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Deconstructing Lent: a Sermon by Bernard Schlager

 This post is adapted from a sermon given by Bernie Schlager at PSR’s Community Chapel on March 5th, 2024  (Reading: Isaiah 58: 3-7) 

It was a dark and stormy night and thank God for… thank God for… hymnody?  

While sailing from England to North America in 1735, a ship carrying the brothers and Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley was struck by a terrifying and life-threatening storm.  

Fearing for their lives, some of the English passengers on board asked John to lead them in prayer. So terrified were they that one passenger brought their infant child to John to baptize, fearing they might all be killed by the storm that continued to toss, turn, and pummel them and their fragile ship.  

As the storm raged on, John was drawn into a circle of prayer with some German Moravians. Suddenly, an enormous wave overcame the vessel and flooded many of the passengers’ cabins with a deluge of water. It really had become almost too much to bear. 

While Wesley’s fellow English shipmates responded to the threat of imminent death by screaming in fear, the Moravians, both adults and children, continued to sing their hymns. All the while maintaining an odd but amazing sense of calm as the storm continued its terrifying assault. 

Later, after the storm had finally ended, evaporating into calm, John asked one of the Moravians how they were able to carry on with their hymn singing while facing a seemingly certain death by drowning. The Moravian answered simply that they kept on singing because they were unafraid to die for, they knew that God would continue to care for them – whether in life or in death. 

Writing about this event and the faith of his Moravian travel companions shortly thereafter in his journal entry from 25 January 1736, John Wesley penned these few words: “This was the most glorious day that I have yet seen.” 

Now, I’m not sure what to make of the story I’ve just recounted, but I do know that there are times in my life (and how about yours?) when the storms of life—of sadness and disappointment, hopelessness and even despair, loss and death—can seem to be too much to bear. 

Not to mention the disorientation and sense of being tossed about today in a nation and a world flooded with disinformation, overtaken at times by waves of hatred, and inundated by storms of conflict. At those times I realize that I need to grab hold of something, of someone, of some community, of some beliefs. To right myself, to steady myself, and to navigate to the calm at the end of these storms. 

But seriously, riding out a life-threatening storm at sea by singing a hymn? 

I’m here this morning to preach on deconstructing Lent and, as I’ve thought about it, the Lenten season is or can be about so much. 

Lent can be

About a “taking apart” of an unhealthy focus on ourselves, on our own comforts, and our unwillingness to de-center ourselves in service to others. 

About a rending of garments (figuratively or otherwise) in ways that encourage us to acknowledge a need to ask forgiveness for wrongs that we have committed against others, including the wrongs we have wrought against this created world that we are destroying. 

About a healthy denial of self in which we give up living as if we were the sun and not just one planet among many, many other planets in a solar system, a universe of co-existence. 

About an embrace of the reality of our own mortality (“remember that are you dust…” we were told on Ash Wednesday) so that we might live as hopeful pilgrims and temporary wayfarers whose destiny is intimately and ultimately bound up with all other beings, and with all of creation. 

Lent can be about all of this so that we might see this Lenten season as moving us toward hope and renewal, as moving us into and out of the desert, and as calling us from death to new life. 

But back to hymnody… 

“Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days,” by Claudia Hernaman

I. Lord, Who throughout these forty days

For us didst fast and pray, 

Teach us with Thee to mourn our sins

And close by Thee to stay. 

This hymn is the one hymn I connect most with Lent. Perhaps because I find it among my earliest memories of these weeks before Easter and because it also happens to be one of the first hymns that I can remember singing as a child: at Sunday and daily school Masses; during weekly Stations of the Cross in Lent; and even during a Holy Week pilgrimage that I made one year to Chimayó, New Mexico. 

And even now, as we are more than halfway through this season of Lent, I find myself humming the hymn tune chosen for this hymn text. Despite its use of words like Thou, Didst, Thy, Wouldst, Thee, and Shouldst, and despite a theology that strikes me as archaic, gloomy, and even trite. Why did the words of this hymn, which remained virtually unknown from the date of its composition in England in the early 1870s to the 1960s, become such a mainstay in many mainline Protestant and Catholic hymnals in the US by the early 1970s? What about it struck a chord with contemporary Christians? 

Martin Luther once said, “Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise [because] the gift of language combined with the gift of song was given to us so that we should proclaim the Word of God through music.”  

If there is some truth to Luther’s words, then I turn to the words of These Forty Days of Lent as a backdrop for my attempt to deconstruct my Lenten memories and then to reconstruct an understanding of what Lent can be. Further, I’ll interrogate this simple hymn as we try to move from deconstructing this penitential season of Lent to reconstructing a Lent that is more than that. 

Not long after the birth of the Christian movement some early followers of Jesus of Nazareth were so moved by the communal memory of his 40 days in the desert (days of fasting and prayer, as this hymn describes) that they instituted for themselves an annual 40-day time of preparation for the celebration of his Resurrection. By the end of the fourth century this season of Lent was observed by Christians throughout the ancient world. 

Like the ancient Hebrews who after their Exodus from slavery in Egypt wandered in the desert for 40 years before entering the Land Promised them these followers of Jesus in the early churches looked upon Lent as their own wandering in a desert of penance and self-denial. Not penance for its own sake, but as a time of preparation for the Promised Land, the Promised Celebration, of Easter. 

Some also understood Lent to reflect the human journey itself. Our personal life journeys can be seen as a lifelong pilgrimage leading to the Promised Land, an afterlife of joy and celebration. 

For those of us who live in the northern hemisphere, these 40 Days of Lent are also a time of transition from Winter to Spring. In fact, the word “Lent” comes from the old English word for Spring, a season that rescues us from barrenness, from fallowness, and from seeming death. The Winter-Spring transition of Lent is a period of preparation for new life, for rebirth, for Spring, and for Easter. 

We might also think of the “lint” of Lent: those parts of ourselves that we cover up, we hide. Those “things” under the surface of our lives that we resist “cleaning out” even as we know that such a cleaning is needed. 

And let us not forget the countless people who have come before us in this “Jesus movement” who have embraced this 40-day period of Lent in imitation of Jesus’s own desert experience which, the Gospel stories tell us, saw him fast and pray and face the very-real human temptations of pleasure-seeking, power, and even the temptation to test the Divine so that he might be rescued from the all too human experiences of hunger, feelings of loss of control, and the realization of powerlessness. Things that we all know so well. 

II. As Thou with Satan didst contend,

And didst the victory win, 

O give us strength in Thee to fight,

In Thee to conquer sin. 

 Wait… Satan? 

Is there really a being called Satan, Lucifer, the “Light Bearer,” the one who, as this stanza of the hymn has us sing, tempted Jesus in the desert? And who, according to European medieval legend that grew to become a powerful theology (or rather demonology) in Western Christianities, the devil who engaged in combat with Jesus in the desert? 

I don’t know about the existence of a Satan, but evil itself: yes. I accept and understand the reality of evil because, of course, there is evil in our world. Call it what you will, the devil, Satan, the snake in a garden, the reality of oppression when we humans treat one another, and other beings in this gift of creation, with an utter disregard for their value and dignity. 

Whatever we call it, we all contend with evil in our lives – and not just during Lent, of course. 

If we call ourselves followers of Jesus, or the prophets, or have a spirituality rooted in a conviction that we have a purpose in life, a purpose that entails living beyond ourselves and our own families, tribes, and communities, then we, too, are called to name injustice in our world and to work against those many injustices that exist in our world today. 

More than calling us to undertake penance, self-denial, fasting, and face our temptations in life, our spiritual traditions call upon us to do the work of justice-making, the very work that the prophet Isaiah writes about in the reading that we’ve heard proclaimed here this morning. 

While we may find purpose in fasting and humbling ourselves through practices of penance, Isaiah challenges us to embrace a “kind of fasting” that the Divine calls us to embrace. In the words of this prophet Isaiah, we are called to a fasting that leads to loosening the chains of injustice and untying the cords of the yoke [and] setting the oppressed free [Isaiah 58: 6]. 

 III. As Thou didst hunger bear, and thirst,

So teach us, gracious Lord, 

To die to self, and chiefly live

By Thy most holy Word. 

Isaiah continues, “Why have we fasted, and you, O Lord, have not noticed?” [58:3]. In response, we hear the Divine tell us that fasting, bowing one’s head, and even lying in sackcloth and ashes is not enough. 

In fact, if self-denial is all we embrace when we engage in penance, as in this season of Lent, then we are missing the point. Or, given my opening story, we are missing the boat. 

Rather, the kind of fasting that we are called to embrace involves, to quote the prophet again, “sharing food with the hungry, providing the poor wanderer, the immigrant, with shelter, and clothing the naked.” 

For we know that penance without purpose is empty. That fasting from food without fasting from focusing selfishly on ourselves alone – is useless. That denying ourselves without also turning our energies, and committing our lives, to serving others is a dead end. That Lent without the hope of Easter is meaningless. 

Dying to self is a means to an end or, as Claudia Hernaman, the composer of this hymn’s text put it, to die to self is to live in accordance with the God’s Word. To follow (for some of us) the example of Jesus and so many others in our various spiritual traditions, our ancestries, our families, our communities, and our day-to-day lives – those who have lived purposefully and selflessly for something – for some ones – beyond themselves. 

  IV. And through these days of penitence,

And through Thy Passiontide,

Yea, evermore in life and death, 

Jesus, with us abide. 

As Lent invites us to consider once again Jesus’ time in the desert, 40 days of fasting and facing evil, we must not forget to lift up what follows this experience: Jesus left the desert to begin his work of ministry within the world. A ministry “to preach the Message of good news to the poor, to announce pardon to prisoners, recovery of sight to the blind, and to set the burdened and battered free.” 

These are the words of the prophet Isaiah that, the Gospel of Luke tells us, Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue immediately upon leaving his 40 days in the desert. 

Perhaps today, we might consider deconstructing (and then reconstructing) our own attempts to live out this Lent. And as we deconstruct our ideas about Lent, we can come to see these days not merely as a time to purify or refresh or to reflect upon ourselves and our lives. These days of reflection and refreshment don’t necessarily entail self-denial for everyone, or at least not self-denial without a greater reason or purpose. 

But We CAN deconstruct our Lenten – or Lent-like – practices as a way to prepare ourselves regularly and continuously for the ongoing work that we are called to do in the world: 

To see penance as preparation; 

To understand fasting from our comforts as a way to hear more clearly, and respond more selflessly, to the cry of those in need; 

We should embrace self-denial as one way of turning our attention away from ourselves and recommit ourselves to becoming the “spiritually rooted leaders with the vision, resilience, and skill to create a world where all can thrive” we describe in PSR’s mission statement. 

For Lent without Easter, or time alone in the desert without finding ways to be of service to others in need, is a missed opportunity. It risks making Lent an endless wandering in a desert of self-absorption without hope of arriving at a Land of Promise that celebrates the possibility of a world where all beings can thrive and abide together (as the hymn speaks of abiding with Jesus) in harmony and peace and love. 

V. Abide with us, that so, this life

Of suffering once past, 

An Easter of unending joy

We may attain at last!

This final stanza of this hymn brings us, at last, to a promised “Easter of unending joy.” That is, after singing about 

Fasting and prayer (Stanza 1); 

The reality of evil in our world (Stanza 2); 

Denying – or dying to oneself (Stanza 3); and 

Practicing purposeful penance (Stanza 4) 

After all this, we come to a “place” where suffering is no more — not only the suffering of me and mine, but the suffering of all people, of all beings, and all of creation, our enemies included. Plus, the hope of alleviating the suffering of this world that can seem so damaged and beyond the hope of repair, beyond the hope of new life. 

We come, or so faith promises, to this Easter experience, which Christians throughout history have understood in a wide variety of ways, but always with a deep and assuring sense of individual and communal hope that, as I quote now from the last verse of this hymn – “an Easter of unending joy; we may attain at last.” 

And yet, we cannot “deconstruct Lent” by turning to the words, piety, and sentiments of this 19th-century European hymn—or at least I’m supposing that most of us would not. I know that I need more than these words to uncover a deeper meaning to Lent. 

No, I suppose that for most of us in the PSR community, this hymn is not up to this task and, by the way, this is not the hymn that I could, or would sing on board a ship being tossed and turned and tumbled in a raging storm. 

This hymn, which comes back to me time and again during Lent, is not enough to deconstruct and reconstruct Lent because it does not offer a full-enough theology for fasting and penitence AND because it does not challenge us to move beyond self-denial and self-reflection to bring the Good News to the poor, the lonely, the despairing, the outsider, the stranger, and to the least of our siblings – whoever and wherever we find them. 

As I have reflected upon deconstructing Lent, I find myself trying to interrogate these ancient and, for many people, still relevant practices of penance to uncover the deeper purpose that such practices of negation and denial can have. And, in reconstructing these Lenten practices I am moved by Isaiah who proclaims that we are called to the constructive practices of helping others and, to use a Christian concept, to build up the Reign of God as a necessary part of any religious or pietistic practices. 

I believe that we need to go far beyond this hymn’s theology, with its focus on self-sacrifice, penance, prayer, and fasting, and embrace a more complete, more universal message preached by Isaiah and Jesus and other prophets and seers and mystics and doers: to use our 40 Days in the Lenten desert to turn our hearts and minds and hands and lives towards others.  

We should allow our Lenten practices (or however we might choose to embrace experiences of solitude, reflection, and perhaps even purification) to well up within us and spill over into lives of service to and change-making with our siblings in a world riven by division, inequality, and despair but which yearns so desperately for equity, love, justice, and hope. 

Amen? 

Amen! 

And so, having quoted Martin Luther on the power of hymnody at the beginning of this reflection, let me close with a prayer based (a bit loosely) on words written by the Argentinian priest Jorge Mario Bergoglio (known today as Francis, the Bishop of Rome) in an invitation he offers to reconstruct the [Lenten] practice of fasting or, as I was taught to say as a child, the practice of “giving something up for Lent.” 

In this ongoing season of Lent 

[Let us] Fast from words that hurt others.

Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.

Fast from anger and be filled with patience.

Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope. 

Fast from worries and have trust in God / the Divine. 

Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.

Fast from pressures and be prayerful. 

Fast from bitterness and fill our hearts with joy. Fast from selfishness and be compassionate. 

Fast from grudges and be reconciled.

Fast from words; be silent and listen. 

And Let us fast in ways that lead us to become unafraid, in the words of prophet Angela Davis, That we may become – and be – unafraid 

To no longer accept the things that we cannot change but to change the things that we cannot accept.

May it be so.

Bernard Schlager, PhD is PSR’s Associate Professor of Historical and Cultural Studies, and the Executive Director of the Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion (CLGS). Dr. Schlager received his PhD from Yale University in the history of medieval and Latin American Christianity. He has taught at the University of New Hampshire, Trinity College, Middlebury College, and Yale.

Professor Schlager was one of the original staff members of CLGS when it was founded in 2000.  Since then he has held a number of positions at the Center, including program director and interim deputy director, before becoming executive director in 2009.  In addition, he currently directs the development and advancement work of CLGS and directs PSR’s Certificate in Sexuality and Religion Program (CSR).

Dr. Schlager’s research interests include queer studies, the history of Christianity, LGBTQ pastoral care, and medieval social and religious history.  He has published numerous articles on ancient church history, medieval hagiography, the history of sexuality, and the history of education.  He recently co-authored a book with David Kundtz: Ministry Among God’s Queer Folk: LGBTQ Pastoral Care (Second Edition: Cascade Books, 2019).

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