My wife Bobbi and I were able to visit Paris a couple years ago, catching a glimpse of the Notre Dame Cathedral. About 2,000 sweaty tourists roamed the cavernous church, admiring its Gothic architecture and perched gargoyles. Meandering with fanny packs and cameras, they snapped pictures of this medieval spectacle. Amidst the hoards of tourists, there were actually 30 worshipers in the chancel following the lead of four priests. For the tourists, this was another photo-op. As they confessed their sins, some gawked. "You mean people still believe in God? And they still believe they are sinners in need of forgiveness?" More flashes went off, capturing the ancient relic of Christian worship.
I liken this to the common perception of our Lenten discipline. We spend 40 days in repentent humility, tracing Jesus' footsteps to the cross. For the average enlightened American, this appears like meidieval mythology. "You still believe this?" And when we talk about repentance, the average person cringes as if it is some religious form of water-boarding. "Why would you do that?"
I'd like to argue the upside of a season dedicated to repentance. Upon a recent read of Jesus' trilogy of lost things in Luke 15, there is a strange connectedness between repentance and celebration. At the end of each parable, something or someone is found, and then there is a joyous party. "I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10). If there is pain in repentance, it's overcome by the joy of the end goal - a restored relationship. Someone is found, and someone is brought back home.
This is how I approach the season of Lent. There is a dissonance in my relationship with God. My repentant posture is not a medieval form of torture, but an honesty about weakened state. The end goal of Lent's repentance is not to increase my shame or guilt. Rather it is to rest in the restored relationship won my my Savior. And that is cause for celebration.