subject” and talk about something else more pleasant. They certainly didn’t want to believe that their Messiah would have to die! How could he be the liberating king who would lead the Jews to freedom if he ended up getting arrested and killed by the very people who were holding the Jewish people in bondage? They just couldn’t (or wouldn’t?) allow themselves to comprehend that suffering and death were part of the package. Eventually they would learn… but not until well after the resurrection.

My wife and I have also lived this reality. Most know that we gave birth to twin girls in May 2008; Rebecca was healthy but Hope never breathed on her own and passed from life support to life eternal two days after her birth. Naturally the loss of our daughter had a tremendous impact on both of us and we really needed to be able to talk about it. But finding a safe place to do that was hard—at times it seemed all but impossible! It seemed like whenever we would bring up our grief, whether it be with our family or in our church, the subject was quickly changed and it became very clear that we were “expected” to talk about more pleasant things. Like the disciples who didn’t want to hear Jesus talking about his impending suffering and death, our friends and family didn’t seem to want to hear too many of the details of the “dark side” of our life. I’m quite sure that others could share similar experiences as they have lived through seasons of hardship, suffering, and death. I probably have done the same thing when faced with someone else’s grief. The fact is, when our journey takes us to the “darker side” of life it tends to be a lonely road for us to walk.

Lent is a time when we intentionally choose to journey to the “dark side” with Jesus. And I believe that until we stop viewing the “Lenten Journey” as optional—it wasn’t for Jesus and it’s not for us—we will never fully experience the full impact of the resurrection on Easter Sunday.

If we embark on the “Lenten Journey” with Christ from Caesarea–Philippi to Jerusalem that starts in the bright light of the transfiguration, and we stick with him all the way to the foot of the cross on Good Friday, we will inevitably be changed along the way[1]. Something happens to us when we are in the darkness that can happen in no other place. When we voluntarily choose to enter into hardship, suffering, and death—both our own and Jesus’—it forces us to move closer to God. We reach a place where we cannot pierce the darkness on our own. God must illuminate the path ahead and guide our every step. God must remove the obstacles that prevent us from “seeing” and experiencing the intimate relationship we were created to enjoy with our Creator. Only God can purge away those things that separate us from that union.

But of course we would prefer to skip over the darkness. As he did with his first followers, Jesus again and again asks us to stay with him there in the darkness, but at every turn we try and avoid it. The darkness may teach us lessons vitally important to our formation as followers of Christ, but it also tends to bring with pain and suffering, and none of us like that. We all would like to think that we will stick with Jesus no matter what happens, but it’s surprising what happens when we are put under pressure. That’s when the “rubber hits the road” and we see what’s really inside us. And sometimes, to be frank, it’s not pretty.

Consider the earliest followers of Jesus as an example. Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied Jesus, and every single one of his followers abandoned him in his darkest hour. But lest we be tempted to point fingers at them—When the darkness descends on our lives aren’t we all capable of betraying, denying, and abandoning Jesus?

As we follow Christ’s Lenten Journey to the end, it passes through dark places like the Upper Room, Gethsemane, and Golgotha. And if we would follow after Jesus, then we too must be willing to go to these kinds of places and stay there for however long is necessary. We must not expend all our energy trying to avoid the shadows, but rather allow them to do their work in our lives. The good news is we don’t have to make these dark journeys by ourselves. In Jesus, we have someone who has already been “there and back again” as it were; God promises to always be “with us” even in the darkest of places; and the Holy Spirit will serve as our guide. I pray that as we embark on the Lenten journey this year, you and I will be willing to go wherever it leads us, and drawn closer to God. I hope our journey opens us up to experience the reality of the risen Lord in our lives like never before.

[1] The “Lenten Journey” I reference is most clearly depicted in Mark’s Gospel—Chapters 8­–15. See The Last Week, Chapter 4, pp. 91-107.

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