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Forty Days and Beyond – A look at Lent, Easter and Baptism

28 Mar

 

 

I was awakened last night with a rather fierce stomach bug.  The writing I had planned to do today has been postponed.  Kenny had earlier asked me about the meaning of the 40 days of Lent, and its relationship to Jesus’ forty days in the desert at the beginning of his ministry.  Since my husband Ashley is far better than I at writing about these wonderful subjects, he has graciously agreed to do the writing for me for this post.  I hope this answers some of your questions, and if not, please feel free to ask.  And remember, we each have our own understanding of Lent and Passion Week, leading up to the Resurrection.  Part of what makes it so wonderful is that it means different things to each of us, and the meaning changes as we grow and seek.

I will now introduce you to my husband, Ashley M. Calhoun, a retired United Methodist Church pastor, and currently serving as a research archivist for the Southeast Jurisdiction Heritage Center of the United Methodist Church.  He served as a pastor for 43 years.

Hello, Kenny. Paula speaks so fondly of you and admiringly of your spiritual journey and of the 100 days you and she are sharing on that journey. She explained that you would like to know more about the tradition of Lent. I will do my best to explain. By all means, if I don’t answer your questions, please feel free to ask whatever you would like not only about Lent but other subjects.

Here goes: The season of Lent developed over the first several centuries of Christianity. The central celebration each year from the earliest time in the first century was the Resurrection of Christ. In the beginning the date varied primarily around the Jewish-Christian practice of continuing to celebrate Passover as well as the Resurrection Day. As the Gospel was spread throughout the Roman Empire, Asia, Africa, and into Europe a debate arose as to the date of Easter which was decided at the Council of Nicaea in the third century. The date was the first Sunday after the full moon closest to the Spring equinox. Earlier the three days before Easter were considered solemn sacred days of remembering the Lord’s Supper, the crucifixion, and the burial of Jesus, called the Easter Triduum (3 days). Prior to what we now call Holy Week there developed a season of preparation for baptism of the new converts and for reinstating those who had by some serious infraction left or been separated from the congregations of Christians. By the early Medieval period that had extended to 40 weekdays meant to symbolize and parallel the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness before he began his three-year ministry. Like for Jesus, this was to be a time of soul-searching, self-denial, intense periods of prayer, and instruction in the scriptures (for Jesus he would have been searching the scriptures for his sense of calling and direction from his knowledge of the Torah and  the Prophets).

Lent has for many centuries begun with Ash Wednesday and the imposition of ashes. This is to remind us of our humanity, that from ashes we came and to ashes we will return,  and to repent and believe in the Gospel (the teachings) of Christ. Lent is an opportunity to search both our own relationship with God through prayer, search for a simpler and more dedicated spiritual life and life-style, studying scripture, and service to others. It is also a shared journey with others of the Christian faith through worship together, or study with one other like you and Paula, a few others, or a group. It is a time to remember not only who we are in relation to God, but in relation to other people, especially those in need. We often hear of the tradition of “giving something up” for Lent, which has its place, especially if it means in a parallel fashion of “taking on” acts of kindness, service, generosity, and love. There has long been the tradition of fasting, of denying ourselves certain things like meat or certain pleasures. But the purpose of that is not only self-discipline, but making something positive for others out of what we deny ourselves. For instance, taking the money that would be the equivalent of a meal and giving that to some charity who work with the poor, or spending the time we would use preparing and eating a meal to serve the poor in some way, like a food ministry.

Lent is very importantly a time of reminding ourselves of, or discovering who Christ was and is and what his life and teachings say about God and God’s desire for a deep and lasting relationship with us whom God has created in God’s image. It is a time to set our lives in order so that we practice more of what Jesus taught and lived as an example of the true humanity God created us to be.

The forty days of Lent do not include Sundays because each Sunday is a “little Easter” as some say, a celebration of Christ’s Resurrection and living presence and action through the Holy Spirit. Traditionally the worship on those Sundays is more subdued in the liturgical worship than Easter. The color purple is a symbol of penitence. The worship spaces are usually more subdued and sparse. Music is less celebratory, though the themes still remind us that Easter is coming. It depends on each denomination’s worship traditions as to how Lent is observed. Palm Sunday is an exception, at least at the beginning of the service celebrating the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem the Sunday before his arrest, trial, crucifixion, death, and burial. As a pastor I always moved in the service from the celebration of Christ being welcomed as Messiah to a reminder of The Passion of Jesus, the betrayal of Judas Iscariot, the desertion and denial of his disciples, his arrest, trials, suffering and dying. The main reason being that in fact it is a minority of church-goers who actually attend the Holy Week observances of Maundy Thursday (the Last or Lord’s Supper) and Good Friday (Crucifixion/death), or an Easter Vigil which is traditionally the time of Baptism anticipating the Resurrection of Christ. I learned early on that most go from the celebration of Palm Sunday to the joyous celebration of Easter and have no real sense of the events in Jesus life and the suffering he endured and ultimate sacrifice he made for our sakes. The Holy Week services take us through all of that and help us to die to ourselves and rise with Christ which is something we need to repeat often, not only, but at least once a year.

Baptism, as you likely know, is an initiation into the Body of Christ, the church, and into Christ himself. It is a time to repent, to wash away and leave behind the destructive aspects of one’s life and life-style, especially those things that separate us from God, our sin, but also to take on the life Christ taught us and showed us how to live. In the earliest days when the Christians were being persecuted and had to hide from the Roman and Jewish authorities in the first two centuries, they often hid in caves or in Rome and other places, the catacombs beneath the ground. These were places of burial. Baptisms were performed sometimes where there were unused tombs dug into the rock which the Christians filled with water. The convert may have stripped naked leaving behind his or her old clothes, then were immersed, symbolizing dying to their old life, and when they rose out of the water they were given a whole new set of clothes, symbolizing their new birth into Christ. Likely not all converts went to that length, but regardless did go through a similar symbolic ritual. That is still practiced today in some Roman Catholic churches during the Easter VIgil from Saturday sundown until just before dawn,  and in some reformed traditions, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, etc. which practice immersion. Other Roman Catholic churches, the Church of England, Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, etc. use the tradition of sprinkling or pouring of water and give the option of immersion, and practice baptism of all ages from infancy to adulthood, at any stage of life. Our tradition looks not upon the amount of water or the age but the symbolic washing. When to baptize and by what method, to believers versus naming and welcoming someone too young to make their own personal commitment, has been a two-millenium long debate and one of the reasons we have different traditions and theologies of baptism among other matters of interpretation.

Those of us who offer infant or childhood baptism also offer Confirmation which is a time to commit to the following Christ on one’s own, to confirm the vows and commitment that the parents and sponsors made  to affirm their own faith but also to raise the child to know about Jesus, to attend church, and learn the scriptures and to practice the teachings of Jesus in their homes and in relation to others. The promises made in confirmation are to live a life that is following the teaching and example of Christ, to participate fully in the life of the church with their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service and their witness for Christ. The congregation renews their vows and pledges to support newly confirmed members and to nurture them as they grow in their faith. The same is true at baptism in our tradition. We also give opportunities at least yearly to renew our baptismal vows, usually at the beginning of a new year or at the time we remember Jesus’ baptism during the season of Epiphany which begins 12 days after Christmas, celebrating the visit of the Magi, which was those outside of Judaism recognizing Jesus as Messiah. The first Sunday after the Day of Epiphany is traditionally the time we celebrate the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist.

In Baptism the Christian community ritualistically offers the opportunity for entering a new relationship with God through symbolically dying and rising to Christ, God the Holy spirit is the baptizer. It is God’s action in that person which brings new birth and new life.

Perhaps that is more than enough to digest in one reading. I hope this is helpful. Please let me know if you  have unanswered questions about Lent or things I have written.

May God bless you on your journey and every day of your life.

Ashley Calhoun (Hubs)

Hi Kenny!  It’s me!  I’m feeling better – I guess this bug only decided to stick around for 24 hours.  It really enjoyed itself while it was with me, though!  😆

Didn’t I tell you Ashley was wonderful?  TTYL – I’ll see you on the road and at the campfire.  Ashley might join us there too.

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5 Comments

Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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5 responses to “Forty Days and Beyond – A look at Lent, Easter and Baptism

  1. kolembo

    March 28, 2012 at 07:39

    Oh, absolutely!

    This is great, thanks!

    Very full, very appreciated. I had no idea that the 40 days that they talk about was jesus in the desert BEFORE he began his ministry. Is it covered in the Bible? Where?

    It is actually THIS that had me try Lent as a season (I’m born Baptist so Lent has never been on the radar, really). There is some place at the end, I recall, where he meets the devil who asks him to jump off a cliff?

    It’s so good to know all this stuff about Lent now…gonna swath myself in purple – or is that wearing my righteousness on my sleeve? Showing off!

    I have done the full easter pilgrimage before – from Palm Sunday, through Good Friday, upto the Ressurection.

    It was a truly special time for me with a group of people in London called ‘The Club House’. I think they were Anglican.

    At the end though, Jesus died for me, and ceased being a man. I lost him as a personal friend. He became the ‘resurrected superman’, and I’ve been looking for him ever since.

    I understand deeply his meaning and the role he played – but somehow I lost the deep, easy, personal relationship I had.

    I’m baptised immersion – that was fun! But at fifteen, I don’t know how meaningful that is.

    Thank you again for this wonderful summary, it’s excellent.

    In my thoughts for the day,

    Onward.

     
  2. Paula Tohline Calhoun

    March 28, 2012 at 21:23

    You opening questions, I can answer (believe it or not! 😆 ) You can find the story of Jesus’ baptism, time in the desert, and his temptation in the Gospel of Luke. Begin with Chapter 3, and read on through Chapter 4. Chapter 3 begins with John the Baptist’s ministry and closes with the baptism of Jesus, followed by his genealogy (through Joseph, oddly enough!). Chapter 4 begins with Jesus’ time on the desert – the so-called “40 days,” (the number 40 being a reference not to a specific amount of time, but standing for what was considered a long time, or extended period of time, i.e. the flood being 40 days and 40 nights). His time in the desert was his time of true temptation. I had an epiphany about that one time – I don’t know why it eluded me for so long, but in any event, it occurred to me that jests was truly tempted. i mean, REALLY tempted. He must have wondered for some time, and struggled and prayed over whether to perform the miracles that the devil asked him to do in exchange for instant popularity.

    This was important for me to understand, because I think that sometimes I failed to recognize that Jesus was truly human, When I used to consider him, I only thought of him as divine – incapable of sin, therefore what would be the big deal about him rebuking the devil? It would have “come naturally!” But how much more meaningful for me – for all of us humans – that Jesus was fully human as well. He felt the keen sharp ache of temptation. Yet, through prayer he was provided the way out and chose the better part. We are given the pattern for overcoming temptation through Luke’s account. The scriptures that Jesus had learned as a young Jewish child, the words he had committed to memory as any Jewish boy of his time and place would have done, were brought to his mind when they were most needed.

    That is the very best reason for memorizing scripture. When it is in our hearts – sometimes even hidden there – as long as it has been planted, then the Holy Spirit came bring it to our minds when we most need it. We don’t have to remember the references, like “as it says in Genesis 4:21,” or it says in “Matthew 13:12,” etc. Just the words. Knowing the scriptures can be life saving and soul saving at the times when they are most needed. Jesus didn’t quote the references, but he frequently quoted scripture when he most needed it. From the cross, he sang from the Psalms, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” I say “sang,” because I learned something just the other day. It brought tears to my eyes when I heard this: In the ancient Hebrew tradition, the Psalms were always sung! They were used in times of worship and praise, and they weren’t only spoken. Can you imagine Jesus singing the Psalms from the cross? I shiver just thinking of it. What would it have been like to have been there and witnessed that? Wouldn’t our hearts have burned within us?

    You wrote that you lost your connection with the man Jesus after his resurrection, because you felt you could no longer relate to his pure divinity. I have not had that particular barrier – although I certainly understand it – because I was raised by parents who believed strongly in the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus told us that after his resurrection and ascension that he would return to us in a way in which he could be with us, with each and every one of us – always and forever. He returned to us in the form. That is the Jesus that we are walking with at this very moment – our Paraclete – our friend, our Savior, and our Lord – the sweet Holy Spirit. The HS is as relatable and relevant as any human could ever be, and more so, because s/he speaks to us exactly where we are, and knows us better than any friend, yet loves us completely and unconditionally. Our Paraclete – our Jesus now is the “one who walks along beside” us.

    I will see you tonight, as usual. Holy Week is approaching so quickly. Hard to believe that the day of resurrection is coming again; as always we must face the Passion before it. All the agony of that week makes the celebration hugely significant for us, who dare and choose to call ourselves Christian. We are so blessed.

    One other thing: I had a dream the other night in which we were walking together on the road. It was a beautiful day – and i asked you to come to visit me here in the States. You said that you would try, and I told you to be sure to let your partner know that he is welcome as well. I pictured you attending our church, but even more so, I envisioned the four of us (Ashley, too) just having a marvelous time together. Laughing and joking just as we have on the road this past many days. So – the invitation is open to you. If it ever becomes possible for you to come, you have a place to stay, and a room of your own in which to spend your visit. Think about it. Maybe it wasn’t just an idle dream. North Carolina is known for being the location site for many films!

    Shalom
    Paula

     
    • Paula Tohline Calhoun

      March 28, 2012 at 21:26

      Please make a correction: In the third from last line of the first paragraph above, it reads, “jests was truly tempted.” Please make that “Jesus was truly tempted.” My auto correct made a boo-boo, and I failed to notice it in time! Sorry!

       
  3. kolembo

    March 29, 2012 at 13:25

    Paula! Can I just tell you that I had ‘the dream’ too!
    And it was very vivid, a tall thin black man with impeccable English, a short square white man who loves animals and a silver haired (I didn’t have reference points!) couple, worshiping in church!
    Honestly!
    I even saw the airport as we left, and it was super. The feeling was the thing, it was a feeling of lightness, and joy, and real, genuine enjoyment of company. I woke up smiling, and remembered every detail!

    Thanks for the reference to Luke, I’m going to go through it today. It’s what I’d been looking for!

    Yes, I want to meet Jesus the man now. The Holy Spirit and Soverignity of God over life are no problem for me. Africans have always have a supernatural relationship with God anyway, and there is no question about it’s ‘reality’.

    It’s just that my relationship with God is now characterised sort of like me and an ant.

    I wonder what possible importance I can have in the scheme of things. And yes, I know I’m important in ‘the plan’ but ‘the plan’ is obscure and is his anyway.

    I worship with great reverence, but long ago, I remember Jesus just as a friend. Beside me.

    I remember laughing.

     

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