This installment of Dust, we’re excited to share Matthew Lee Anderson’s ruminations on the theology and practice of Lent. Anderson is at the same time forward-thinking and backward-thinking. And lest you consider the latter an insult, it’s his respect for and embodiment of those deep and wise old ideas that we think makes his writing so compelling. As merely orthodox, he’s a vibrant voice in contemporary evangelicalism. He’s also on record suggesting he’s “no fun at parties.” Surely this can’t be. And let it be known that we’d party with Matt Anderson any day.
The Table: What is the meaning of Lent?
Anderson: I tend to think of Lent as an emphatic season, a season of focused deliberation on themes that are present throughout the whole church year, but which we have an inveterate tendency to want to hurry past precisely because of the discomfort they impose upon us. “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?” This is the question at the heart of Lenten practices, it seems to me, which force us to remember that in the midst of our impatient hurrying toward Easter it is God who has been patient with us.
The Table: How can the celebration of Lent change us? What is it about ritual and/or Christian liturgical life that transforms people?
Anderson: It has always seemed to me that if we approach the season of Lent looking for change or transformation, we are already off on the wrong foot. This is a season of a deepened attentiveness and awareness of the presence of God in our lives and the world. In a sense, the celebration of Lent is a disruption of our normal habits and routines, more than the inauguration of new permanent patterns. There shall not always be fasting, thank God. But such a disruption must be aimed at the knowledge of God, first and foremost, while our own transformation or social renewal is the byproduct of such a knowledge. If we are to take up these practices, we ought do so fully aware that these are the places where God has ordained that we meet with Him: that is enough, for within that meeting the transformation will be both demanded and wrought.
The Table: What are you giving up (or taking on) for Lent? How do you practice penitence this season?
Anderson: I have always found that the abstention from meat and dessert introduces such an alteration in my life that my expectation and hope about Easter grows exponentially through the season. I’ll say no more, lest I have my reward in full.
The Table: What do you find theologically fascinating about Lent?
Anderson: It has always seemed to me that the very thing we so desperately need—judgment, a serious and sober and inescapable judgment that allows us to assume the responsibility requisite for understanding the forgiveness that is offered—is the very thing we spend so much time actively avoiding. Lent makes the presence of judgment inescapable, which is why I think of all the seasons of the church’s life its emphases are perhaps most important for ensuring that the good news of Christ’s redemption is not flattened out into the rather-nice-news-that-we’ll-be-okay-now.