But this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3:13b-14]
In Greek and Roman mythology, there are tales involving the gods revealing themselves to humans. In one, Zeus has, once again, taken a human girl as his love interest. Zeus’s wife, Hera, will have none of this and seeks to destroy the relationship. She disguises herself and convinces the young girl to ask Zeus to reveal his true nature. The girl gets Zeus to promise her anything; then she asks that Zeus reveal himself as a god. This makes Zeus quite sad for he knows what this will mean for the poor girl, but he has been tricked into promising to do so. So, he reveals “his glory” and the girl is instantly consumed by the light and heat, the thunder and the lightning of his true nature.
In pagan religions, as many church fathers wrote, there is an element of truth. On Mars Hill, Saint Paul told the Athenians that he was speaking of a God whom they already worshipped, albeit ignorantly. Many early church theologians believed that God has revealed Himself in a limited capacity to the pagan world to prepare them for when the true knowledge of Christ would come to their societies. These church fathers believed these limited revelations made it easier for the different gentile peoples to believe and to accept.
Our Greek myth, on some level, did just that. God’s nature is so powerful that God often shrouded Himself in a cloud or in fire. Very few humans in this world have ever glimpsed God in all His glory. However, in our Old Testament lesson, we have just such an event as Moses encountered the Lord on Mount Sinai:
And the glory of the LORD abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud. And the sight of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount in the eyes of the children of Israel. And Moses went into the midst of the cloud, and got him up into the mount: and Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights.
When Moses returned to his people, his countenance had changed. It was bright with the glory of the Lord, and it frightened the Israelites. From that time on, whenever Moses spoke with his people, he had to wear a veil to hide his face, but when he spoke with the Lord, he took off the veil.
In our New Testament lesson, we have an equally telling experience:
While he yet spoke, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them: and behold a voice out of the cloud, which said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him.” And when the disciples heard it, they fell on their face, and were sore afraid.
The Israelites were frightened by Moses’ transformed countenance. Jesus’ three closest Apostles were frightened by God’s voice announcing that Jesus is the Son of God.
Man’s natural inclination is to be frightened when he encounters the glory of God, and this is the basis of the pagan mythologies that tells us it is impossible for us to see the true glory of the Lord – and this may be partially true. God, like I said, has often shrouded Himself as to not frighten or blind men. Even in Jesus, where we come closest to see the true face of God, the Lord is shrouded in the human body He has taken in order to be our Christ. But this is where the similarities between mythology and theology end:
And Jesus came and touched them, and said, “Arise, and be not afraid.”
Throughout the New Testament, Jesus’ constant refrain to all of us is “Be not afraid.” We are not to be afraid though others do not understand. We are not to be afraid though we do not know from where our next meal will come or our clothes will be furnished. We are not to be afraid even when others hate us or persecute us because of what we believe. And we are not to be afraid of the future even though Christ Himself provides us with apocalyptic images that are quite frightening indeed. The only thing we ARE to do is have faith AND be prepared. This is why Saint Paul, when he wrote to the Philippians, told them:
Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
The Greek and Hebrew word from which we translate the words “not to have apprehended” means lacking or without. In other words, Saint Paul is admitting that he has not attained his goal of being Christ-like, but is placing all his past disappointments and failures behind and concentrating now only on the future.
The Christian faith has always been and continues to be the faith of hope. It is a faith that is constantly looking to the future, trying to forget past failings while insisting on continuing to work towards a closer communion with God.
And here again is where our Greek mythologies and our Christian faith part company. Although many are afraid to see the face of God, we are not to be afraid. Fear comes rightly from our knowledge of our own failings and inadequacies. But we have been told not to be afraid – and why? Because, through faith in Christ, all those failings and all those sins are covered. They are paid for in full! And this we MUST remember as we enter the season of Lent.
Many people do not have the proper understanding of Lent. It IS a penitential season when we remember our sins and our failings, but it is NOT a time when we “pay” for these sins. We are NOT out to “earn” our forgiveness. As Saint Paul also wrote:
Not having my own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.
The trap in the Mosaic Law is when people believe that, by following the Law, they have earned their place in heaven. This is the same for Lent. We can NEVER earn our place. The only way for us to enter into heaven is through our faith in Christ. HIS righteousness then is imputed to us, and that is how we “earn” our place. “Grace” is an unearned gift. Our salvation is grace. So, let us dismiss the whole idea that our suffering in Lent earns us spiritual credits that pays our way into the pearly gates.
What we must remember is that we enter the season of Lent, not as sinners weighed down by our inadequacies, but as the children of God. We fast and abstain, giving up things, not as punishment, but as acts of love.
We also give things up in order to realize that the things of this world do not matter. Those things we love too dearly have the ability to become our idols, tying us too closely to this world. We may be in danger of worshipping money, or sports, or even chocolate. So, by giving them up, we learn that “things” are not as important as God. But if we stop here, we still do NOT understand Lent.
Lent is NOT just a time to divorce ourselves from the things in this world that distract. It is also our time to grow closer to God. Lent is not worth doing unless we make God the center of the season. Coming to church each Sunday is a start. Private prayer and devotion helps. Studying the Bible also helps. But what is crucial for us in the society in which WE live is a period of silence each day.
As I have said many times, God does not speak to us in the fires or earthquakes or storms of life. He speaks to us in the silence as a still, small voice. For this reason, quiet time is crucial. For those of us with children, you may be smiling at me right now, thinking, “yeah – right! When am I ever going to have quiet time?” Well, might I suggest before the children get up, or after they go to bed. If they are in school, when they are there. However you can fit the time in, even if it is not every day, will help greatly.
In any case, please try to find the time to disconnect. We must learn to turn EVERYTHING off – TV, iPod, iPad, radio, stereo, computer, phone – whatever you have that tears us away from our thoughts and from silence. And use your quiet time as a time for prayer and meditation.
It is time that we give up our fears. It is time to give up our fear of silence. And it is time to give up the mythology that our God is somehow not faceable. We need to “see” the Lord and “see” His glory. And we need to do it now, not later. And there is no better time for us to do this than during Lent.
Ultimately, what matters in Lent is God. What matters is Jesus. What matters is the divine love that God Himself shed on us when we were baptized and that He continues to shed on us each and every day of our life. And what matters is that WE show OUR love of Him by trying hard to have a holy and Christ-centered Lent.