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Posted: 2/27/2016
Are We Saints or Sinners?
Finding a Balance in Lent
The Sinner's Prayer
The Jesus PrayerThe Jesus Prayer has been widely used throughout the history of Christianity, especially in the Orthodox Church. The ancient and original form did not include the words, "a sinner," which were added later. It is often repeated continually as a part of personal ascetic practice.

The picture above is called "The Purifying Prayer," and was taken from a website for Orthodox Christian Network. The author of the article with the picture (Georgios Kapsanis, Proegumen of Gregoriou Monastery), writes this:

"Every prayer of the Church assists with the purification of the heart, especially the Jesus Prayer. This prayer, which has been passed down over the centuries on the Holy Mountain has the following advantage: since it's only a sentence long, it allows us to concentrate our mind. In doing so, we help our mind to descend into the heart and we pray from there with no thought for any other thing or concept, evil or good, but God alone."

LENT: (noun) "The period preceding Easter that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence in commemoration of Christ's fasting in the wilderness. In the Western Church it runs from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday and so includes forty weekdays." (Oxford)

Lent is considered one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Scholars vary on the actual earliest dates of origin as well as the length and nature of the period. Some evidence suggests it started in the very early church and was usually a period prior to Easter, perhaps serving as a preparation period for baptism at Easter.

Research on how the 40 days were counted and when they started and ended vary, and some sources suggest Lent at one time lasted 40 hours ... commemorating what was believed to be the exact duration of Christ's time in the tomb. It seems certain that the Council of Nicea in 325 standardized Lent similar to what we practice today. (A detailed summary of Lent from Baylor University is referenced in the Resources below.)

Whatever the origins and specifics, its purpose has always been the same: self-examination and penitence, demonstrated by self-denial, in preparation for Easter.

Since becoming part of an Anglican community, I have come to look forward to this period of Lent. (The degree of stress given to Lent varies greatly especially among the many protestant denominations. For most Anglicans, Lent is an important season in the liturgical year.) During this season, I find the special services and rituals force me (in a positive and encouraging manner) to be intentional in self-examination and reflection.

Each year I realize, however, that such serious pondering, especially of what I might consider my darker side, carries a serious risk. Unless one views their sins and shortcomings as only minor (and who can honestly do that?), it can be easy to slip from sincere soul-searching reflection to beating-up ourselves and becoming mired in debilitating over-indulgence of our sinful state.

Without some balance in our self-examination, we might even slip, in a perverse way, to basking in self-flagellation and enjoying the degree to which we see ourselves as sinners. An exercise of penitence designed to make us truly aware of our need for God's grace, could become a self-serving end in itself, perhaps making us feel impotent to be of use to God or anyone.

In his historical novel, The Pillars of the Earth,The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet, 1989. author Ken Follet relates an exchange that I think illustrates the above danger. A key character Philip is considering running for position of prior at the Kingsbridge Priory; but, he feels himself too sinful and unworthy of such a position. The priory's cellarer and Philip's friend and confident Brother Cuthbert gives this advice to Philip:

"When you're thinking, please remember this: excessive pride is a familiar sin. But, a man may just as easily frustrate the will of God through excessive humility."

I think the fictional Brother Cuthbert can help us find a necessary Balance in Lent as phrased in my title for this Reflection. I think the wise brother would emphasize our need during Lent to spend time with our God recognizing our sinful nature and our often-inability to what we know we should do. Perhaps he would quote St. Paul: "... I don't do the good I want to do, but instead do the evil that I don't want to do." (Romans 7:19 International Standard Version)

Creation of Adam
"Creation of Adam": Michelangelo's fresco painting, which forms part of the Sistine Chapel's ceiling.

But, the good brother might also point out that like Adam, we are made in the image of God. He might pull out his little psalter, turn to Psalm 8, and remind us that we are made only "a little lower than the angels," and that God "adorned him with glory and honor."

If we ask Cuthbert, "Good brother, are we saints or sinners?" I think he might smile and answer, "Yes".

A final thought: To maintain a healthy Lenten balance, I think it important to keep in mind that our self-examination and penitence is not with our self alone. Oh, we may do so in solitude, but we bring our lives, not just to our self, but to our God. Our time of examination is held in the presence of God. I think Pope Francis might comfort us during this time with the title of his new book: "The Name Of God is MERCY."The Name of God is Mercy, ©2016 Penguin Random House. Our self-examination is not an end in itself. It is to bring us into closer relationship with the one whose name is mercy; the one who stands ready and wanting to forgive. If we but ask.

Examined, repentant, forgiven, free, and in the realization that we are created in the image of God, we can get on about doing the work God would have us do.

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Resources Related To this Reflection

The Early History of Lent, By Nicholas V. Russo; 2013 The Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. A PDF of a detailed summary of the history of Lent.

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