Monday, February 27, 2006

keeping a holy lent -- part i: theory

What is Lent for?

Lent is instituted in the Church that we may “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3.18).

Contrary to superficial appearance, Lent is therefore not a sorrowful time. It is a time of Joy. The word “Lent” comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for Springtime. The season of Lent is a time, while beginning with the darkness and rain of penitence and self-denial, yet ending with the full flowering of Easter morning.

It is important to remember, therefore, the Joy of what George Herbert called the “feast of Lent,” because it is a time of spiritual joy. It is an opportunity to engage with the enemy, to subdue him in those things which keep us from the grace of God. In one of those reversals typical of our religion: the outward fast is an inward feast; the outward continence is inward and ecstatic intercourse with the Bridegroom.

Father Congreve, SSJE, in the 19th century compared the joy and hope of Lent to the joy and hope of an army which rounds a bend in the road and sees for the first time the battle lines of the enemy arrayed in front of it. It is a heady hope, tempered perhaps by the realization of what actually is at stake, but a hope and a joy no less for that.

“But Lent rallies us, reminds us of the seriousness of our moral life, of the reality of sin, of bad tendencies of our childhood not conquered yet, of the strength of sins of the flesh, of pride and temper, of love of the world, of cowardice in confessing Christ, of sloth and depression, of neglect of prayer and the sacraments. As we look up, Lent shows us the way to God and our heavenly country, and right across that way, cutting off our road to God and holiness, lies our sin. So Lent brings us to face the enemy and prepare for battle. And hope is the very soul of a battle: the men intend to win that position now held by the enemy at any cost. So in your case, suppose there is sloth, or unbelief, or ill will, or some other vice: your Lent battle means your hope to wrest that position from the enemy. That sin, that indifference, or bad temper, shall be conquered by God’s help. There is no evading the issue; that sin is going to conquer me, and separate me from God for ever, or I am going to conquer it.”

So too, a great part of the joy of Lent is the realization, upon beholding the sin lying between us and God, separating us from Him, is the force of the realization that we are not our sin. Sin is no part of our identity in Christ. We are not of that camp lying across the path. We are in God’s army, and not in the camp of the enemy. A great part of the joy of confronting our sins in their full array is the force of the fact that we are separated from them, by the grace of God, that they are there only to be conquered, and we are by contrast here only to conquer them.

And that, by the way, is a common misconception these days: that in Christ sin and evil are denied (cf. ECUSA). The truth, though, is that our Lord’s suffering and death on the cross do not deny it. The cross looks at sin and death full in the face. The cross acknowledges the horror and the hideousness of sin and evil. Our crucified Lord acknowledges it, confronts it head on, and destroys it. And likewise he does not look at us and say “you are not a sinner,” but rather sees the truth about us: that we are wretched sinners. But the power of the love of God for us in his Son is so awesome precisely because it does not deny our sinfulness, but instead overcomes it in God’s own glorious, loving perfection. The cross of Christ has the power to change us, to re-create us. And Lent is about cooperating with that power and submitting to it.

Lent is about the blossoms of the tree on which our Lord hung, blooming not only in our memory, but in our will and intellect as well. Continuing with the martial analogy, Father Congreve says “So Lent means that you are not going to play at soldiering any longer, but that you take up Christ’s Cross in sober earnest, and begin to follow Him closely. As you strive by prayer and self-denial to follow, you are keeping well up with our Leader, Who knows who is with Him, and the swing of the march of His companions cheers you.” To take up our cross daily and follow Jesus (Luke 9.23) really means to take up his cross in our own circumstances. Lent means our active use of what God has brought about on the Cross in our lives through the grace of the sacraments. “The energy of every Christian’s Lent resolution is the stirring up of the life of God that is in him – the calling up of the power of Christ’s victory over sin, and putting it forth under new circumstances.”

What is Lent for? It is for growth in grace and knowledge of the Lord, for progress toward him in his perfection.

How is this undertaken? Remember that Christ is our Life and Truth, but is also the Way to our Life and Truth. As perfect God, Jesus is our destination; the goal, the prize, the end of the road is a share in the divine nature. And as perfect Man, Jesus is our way to himself as God. He is both the journey and the destination.

In this life, we are concerned immediately with the journey, never keeping our eyes off of the destination, so that we may not wander from the path (1 Corinthians 9.24ff). Lying in our path is sin. Sin is arrayed against us in the road, cutting us off from our destination. But because our Lord has blazed this trail and faced this foe for us, we know that what defeats the enemy that is sin, is the suffering and death of Jesus.

Lent is about this confrontation in its particularity, in our own lives. We are, in imitation of our Lord, and through his power, to deny ourselves and take up our cross and follow him.

Read Father Congreve's text, Of Advance in Lent, here.

Next: How is this done? Retirement, Prayer, Fasting, Repentance, and Almsgiving.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you, this is helpful.