Presently Lent arrives. This is the forty days leading up to Easter, which also recall the forty days of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness. There is a telescoping of things here, since His temptation did not in actual fact immediately precede His Passion, but “liturgical time” is such that spiritual significance may override chronological exactness.
Lent, like Advent, is a time of penitence. Here we identify ourselves with the Lord’s fast and ordeal in the wilderness, which He bore for us.
This raises a point worth noting in passing. There are some varieties of Protestant theology and spirituality that so stress “the finished work of Christ” and the fact that He accomplished everything, that they leave no room at all for any participation on our part. Such participation, encouraged by the ancient Church, does not mean that we mortals claim any of the merit that attaches to Christ’s work, much less that we can by one thousandth particle add to His work. Nevertheless, the gospel teaches us that Christians are more than mere followers of Christ. We are His Body and are drawn, somehow, into His own sufferings. We are even “crucified” with Him.
My own tradition stressed this, but it was taught as a metaphor that meant only the putting to death of sin in our members. There was very little said about the sense in which Christ draws His Body into His very self-giving for the life of the world and makes them part of this mystery. Saint Paul uses extravagant language about his own filling up “that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ.” We had succinct enough explanations as to what he might have meant here, but these explanations allowed no room for any notion of our participating in Christ’s offering. This was looked upon as heresy, violating the doctrine of grace in which all is done by God and nothing by us. We are recipients only. That the gracious donation of salvation by God could in any manner include His making us a part of it all, as He made the Virgin Mary an actual part of the process, and as Saint Paul seems to teach, was not the note struck.
The ancient Church, in its observance of Lent, once more asks us to move through the gospel with Christ Himself. The most obvious mark of Lent to a newcomer is the matter of fasting. I had known about this practice all my life. My Catholic playmates would give up chocolates or Coke or ice cream for Lent. I also knew that a few devout people in my own tradition of evangelicalism practiced fasting now and again for special purposes—a time of especially concentrated prayer, for example.
I myself thought of Lenten fasting and also of the old Catholic practice of refusing meat on Fridays as being legalistic, and perhaps even heretical, since it seemed to entail some notion of accruing merit. Since Christ had done all, why should we flagellate ourselves this way? Was it not a return to the weak and beggarly elements condemned by Saint Paul? Was it not to be guilty of the very thing that the apostle had assailed the Galatian Christians for?
I discovered that the ancient Church teaches just what the New Testament teaches on the point, namely, that fasting is a salutary thing for us to undertake. Jesus fasted and assumed that His followers would. “When ye fast,” He said, not “if.” Saint Paul both practiced it and taught it. It seems to constitute a reminder to us that our appetites are not all and that man shall not live by bread alone. Furthermore, if we may believe the universal testimony of Christians who do practice it, it also clarifies our spiritual vision somehow. Lastly, it is a token of the Christian’s renunciation of the world. There is nothing that a Christian will insist he must have at all costs. Fasting supplies an elementary lesson here.
Lent asks us to ponder Christ’s self-denial for us in the wilderness. It draws us near to the mystery of Christ’s bearing temptation for us in His flesh, and of how in this Second Adam our flesh, which failed in Adam, now triumphs.
Lent also leads us slowly toward that most holy and dread of all events, the Passion of Christ. What Christian will want to arrive at Holy Week with his heart unexamined, full of foolishness, levity, and egoism? To those for whom any special observances hint of legalism or superstition one can only bear witness that the solemn sequence of Lent turns out to be something very different from one’s private attempts at meditating on the Passion. To move through the disciplines in company with millions and millions of other believers allover the world is a profoundly instructive thing.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The first time ashes were imposed on my forehead, I found a cacophony of voices inside me: “Come! Now you have betrayed your background! This is straight back to the Dark Ages. Fancy Saint Paul’s doing this!”
I knew it was not so when the priest came along with the little pot of damp ashes and with his thumb smudged my forehead—my forehead, the very frontal and crown of my dignity as a human being!—and aid, “Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return.”
I knew it was true. I would return to dust, like all men, but never before had mortality come home to me in this way. Oh, I had believed it spiritually. But surely we need not dramatize it this way….
Perhaps we should, says the Church. Perhaps it is good for our souls’ health to recall that our salvation, far from papering over the grave, leads us through it and raises our very mortality to glory. We, like all men, must die. I felt the strongest inclination to wave the priest past as he approached me in the line of people kneeling at the rail. Not me—not me—like Agag coming forth delicately, hoping that the bitterness of death was past. Yes, you. Remember, O man….
I was beginning to learn that when we encounter some “spiritual” truth in our bodies, it is brought home to us. We can meditate on suffering all day long, for example, but let us have migraines, and we know something we could not have known through merely mulling over the doctrine of suffering. We can meditate on love all day long, but let us kiss the one we long for, and we know immediately something we could not have known if we had thought about love for a thousand years. Nay—our very salvation came to us in the body of the incarnate God. “O generous love! that He who smote/In Man for man the foe,/The double agony in Man/For man should undergo,” says Cardinal Newman’s hymn. The ashes effected something in me more than a smudge on my forehead. I had felt, if only for a moment, the thing that I wished most earnestly to be exempted from: death.
(Note: This is an excerpt from Dr. Howard’s book Evangelical Is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, published by Ignatius Press.)
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