The turning point of the Christian year and the Christian life is the cross. This is the crux of the matter. The dating of the year may turn on the birth of Jesus (Anno Domino - Year of the Lord) but the life of discipleship hinges on the events of Lent, Holy Week and Easter. Curiously, English use of the Latin word “crux” (literally “cross”) stems from early scientific experiments. Noting that a sign at a fork in the road was called a crux (since it took the shape of a cross), Sir Francis Bacon adopted this term to describe the crucial experiment that would either prove or disprove a theory. The drama of the gospel life is rehearsed whenever the church arrives at the moment of decision that is marked by the crux of Christ.
Lent is a five Sunday, forty day journey that has often been practiced as a hard season of increasing darkness and trouble. Its traditional disciplines of fasting and prayer remind the church of Lent’s origin as a season of baptismal preparation. It is traditionally the high time of preparation for the life-changing decision to be submerged in the font of baptism and to rise on Easter in Christ. This is an arduous but also a joyous journey. It is the way to life, to life on the other side of death.
At University Hill Congregation we have been exploring ways to recover Lent as a season of encouragement and of growth in discipleship. Since our dispersed congregation is not able to gather on Ash Wednesday we have made it a practice to include the imposition of ashes during the offering on the first Sunday of Lent. We begin Lent by remembering that we are mortals and not God, creatures and not the Creator. Then, instead of extinguishing one more candle in the Tenebrae each Sunday, we add one more symbol of discipleship each week (the Lenten verses of the hymn “Tree of Light and Awesome Mystery” provide the symbols for each week: bread, oil, water, light, cross). We invite our children and youth into the drama of choosing to commit our lives and life together to Jesus and his way.
We build energy toward the final Sunday of Lent when we mark our identity as disciples of Jesus with a service of Baptismal and Covenant Renewal. The baptized are invited to come forward to the font where, one after another, each forehead is marked with the sign of the cross using water from the font and the words: “Remember your baptism and be thankful. Walk with Christ in newness of life”. Those who come forward take the turn first receiving and then giving the blessing. Then the congregation stands and is invited to join in the Congregational Covenant Renewal - the tradition passed on to us by John Wesley: “Let me employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; Let me be full, let me be empty; Let me have all things, let me have nothing …”.
Now the story of Holy Week arrives with its aching contradictions. The promises of the disciples – like our own – are abandoned when faced with the hard reality of suffering. This way of life will lead through death. It is not a game. The church – like Peter – can hardly believe that this is good news. Like him it regularly responds by seeking to take control by changing the story (John 18:10-11) or by distancing itself from Jesus, claiming not to know him (John 18:15-18, 25-27). The crux of the matter too often offers an experiment in faithful living that reveals a church that does not choose to follow Jesus’ cruciform way.
This explains the necessity of the fifty day season of Easter. Notice how quickly the church we know gets over Easter. For many it is a day, not a seven week festival. Yet the Resurrection is the greatest mystery of all and deserves a lengthy season of celebration and of meditation. At the heart of this meditation lies the impossible possibility that Jesus returns to disciples who have left him stranded and abandoned. An Eastered people cannot help but wonder at the news that Jesus seeks out Peter of all people – Peter with his empty promises of obedience – and now, after Peter’s failure, invites him for the first time to “follow me” (John 21:19). But not Peter only. We, too, recognize ourselves in this drama and are invited to hear, as if for the first time, the call to trust and to follow the Risen Christ who seeks and finds the lost even now.
(from "Telling Time" by Edwin Searcy)