Pr. Eric Swensson

February 14, 2013

photo of Pr. EricThose of us who are neither young in years, nor new to the church, have lived through a number of Lents and Easters. As we reflect upon yet another Lenten journey, what have we learned? What follows are some reflections upon my string of journeys with the help of Luther’s writings.

There is wisdom in observing the Church Year that only a goodly number of years tell forth. I remember being a young pastor and writing my first church newsletter articles. Like many others I wrote something like “Our word ‘Lent’ comes from the old Anglo-Saxon word ‘Lencten’ meaning ‘lengthen’ due to it occurring in Spring when the hours of daylight increase” and then I proceeded to draw some spiritual lesson from it.

Older now, I can reflect that winter comes after autumn and in January plants and weeds that were once in competition are both blown down the lane with fallen leaves. Only as one ages do the words “Plants wither, flowers fade, but the Word of the Lord endures forever” take on the weight they deserve. Gardeners like me begin to truly appreciate the seasons and notice things like trees setting their buds in the fall and winter. As we do the little things that plant beds need after the growing season is supposedly over like chop the stems of the larger perennials, we realize what grace it is to be able to hope to see another spring and another variation of the theme.

What about the variety of spiritual experiences? Over the years I have learned that I must not give up hope. In my seminary years and early pastorate I used to begin each Lent somewhat like going to the gym, that is to say, very energetically and with great expectations. I would fast and pray and achieve victory over the flesh this time. Yes, this time for sure I would keep Lent for all of Lent.

Perhaps I even did a good job some of the past seasons, but I have to say, not that it had any lasting value except to show me my frailty because I still have such struggles it seems that everyday I am beginning again, bringing little or nothing of value from the past into the present, that is, except to know I am human and whatever spiritual knowledge there is about me is there by the grace of God.

Of course, knowing this is great wisdom. The struggle of flesh against spirit is the ongoing struggle, a contest lasting until we stand at that last door.

This Lent I will rest in the Lord, I will luxuriated in teaching like this:

The new leaven is the faith and grace of the Spirit. It does not leaven the whole lump at once but gently, and gradually, we become like this new leaven and eventually, a bread of God. This life, therefore, is not godliness but the process of becoming godly, not health but getting well, not being but becoming, not rest but exercise. We are not now what we shall be, but we are on the way. The process is not yet finished, but it is actively going on. This is not the goal but it is the right road. At present, everything does not gleam and sparkle, but everything is being cleansed. [1]

This is not to say that I enter Lent in a casual and lazy manner. It is to say that in light of one’s life experiences and the wisdom that should be gained from such; I have a better estimation of everyone involved. I know me, so to speak, I know my flesh and I know that spirit of the world. While neither admiring nor fearing the latter, I know it is, how do we say, devilish and a slippery devil at that.

The famous Luther quote above about life is not godliness but becoming godly, comes from “Defense and Explanation of All the Articles,” his response to the Pope’s condemnation of Luther. In it he quotes Cyprian,

Ceaselessly, we must fight against avarice, unchastity, anger, and ambition. Steadfastly and with toil and sorrow we must wrestle with carnal desires and the enticements of the world. The mind of man surrounded and besieged by the assaults of the devil, can scarcely meet or resist them all. If avarice is prostrated, unchastity springs up. If lust is overcome, ambition takes its place. If ambition is despised, then anger is provoked, pride puffs up, drunkenness takes the offensive, hatred breaks the bonds of unity, jealousy breaks up friendship. [2]

photo of Ethiopian processional cross

Ethiopian Processional Cross

Luther says this should give comfort to all who struggle against sin. Which is what we should do. We are not to give into sin. It is only natural to give in knowing we will never win, but that is it, isn’t it? Human nature tells us to give in since we cannot win. But that is not what the Bible tells us to do, no not at all. Rather being found faithfully struggling is the victory.

Older and wiser, we have a better understanding of Lent, what it actually means. It is not about being found perfect, but finding my Christian selves in the struggle. We learn to have a better approximation of what progress means. In commentary on Romans 12:1, Luther writes,

But be transformed. This comment is made by reason of progress. For he is speaking of those people who already have begun to be Christians. Their life is not a static thing, but in movement from good to better, just as a sick man proceeds from sickness to health, as the Lord also indicates in the case of the half-dead man who was taken into the care of the Samaritan…Man is always in non-being, in becoming, in being, always in privation, in potentiality, in action, always in sin, in justification, in righteousness, that is, he is always a sinner, always a penitent, always righteous.” [3]

Lastly, we know what tools we have at our disposal in this struggle between flesh and spirit. The Word of God, the counsel of the saints, the wisdom we have gained over the years, many are the weapons and the armor but in any review of this sweet science we must give preeminence to the Sacraments. Because we are baptized, because we are marked by the sign of the Cross and because we have opportunity to partake the Lord’s Supper, we shall prevail.

This is what Luther wrote about this very thing in the Large Catechism:

"Therefore, it is appropriately called the food of the soul since it nourishes and strengthens the new man. While it is true that through Baptism we are first born anew, our human flesh and blood have not lost their old skin. There are so many hindrances and temptations of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint, at times even stumble. The Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may refresh and strengthen itself and not weaken in the struggle but grow continually stronger. For the new life should be one that continually develops and progresses.” [4]

Therefore, as Easter rolls around, I expect us to find ourselves in the same place in which we began, simul iustus et peccator, and perhaps not unlike the movie Groundhog Day, we do learn something, but when it comes to this battle we know that one day we have to break free, only that it will only come to pass when all things come to pass.

So, relish your Lents and Easters. No one can ever claim victory. We did not win the trumpets, the lilies, the organ and all that we can fit into the Feast; we are certainly not celebrating what we have done but what has been done for us. This, like everything else, is a paradox. We win in our battle when we lose everything. What we give up is what we gain.


1—Martin Luther, LW 32, 24. Back

2—Ibid, 22. Back

3—Martin Luther, LW 25, 433. Back

4—Martin Luther, The Large Catechism: Sacrament of the Altar, par. 23-25. Back