Yogi Berra was not just known for his baseball career with the New York Yankees. He was also a master of malapropisms – sayings that make you say “Wait … what???!!” Things like, “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” or “You can observe a lot just by watching” or “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” But this week’s gospel lesson brought to mind my favorite “Yogi-ism”: “It’s like déjà vu all over again.”
It’s not your imagination – we heard the first part of this gospel reading back in January on the Baptism of Jesus. We’re getting a few more verses here – the rest of the story if you will – where Jesus emerges from the water and is immediately driven into the wilderness for a 40 day period of testing and this becomes the timeframe we revisit each year in the season of Lent. Lent begins in baptism and ends in resurrection.
As a young child, I was raised Lutheran and to be honest, the only thing which made Lent different from any other time of the year was the purple paraments on the altar and pulpit. We really didn’t mark the time of Lent by doing anything radically different. You see Dr. Luther made sure we confessed we were in bondage to sin and could not free ourselves every single Sunday, so the whole sinful nature of humanity was pretty well covered 52 weeks out of the year. We did have Holy Week services, but liturgically, they pretty well looked like a Sunday service too, albeit with different scripture readings.
My cousins, on the other hand, were Roman Catholic. They did Lent. They had to give something up and fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with all the other Fridays being “meatless.” When I became Episcopalian, I figured that was close to Roman Catholic so I told my mom I was going to give up homework for Lent … you can only imagine how that went over. I had about the same response when I tried to give up chores too.
But I did notice that in the Episcopal Church, Lent felt very different from my Lutheran experience. Not only do we change the colors and strip things down, we drop the “A-word” from our liturgy. We do the Great Litany on the first Sunday in Lent (Lutherans didn’t have that) and the Penitential Order began our other Sunday services. Sometimes our deacon would read the long exhortation and Holy Week had its own special liturgies in the Prayer Book. It had a very different and a very somber feel. As a youth I felt like it was kind of a … 40 day bummer festival with its focus on our sinfulness and hymns sung in a minor key.
And I find this sense of gloom about Lent to be pretty common – not just in Christians. A few years ago, I was watching Jon Stewart talk about his Jewish faith and the practice of atonement during the High Holy Days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He said, “We have 10 days where we focus on our sins and repent of the wrongs we’ve done. 10 days – that’s it. You Christians have Lent … 40 days of Lent. Even in guilt you people pay retail!”
But instead of observing the 40 day bummer festival this year, I want to invite you to look at Lent a bit differently and I especially want you to remember your baptism. We began our Lenten observance last Wednesday when each of us had the sign of the cross made on our foreheads with palm ashes and we heard the words, “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Having the sign of the cross made on your forehead is to remind you of your baptism. In our baptismal rite, the bishop or priest makes the sign of the cross in holy oil on the forehead of the newly baptized and says, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Forever means forever. And every time the sign of the cross is made, whether with the oil of the infirmed during holy unction, or after being confirmed, or in a blessing, or with ashes, each of these times you receive the sign of the cross, you are to remember your baptism.
St. Gregory of Nyssa, and I’m paraphrasing him here, essentially said that we are created out of the very heart of God and at our baptism we begin our return back to God’s heart. Our baptism begins our return home. And this is good news. But the road home is not a straight or easy one and it is marked by fallings and failings which emanate from Sin and its power over us. Yet the fallings and failings which appear to take center stage in Lent are a necessary part of learning to live a resurrected life of grace. Only when we are painfully honest with ourselves about our own faults, “our own most grievous faults,” can we come to a position of holy humility. And when we reach that place of humility, we find God already there, ready to pick us up, put the fine robe and ring on our finger, and welcome us home with love and mercy. It is a paradox that the very thing we feel most shame over is the very thing which, when we’re honest about it, brings us into a more deeply trusting relationship with the one who first loved us. And it all begins with our baptism when the road home is opened for us.
The disciplines of these 40 days of Lent – be they almsgiving to our Nickels for Nurses program, or giving up meat on Fridays and donating that money to the poor, joining our Soup Supper and Study, or turning off the TV and instead spending some time with a good spiritually challenging book, or fasting from excessive carbon consumption – all of these practices are meant to make you mindful of your relationship with God, with each other, and with creation. These disciplines are designed to remind you that you are on the way home and to bring you into a posture of gratitude for what God in Christ has done for you. And it all begins with your baptism.