This year, I’ve been struck by similarities between New Year’s and Lent. Both are often preceded by a time of intentional goal setting. We commit to giving things up: we’ll lay aside unhealthy eating habits or cease our social media addiction. And we resolve to do other things more, such as reading the Bible or getting more exercise. But these seasons only bear a surface resemblance.
While I am a New Year’s junkie (just ask me about my spreadsheet of goals for the year!), in the end our January resolutions tend to represent one big self-improvement project. We want to enhance our resume, be healthier or otherwise get our act together. Lent, on the other hand, is the antithesis of self-improvement. We give things up in order to intentionally make ourselves weak, so that we will be forced to rely on God. We take things on so that we can draw closer to our Lord, who took up his cross and laid down his life. Instead of self-improvement, we seek to be sanctified, that we might receive the kind of glory and beauty that only Jesus can give us.
In this passage of John, we meet Jesus just before his death – in the middle of his “high priestly prayer,” also known as the “farewell prayer,” the longest recorded prayer said by Jesus in the gospels. We see that Jesus prayed for you and me – for those who would come to believe in him. His final prayer reveals what we truly need to succeed in this world. He prayed for our protection – that we might be kept safe from the wiles of our enemy, who always seeks to deceive and destroy us. He prayed for unity, that despite our differences and self-preoccupation, we might be unified in our worship and mission. And he prayed for our sanctification – not that we would achieve more or be more attractive, rich or successful, but that we might be made holy. Finally, he prayed for joy. Jesus desired that we might know the fullness of life and delight that can only be found in him – never in our accomplishments.
While Advent is the true New Year for those who follow the liturgical calendar, Lent ushers in its own unique renewal. It is a time when we are moving from suffering to relief, from repentance to salvation, from death to resurrection. And while we long for Easter Sunday to arrive, we continue to prepare our hearts and to remind ourselves that there is nothing worthy in us, that we are but dust, and that the way to real life is not paved with goals or self-actualization. For ultimately, we can never muscle (or spreadsheet) our own way into the kingdom. As we come to know and embrace our weaknesses and failings, giving up our pretense of success in order to rely completely upon our risen Lord, we will be welcomed into that place we were striving so hard to enter.
Deborah Tepley is Advent’s Executive Director. She lives in Mt. Pleasant with her husband, Luke Jackson, and their two cats.