Lent is nearly upon us. The next three Sundays—Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima—prepare us for its spiritual throttling.
In a way, worshipping communities that employ historic liturgies already have the upper hand on Lent’s penitential nature. They’ll easily recognize the following words’ shackling character used at the Divine Service’s beginning:
“Most merciful God, we confess that we are by nature sinful and unclean. We have sinned against You in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone. We have not loved you with our whole heart; we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.”
Or perhaps you know it another way:
“I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto you all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.”
Present and eternal punishment. Temporal and eternal punishment. Same thing. The spheres of this world and the next are both included.
Indeed, these words are incarcerating, leaving no room for escape.
Essentially, we first approach God’s altar admitting to something. Even as believers, the nature of faith has a sense of what that something is. Faith reminds the believer to think twice before approaching God according to our human virtues. We should never think He hasn’t the right to send us away in shame. We should never be so comfortable with ourselves that we begin to think His wrath is something we don’t merit. And so, before anything else occurs in the service, believers go to their collective knees in confession. We fold our hands. We keep our heads low. We establish a posture before the One who has every right to eradicate every swirling atom of this fallen creation. We do this agreeing to His description of humankind, not our own, a description rendered so eloquently—so searingly—in His holy Word.
I’m doing more reading these days than ever before, almost to the point of it being unenjoyable. I read somewhere along the way that Frank Lloyd Wright designed his unique structures in ways that communicated his heart’s greatest love for nature. What stirred in his heart caused him to say, “The space within becomes the reality of the building.” I get what he means. He was an architectural artist. And his words sound nice. However, I’ve seen some of Wright’s buildings. In my opinion, they’re as impractical as they are impressive. But what do I know? That being said, if you really want to see a genuine architectural rendering of a human heart, stop by any of the thirty-one prisons in Michigan. There you will see a more authentic representation of humanity’s viscera in an architectural form. You will observe an exterior adorned by multiple rows of massive fences decked in razor wire surrounding windowless cinderblock. What will you discover within? Through the facility’s massive metal doors, you’ll find wall after wall securing one human cage after the next.
A prison is the human heart’s best interpretation because, of itself, humanity is not free.
As I said, I’ve been reading quite a bit lately from lots of sources. Cyril Connolly is a writer I discovered by way of Rudyard Kipling. Connelly said something about how everyone is serving a life sentence in the dungeon of self. For as depressing as that might sound, he wasn’t that far from what Saint Paul meant by a number of phrases employed throughout his Epistle to the Romans. He writes things like “the law of sin and death,” “enslaved to sin,” and “the wages of sin is death.” Paul is trying to tell us something.
For one, he wants us to know we can’t keep God’s Law rightly. As humanity is enslaved to Sin, so is humanity dragged along by the innate desire to break God’s Law. Paul says as much, writing, “For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). Naturally, when laws are broken, a judicial wage is earned: punishment. With this, we find ourselves closer to what Paul needs us to know by these phrases. Even apart from their proper context, we know something more about humanity. We not only begin to sense the handcuffs—the very real restraints that bind us to our treachery—but also the eternal punishment we’ve earned in destruction’s terrible cell.
And yet, God’s inclination has never been to punish, imprison, or destroy. He wants to show mercy (Luke 23:34, 6:36; 1 Peter 1:3; Lamentations 3:22-23). He wants to forgive. He wants to redeem—to buy back the criminals from their fate. He wants to set humanity free. Already knowing that the Gospel “is the power of God unto salvation” (Romans 1:16), the rest of the text surrounding Saint Paul’s select phrases brings this Gospel and instills the freedom God desires:
“We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin” (Romans 6:6).
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23).
“For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:2).
The Good News is that Christ has won your freedom. He has paid the price. Faith in Christ binds the believer to Christ, thereby binding that same believer to the certainty that he cannot be condemned to Sin’s chains or held captive by Death’s cell.
The forthcoming Gesima Sundays are delivering us into this news in unique ways. Listen carefully. Lent will display its combat. Pay close attention. Good Friday will demonstrate the great exchange. Don’t miss it. All these things will culminate in a horrendously wonderful trial resulting in a hideously sweet verdict: Christ must take humanity’s place in judgment on the cross. The guilty ones are free to go.
And then Easter. Oh, Easter!—the joyful proof of the debt’s payment followed by the prison’s absolute demolition from the inside; a glorious work accomplished by the only Prisoner who could do it!