With an early Easter this year, Ash Wednesday (the beginning of Lent) is on February 22. Lent has a number of purposes, but none of them (fasting, praying, giving) are meant to remain only in Lent. Lent, as Advent, is a time to practice the same Faith we practice the entire year. Sometimes during the year, we acquire bad habits of attendance in the Lord’s House. Bad habits are easy to pick up, while good habits take work and constant vigilance to preserve.
We think that spiritual habits should come naturally to Christians. Insofar as we are Christians, they do! But insofar as we still sinners, spiritual habits are formed like any other good habit: through work and perseverance. We know the commandment: Honor the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Luther’s explanation in the Small Catechism is significant: “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” The Holy Day is the day when we cease our work, and God does His work of making us holy. Christians want this, desire this, long for this (hunger and thirst for righteousness); but the old Adam needs to be beaten down and drowned in the powerful promise of Holy Baptism. For that reason, we need to force the old Adam out of bed, and into the House of the Lord, where the Holy Spirit preaches to us of our sin and of our Savior, Jesus Christ. There, the old Adam is killed; there, the new Man in Christ is raised to live before God in righteousness and holiness.
The reason I raise this as Lent approaches is that Lent is a good time to focus on this habit of being in the Lord’s House, so that it becomes more than just a habit, but a practice that forms us and our children in the virtue of the Faith. Of course, our salvation does not depend on how many times we attend the Divine Service; it does not depend on how many times we hear the Word preached, or receive the Lord’s Supper. Your attendance will not save you or earn you forgiveness. But it is just as true that your non-attendance, your non-hearing, your non-receiving can and will damn you.
But the Lord has provided a place where He forgives your apathy, your lack of desire for the Word of God and His Supper, the things you prioritize over the preaching of Christ: in this church building, which has been set aside for the Word of God and the worship offered by His people, He has promised to be in His Word and Sacraments. Your attendance cannot save you, but when you attend, your Lord can and does save through the divine means that He has chosen to use. Your hearing does not save you, but the Word does. Your eating and drinking do not save you, but the Body and Blood in the bread and the wine do. Rejoice, people of God! Lenten darkness surrounds us, but Easter is coming. Your crucified Lord has been raised from the dead. And He wishes to give you the forgiveness and life He has purchased with His own blood.
*St. Augustine (354-430 AD), Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, said, “For you I am a bishop [overseer]; with you I am a Christian.”