Commentary: Christ as the center of Lent

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Commentary: Christ as the center of Lent

An e-Review commentary by Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker | Feb. 18, 2010 {1142}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at
(2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2)
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent — the season when we prepare for the celebration of Easter. It is the most intense spiritual season of the whole Christian year.
It would be easy to lose our way during this season.

Photo by Greg Moore

For some, Lent is a season of personal introspection. It begins with the imposition of ashes with the reminder, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” That’s a shocking reminder. It says, “You are not going to live forever, and it is high time you examine your life.”

We do need some introspection in our lives. We are all busy, and busy people do not stop and look within themselves. Lent is an invitation to do that.
For others, Lent is a season for personal sacrifice. Lent originated as a time for fasting. In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church dominated society, and so the law was that meat was forbidden during Lent. Instead of meat, people ate fish. After the Protestant Reformation, Protestant countries abolished the laws prohibiting meat during Lent, and it virtually destroyed the fishing industry in the 16th century. Yet, Christians voluntarily continued some kind of fasting during Lent. Today, many of us make a decision to “give up” something for Lent — meat, dairy products, eggs, desserts and so on. In modern times, we have often coupled giving up something and using the money we saved to help others. For example, I could give up desserts and give the money I save to help the people of Haiti.
Both of these practices — personal introspection and personal sacrifice — have a place in our lives, especially during the season of Lent. However, even these kinds of good practices might cause us to lose our way during this season. We can lose our way when we put the emphasis of our spiritual lives on ourselves. That is, we think that our spiritual life is about who we are and what we do. We are looking into ourselves, and we are doing things to make ourselves better. If we think of our spiritual life in this way, then we are assuming that salvation is a self-help project. If we think salvation depends upon our own self-examination or action, then we have indeed lost our way as Christians.

The Christian perspective is that salvation is the gift of Jesus Christ, not something we can accomplish by our own insights or actions. That is why, at the beginning of Lent, it is right to listen to the words of the apostle Paul, who proclaims to us the salvation that is offered by Jesus Christ.

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Now the message that Paul proclaims about Christ is not for babies. I mean, we cannot hear what Paul has to say if we don’t want to learn anything. Paul is going to tell us about the deep mystery of God’s action in the world through Jesus Christ. What he has to tell us is not simple. It will offend our pride in our own reason and our sense of self-sufficiency. But if we will listen and believe, then what he tells us about Christ will show us the way to salvation.

The first thing Paul tells us is that we should no longer view Christ from a human point of view. Paul admits that once we did view Christ from a human point of view, but we should not view him in this way any longer. That is to say, once we thought of Jesus as a particular human being who lived at a particular time and in a particular place, but now we should see him differently.

The reason Paul says we should no longer view Christ from a human point of view is because God has raised Jesus from the dead and revealed him to be the Lord and Savior of the world. Not only that, but God has also made Christ the head of the church. Now Christ is a Presence that fills the church and fills the whole world.
If we still think of Christ as he once was, as Jesus of Nazareth whose life is reported in the Gospels, then we cannot know him. The way we know him is through his Presence. So those who think we can know Christ just by studying his teaching in the Gospels have not yet really known him. Or, those who think we can know Christ by studying scholars’ search for the so-called “historical Jesus” have not yet really known him. No, Christ’s Presence comes to us by faith in him as our Lord and Savior, and it is especially given to us when we celebrate the Eucharist or Holy Communion. Knowing Christ is not trying to remember somebody who lived 2,000 years ago, but encountering the Presence that was revealed in that person’s life long ago and which is with us today.
The second thing Paul tells us is that when Christ was revealed in the world, God was doing something in him that has eternal, historical and personal effect. Or, as Paul says, “In Christ God was reconciling the world to himself.”

Here Paul is specifically speaking of Christ’s death on the cross. Jesus’ death on the cross was not a human tragedy or some martyrdom like Socrates’ death. No, his death was the climax of God’s plan of salvation to reconcile the world to himself. God was the actor in Jesus’ death on the cross, and Jesus was the one through whom God was acting because Jesus was the Christ — that is, the Messiah of Israel.

God’s plan of salvation was through God’s chosen people of Israel. But Israel had failed to fulfill God’s purpose. Israel had broken the covenant with God, and it had kept knowledge of God to itself, rather than share it with the world. The Messiah, when he came, was Israel. The Messiah kept the covenant with God and was the one who knew no sin. When he died, his death brought the story of Israel to its end so that it might start all over again.

How did the story of Israel end? It ended with God forgiving the sin of the chosen people who had broken the covenant and reconciling Israel to God. God turned Israel’s rejection of the Messiah into an act of redemption whereby Israel’s sin was placed on the Messiah and taken away.

And, how did the story of Israel start all over again? The Messiah was raised from the dead to be the beginning of a new Israel. That is why the risen Messiah sent the 12 apostles, who represented the 12 tribes of Israel, to go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to observe all that he commanded them.
Paul sums up this story of what God has done when Christ came into the world by saying simply, “In Christ God was reconciling the world unto himself.”
So then, there is no spiritual life without Jesus Christ. Of course, there is a natural spiritual life human beings can have that involves meditation, engagement with the arts, like music and literature, and being connected with nature. That is all good, and the natural spiritual life brings much satisfaction. But if spiritual life is reconciliation with God — and through reconciliation with God, reconciliation with others — then we need to trust in the God who reconciled the world in Jesus Christ. A bridge has been built between God and us, and that bridge is the cross of Christ.
The third thing Paul tells us is to be reconciled with God now! God’s plan of salvation has been accomplished in history once and for all in the coming of Christ. We cannot change what God has done. No matter what we think, say or do, in Christ God has reconciled the world to himself. Yet, we are given a part to play in this drama of salvation, and that is to accept what God has done for us, which we cannot do for ourselves, and to live by faith in this reality right now.
As Paul urges us, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation.”
You see, I think this is the true purpose of Ash Wednesday and this intense spiritual season called Lent. It is the day to know Christ, not from a human point of view, but from the point of view of God’s plan of salvation. It is the day to put our trust in Christ’s Presence now.
When we do that, then we will become what Paul calls “a new creation.” We become a part of God’s reconciliation of the world to himself. We become a part of a new creation God is bringing to fulfillment. Indeed, personally we become new creatures. We are forgiven our sins and given the power to be the persons God created us to be.
Then the role of introspection is not to look into ourselves as our own selves, but ourselves as new creatures in Christ and to receive Christ’s Presence to become new. Then the role of sacrifice is not to earn our salvation, but to make real our participation in Christ’s life, which is a life of self-offering for the world. When we make Christ the center of Lent, then it is an intense spiritual season of participating in the life of Christ, who died for us and who lives in us.
(Whitaker gave this message Feb. 17, Ash Wednesday, during worship at the Florida Conference Center.)
News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando

*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference

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