The Cycle of Death and Resurrection: an intro to the seasons of Lent and Easter

This reflection is published in the Lent/Easter edition of Saint Andrew’s quarterly newsletter The Crossroads


“24Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Seeds are amazing little things. Hard, dry, often looking very much like small stones. Very little about them suggests the potential that lies within. It takes a great deal of imagination and even faith to plant that grain of wheat in the ground where it will become rain soaked, soft, and eventually die. After all, we could take that same grain of wheat and eat it now or grind it along with others to make bread that will fees us today. It seems such a risk to cast that seed upon the ground not whether or not it will bear fruit. It is difficult to let go of the resources we hold in our hands in order to grow those resources for an unknown and uncertain future. But is that what Jesus is talking about in this passage from the Gospel according to John? Well… sort of…

Here in the twelfth chapter of John Jesus is talking about his own death. He tells his disciples, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:23-24). I am sure that the disciples were aghast at the thought of losing their friend, teacher, and guide. I am sure that their first response was to hold onto what they had, to cling to the security of a resource in hand. And to be honest, I am not sure that Jesus’ poetic and metaphoric rationale for his death was very comforting. It was going to take a great deal of faith to let go, to see him hung on a tree and buried in the ground, sealed in the cave.

Reading this passage in this way might make it seem contextually bound and of little import to us. Jesus is addressing his Disciple’s concerns in a way that doesn’t really apply to us who have never enjoyed his physical corporeal presence. But, and we should have heard this coming, Jesus doesn’t stop there…

“Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life… (John 12:25).

We already understood that Jesus isn’t really talking about seeds and now we come to understand that he isn’t just talking about himself. Jesus is inviting us to accompany him on a journey that, to his Disciples, was shrouded in mystery, metaphor and poetry, but which to us is all to clear. He is inviting us to join him on a journey to Calvary and the cross. If we cling to the life that we know, the resource in hand, we will lose it. But if we are willing to let go of that life we will experience a life beyond our imagining, a “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” (BCP p. 862, The Catechism on “Christian Hope”).

But what does Jesus mean when he says that we need to hate our life? What does he mean when he uses the analogy of a grain of wheat that must fall into the earth and die? Does Jesus mean that we need to join him on the cross, that our journey with him must find its conclusion on some literal Calvary surrounded by mocking soldiers and crowds?

We need to acknowledge that there have been, and continue to be, people who are faced with the terrible choice between renouncing their faith and losing their life. There are people today who are persecuted and murdered because they refuse to turn their back on the God who has created, redeemed and sustained them. That any of God’s children, no matter how they envision the God of all should be killed for their beliefs is surely an abomination in God’s eyes and something that we all need to renounce and struggle to end. Thanks be to God that for most, if not all of us here today, that is a choice we will never have to make. So have we reached another place where this passage is so contextually bound that it doesn’t have anything to say to us as we live out our lives as part of the religious majority in a country where our freedom to worship and practice our faith is guaranteed by our social contract? We already know that Jesus wasn’t really talking about seeds. And we have seen that he isn’t just referring to his own life and death. Perhaps we need to take another look at what he is referring to when he uses the word “life” in this context.

We believe “That the divine Son became human, so that in him human beings might be adopted as children of God, and be made heirs of God’s Kingdom” (BCP p. 850, The Catechism on “God the Son”). And we believe that “Christ promised to bring us into the kingdom of God and give us life in all its fullness” (BCP p. 851, The Catechism on “The New Covenant”). We don’t believe that God wants us to die in the sense that our life is ended. It is clear that we believe that what God wants for us is fullness of life, life lived in the light of God’s grace, light and love. So what is it that Jesus is asking us to hate?


Here it is helpful to make the distinction between “life” as a noun, our physical existence and presence in this world, and “life” as a verb, our particular way of being, of interacting with the people around us, with creation, and with God. Jesus isn’t telling us to hate our life (noun), he is telling us that we need to hate the verb that is our life lived in relationship with all that God is in the created order. So how do we make sense of this verb? What is Jesus talking about?


Paul writes very powerfully about “life in the flesh.” He is talking about our physical corporeal body’s need to acquire, to own, to control; the tendency to see to our own needs first, and to place ourselves at the center of our universe to the detriment of our relationship with others and their needs and well-being. When Paul talks about “life in the flesh” he is talking about the “stuff” that makes up our corporeal body’s need to survive, to prevail, and to procreate. None of which, in and of itself is a bad thing until it comes at the expense of someone else or our relationship with them, with creation, or with God.


What are the seeds that Jesus wants us to bury and let die? What are the things that we need to let go of so that new life may spring forth from them? That is an easy question to answer if we are asking what “we” (plural) need to let go of. We are in the middle of a conversation about race and racism in Madison and Dane County. Those conversations will generate long lists of prejudices, misconceptions, practice, and policies that need to fall to the ground and die. We are struggling across this nation with issues of homelessness, hunger, and poverty, and again the list of things that need to fall to the ground and die is long and formidable. There is good reason that the confession we used in the seasons of Advent and Christmas asked God to forgive us for “the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf” (Enriching Our Worship 1 p. 56). What are the seeds that Jesus wants us to bury and let die? The question gets a little harder to answer when we hear the word “we” as in each and every one of us, as individuals who long for a taste of that “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” (BCP p. 862, The Catechism on “Christian Hope”). It is a hard question but the lure of that new existence, fully knowing God and each other draws us into the fray, grappling with the question and with ourselves, in the sure and certain hope that God desires for us “life in all its fullness.”


Seeds falling to the ground, dying, and bringing forth new life in abundance… When Jesus used this metaphor with his Disciples he was talking about death and resurrection. He was talking about something that they, and we, know and experience in the world around us. The metaphor is apt and it is accurate. That “new fruit,” that “eternal life” in “all its fullness,” that “new existence, in which we are united with all the people of God, in the joy of fully knowing and loving God and each other” requires a death. Our participation in that new life requires the death of ways of seeing, of ways of thinking, of ways of being that diminish, demean and alienate; that belittle, deny and oppress; that injure those around us and which corrupt and destroy the light and life that is within us. Our journey to that new life requires that we walk with Jesus on the path to Calvary and that we participate in the cycle of death and resurrection. It is with this destination in our minds and on our hearts that we enter the seasons of Lent, Holy Week and Easter.


From the Proper Liturgy for Ash Wednesday, The invitation to the observance of a holy Lent:

Dear People of God: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer (BCP p. 265).

I love these words but I wish that they said a little more. While this invitation does point to the “message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel” it feels a little limited in its scope. The invitation here is to the seasons of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter; to a season of self-examination and repentance, identifying the seeds within us that need to fall to the ground and die. It is an invitation to participate in the dramatic events of Holy Week, making ourselves vulnerable to the death that will make that new fruit, that abundant fullness of life lived in the joy of fully knowing God and each other. It is an invitation to step into the new light that will dawn on Easter Day and to live as if that life has come to fruition in each and every one of us and in the “we” that we proclaim at the beginning of the Nicene Creed.

Come, join the journey from Ash Wednesday, through the wilderness of Lent, pressing on through the chaos and pain that is Holy Week, and enter into the light of a new day, a new verb “life” eternal.





On Bended Knee with Our Broken Hearts in Our Hands: a Reflection on the Season of Lent

This is how we approach the love that we have wounded, the love that we have injured, the love that we have neglected or betrayed.  Filled with remorse for the pain that we have caused, hoping beyond hope for forgiveness, we acknowledge the wrong that we have done, we declare our remorse, we proclaim our love, and we promise to change, to live more fully into the relationship that we long to maintain.  We do everything that we can do to be reconciled to the one whom we love.  It is an all too familiar scenario.  Children and parents, husbands and wives, partners in every kind of relationship find themselves in this place; having hurt one another, desperately seeking forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation, longing to mend what has been broken, approaching on bended knee, broken heart in hand.  This is also the posture in which we approach the season of Lent.

We know that we have sinned, that we have failed to live into the relationship that God is offering us and that we long to experience, in the things that we have thought, in the words that we have spoken to one another, and in the things that we have done.  We know that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and we know that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.  We know that we have neglected and betrayed the one who loves us beyond all measure, the one with whom we long to abide in peace and trust.  We know that the peace of God, which passes all understanding, has eluded us because we have not sought, recognized, and nurtured the relationship that brings that peace.  This strain in the relationship which should be at the center of our lives is so difficult to bear that we come to church every week and confess our sins, the ways in which we have fallen short of the life and love that God holds out to us.  Every week, again and again we come to the table with our hands outstretched, trembling at the love and grace that endures, the knowledge that God remains faithful even when we are not.   If we are already confessing, on bended knee, our broken hearts in our hands, why do we set aside the forty days of Lent as a time of “self-examination and repentance; of prayer, fasting and self-denial; of reading and meditating on God’s holy Word” (BCP p. 265)?    I would like to suggest that the season of Lent is not a time for seeking forgiveness.  It is a time to turn our hearts, to change, it is a time for repentance and renewal.

The analogy that I set up earlier in this reflection, of approaching the people in our lives whom we have hurt, seeking their forgiveness, hoping for reconciliation doesn’t quite describe our humble approach to God.  When we have hurt the person whom we love we hope for their forgiveness, but there is a chance that they will refuse us the reconciliation we crave.  There is the chance that they will have had enough of the pain that we inflict.  There is a chance that the relationship will have finally been ruptured beyond repair.  But God loves us so much  that God came among us as one of us, and giving God’s self into our hands, allowed us to choose whether or not to love God in return.  God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, experienced the very worst that is in us when, in our desperation to be rid of God, we nailed him to a tree.  The analogy that I set up at the beginning of this reflection falls short here because, despite our betrayal, God has not abandoned us!  The Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Christ has proven to us that nothing, nothing can separate us from the love of God.  Every Sunday when, on trembling knees, we confess our sinful thoughts, words and deeds, the things done and left undone, our failure to love God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves, we do so knowing that God is waiting to forgive us and restore us to the light and love for which we are created.  We hear the words that we long to hear, “Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life”  (BCP p. 360).  It is interesting and important to note that on Ash Wednesday, the day that we venture into the wilderness of Lent, we do not hear those words of absolution.

On Ash Wednesday we confess our sins in the Litany of Penitence (BCP p. 267-269), and then  “the Bishop, if present, or the Priest stands, and facing the people” … declares that God “has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare pardon and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins”  (BCP p. 269).  And then…  that absolution is not conferred!

Just before the peace is exchanged, at the conclusion of the Litany of Penitence, the confession, the Bishop, if present, or the priest says:

 “Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).

Here on Ash Wednesday, as we begin our journey through the season of Lent we are praying for repentance, a turning of the heart, away from the things that damage our relationship with God toward the things that are life-giving, that deepen and nurture that relationship.  Here at the beginning of the season of Lent we are praying for the Holy Spirit, for help and strength as we, acknowledging the great gift that God gives us by lifting the burden of our sins, work to repent, to change!

We all long to hear the words of absolution, to know that we are forgiven, to hear that the relationship is still intact, but absolution is only the beginning of something even harder than asking for forgiveness.   The human analogy will serve us well in this moment.  When we go to our love with our broken heart in our hands we may, on the surface be craving their forgiveness, but what we really are afraid of is the loss of relationship.   What we really long for is the wholeness that comes from being one with another.  Forgiveness, absolution, allows us to remain in the presence of the one we love without shame or fear, but the relationship is only made whole if we repent, turn away from, whatever it was that caused the relationship to be ruptured or strained in the first place.  If the thoughts, words, or deeds that caused the breach continue, then the relationship will continue to be deeply wounded and forgiveness becomes nothing more than a topical analgesic.  We set aside the season of Lent, the forty days preceding Holy Week and the Resurrection as a time for deep healing and true reconciliation.  Lent is a time for change… and that is why, when we ask God to grant us “true repentance” we also ask for God’s Holy Spirit.

The kind of change we are talking about here isn’t something that we can do by force of will, commitment, or by working harder.  The kind of change we are talking about here is only possible through the Grace of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.  It is only in knowing that we are forgiven, that nothing we can do will ever separate us from the Love of God, that we can set our hearts and minds to the work of repentance, of change.  It is God’s gift, loving us even before we can love God in return that sets us free to acknowledge our faults and shortcomings, our betrayals, our sins, and ask for forgiveness.  It is God’s gift, the presence, guidance, and grace of the Holy Spirit, that helps us to know when we have failed to hit the mark, that helps us to get back on target.  It is only through the strength and courage we receive in knowing that God, through the Holy Spirit, continues to walk this journey with us that we are able to begin the hard work of repentance, amendment of life, of change.

“Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen” (BCP p. 269).