Sunday before Lent
Readings: 2 Kings:5 1-14, Ps 30, Mark 1: 40-45
Hymns: 142 When morning gilds the skies, 108 Sometimes light surprises, 383 Jesus whose all-redeeming love, 501 Now the green blade riseth

These are an odd couple of Sundays, sandwiched in between Epiphany and Lent, like a patch of green grass separating white snowdrops and purple crosuses. Llike grass in designer gardens, green’s ecclesial role is to give both shape and meaning to the rarer purple, white, and red blossoms of the year’s cycle. This green day marks fifty days till Easter, and therefore 100 days till Pentecost, the last of the three great Festivals of Christ’s church. But between now and Easter comes Lent, in sixty hours. Let’s think of these hundred and three days as a journey, for the movement of Lent to Easter is a journey through darkness, darkness not of the day but, more challenging, potentially through dark patches of experience engraved on the soul.
Lent is often seen as a time emptied of pleasure. Yet if we are not afraid of the dark Lent is rather a time for reflection, a time to decide on a specific spiritual exercise, whether that is sitting in silence for 30 minutes a day every day, reading a specific not too long book of the Bible (for choosing a long one sets up for failure) or, if busyness is our besetting sin, not cleaning the car every week, or dusting daily, and using the time saved to read something new, very slowly.
Three things we can do on the way, but enjoyable or at least efficient journeys need sound preparation. The life of a Christian is not lived in and from books, or not only, but is shown in life and through relationships. Maybe reflecting on ours might be our task for the next sixty hours for, as our personal Lent journey commnly focusses on our relationship with God and our inner self, wise preparation is to be in good standing with those with whom we live and work and share our lives. Wisely, the last Sunday before Lent in the Orthodox calendar is ‘Forgiveness Sunday,’ allowing the first day of Lent, which starts the day after, to be Clean Monday. Hence today becomes the day for cleaning the slate of hurts, petty irritations and unresolved animosity, by offering and ideally receiving forgiveness, whether in words or a generous exchange of warm silence. And when that is not possible because of death or distance, real or imagined, it is a day to offer our apologies to God, who knows our intentions and accepts our regrets. Our western Christian Shrove Tuesday became confession to God and forgiveness via the priest: Orthodoxy, ever practical, insists it must be among the people.
We should be especially glad to take this seriously for our Church is the Church of the Redeemer, our ‘Heiland,’ the Salvator Mundi whom we see in the service sheet insert today. Forgiveness makes relationships whole, and the inner healing which follows makes for wholeness in those forgiving and being forgiven: Christ the Redeemer, whom we praised in our first two hymns, is also Christ the Healer. Last week we had the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, and this week of General Naaman and the unnamed man in Mark. The prime fame of Naaman actually lies in his being the only person in the Bible allowed by God to bow down before an idol, later in this chapter, but here, both he and Mark’s unnamed man have a skin disease, more likely something like psoriasis than leprosy. Advised by a captive Israeli maid, Naaman first goes to the King of Israel, loaded with all the trappings of wealth. The King has no idea what this erstwhile enemy is talking about, and is glad when the prophet Elisha asks the guy to visit. Off Naaman goes, but received not the welcome fit for a General, but the laconic advicecto to bathe in the Jordan, a river which for Naaman scarcely deserves the name, unlike those in Damascus. Irritated and insulted though he felt, he finally followed orders, washed seven times and was healed, clean. Mark’s leper had far more faith: he knew Jesus could heal him and he did. But Jesus said something which he had tried to say last week, asking people not to gabble about what they had seen or experienced. This seems odd, given that Jesus wanted to be for all, to spread the Word of God and make all whole. Yet he also needed quiet, to garner his strength and focus on the things which he needed for the journey he was to take, a journey which would end in Jerusalem.
You see? In the moment, on the day, Jesus can act, he can heal and help and make whole. But not without preparatory quiet, not without tranquillity within, not without contemplation, for frantic busyness and healing are as poor bedfellows as busyness and life-building reflection. So, if Lent is to mean risking exploration through intentionally taking time for ourselves to reflect and to examine, we need to prepare. But, perhaps uncertain about what may come out of intense intentional reflection, we also need to know that beyond Lent there is the bright light of Easter and Pentecost. The brilliance of what is to come should give us courage to touch the dark night of the soul in Lent, darkness experienced by today’s psalmist. Broken, he was healed; rich and faithful, he realised the futility of possessions and felt broken again, until all was restored, mourning turning to dancing, and sackcloth to gladness.
This last Sunday before Lent gives us our chance to prepare for the journey with Christ by taking stock of where we are in relation to God, our neighbours and ourself. For this, let our final hymn, outlining Christ’s journey, be a lode-star guiding us over the challenging space of Lent, for if ‘our hearts will feel wintry, grieving or in pain {but} the knowledge of the touch of Christ can call us back to life again.’ We can risk this because we know that Lent ends with the self-gifting of the Healer Christ, so that life will spring eternal.
As each asks for and receives forgiveness, let me end with the last line of our first hymn:
O merciful to all mankind, be merciful to me.

Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg, February 15th, 2015

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