The Logic of Lent
(Excerpts from a series of three talks given by Canon Dr. Robert Crouse at a PBSC Quiet Day held on March 27, 2004, at St. Thomas’s Church, Toronto.)
The essence of Christian faith and the church’s teaching is the word of God, definitively revealed in Jesus Christ, and handed down to us in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore, the lectionary – that is to say, the system according to which the message of the Scriptures is presented – is of crucial importance. In the Book of Common Prayer, especially in the eucharistic lectionary (the series of Epistle and Gospel lessons for the Christian year), we have a system of Biblical teaching which is not only venerable, but supremely logical and coherent, and I suggest that we devote our meditations today to the Lenten portion of that lectionary.
This series of lessons, substantially unchanged since the fifth century, was taken over by our Reformers from the medieval English rite, called the Sarum Missal. Under the influence of post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, this ancient tradition has been largely abandoned, and only the Book of Common Prayer preserves it in its integrity. (Of the Lenten lections, only the Gospel for Passion Sunday was changed in our 1962 revision.)
In the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, we celebrate the Word made flesh, the Word of God, the truth of God, made manifest in the world, in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The divine wisdom, the eternal power and love of God, are shown to us, made manifest to us, in Jesus Christ, proclaimed in signs and wonders. God is manifest in Christ, that we might behold his glory, “full of grace and truth”, that we might share, in heart and mind, the life of God himself; as an ancient prayer puts it, “that we might be partakers of his divinity, who emptied himself to share our humanity”. This is the meaning of Epiphany: the truth of God is shown to us that our existence might be changed by it: “not conformed to this present age, but transformed by the renewing of our minds”.
As we approach the Lenten season, we consider more fully the nature of that transformation. Lent is about conflict and suffering, about death and resurrection. It is about Jesus’ death and resurrection, certainly, but also about our own, as we follow his road, through conflict and temptation, to Jerusalem. For our transformation, the renewing of our minds in conformity to the Word of God, is, indeed a kind of death and rebirth – it is death to an old nature, an old worldliness, an old conformity to this present age, which does not give up without a struggle.
As St. Augustine says, in his Confessions: “Those trifles of all trifles, those vanities of vanities … held me back, plucking at the garment of my flesh, softly murmuring, ‘Are you sending us away? From this moment, shall we not be with you, now or ever?’” Those old, long-cherished demons – perhaps hardly even recognized as demons – will not be easily dismissed. They will be cast out only with much prayer and fasting. That is the meaning of the disciplines of Lent.
Between Epiphany and Lent, there are three Sundays, with ancient Latin names: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima – the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days (approximately) before Easter. The intention of these three weeks is to prepare us to undertaken the journey and the labour, the pilgrimage of Lent. Thus, St. Paul reminds us in the Epistle lesson for Septuagesima, we are to be like athletes, competing in a struggle – athletes in training, temperate in all things; not aimless, but disciplined, striving for a prize which is immortal. The Gospel likens us to workers in a vineyard. It matters not whether we have come early in the morning, or at midday, or at the last, eleventh hour; we labour for the one reward, which God’s free grace provides. Whether the hour be late or early matters not; the point is that now we are called to spiritual reward, and now, now in the moment when God’s Word addresses us, we must give up our idleness.
In ancient times, this Septuagesima Sunday was the day on which new converts were for the first time in the congregation, preparing for their baptism at Easter. Imagine the impact of these lessons upon them. “They that run in a race run all … so run that ye may obtain”. It matters not that you come only now, at the last, eleventh hour. There is but one labour for all, and the reward is God’s free, unmerited gift. We see in these lessons the whole dialectic of grace and works. As St. Augustine puts it, God, in crowning our merits, crowns nothing but his own grace.
Sexagesima’s lessons instruct us further in the meaning of this undertaking. In the Epistle lesson, St. Paul speaks of those perils which impede us and distract us from our goal; not just external things; not just “weariness and painfulness” ; but also our legitimate cares and duties, and our own inner weaknesses. It’s not easy for any one of us, but the trials and infirmities are to be embraced as the very stuff of glory: “If I must needs glory”, says St. Paul, “I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”
The Gospel lesson for this day explains all this further, by way of one of Jesus’ parables: a story which uses visible and tangible, familiar things symbolically to draw our minds to consider spiritual truths. In this story, God is himself the sower, who spreads far and wide the seed, which is his word: by the wayside, on the rocks, and among the thorns, as well as on the ploughed field. In some cases the word of God is preached to hardened souls, whose sterile and unyielding minds and hearts will not open to receive a divine or sacred word. Others hear the word, and receive it superficially, but will not give it roots of understanding and commitment, and therefore cannot persevere through difficulties. In others, the Spirit’s life within is choked and suffocated by the “cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life”. The tender plant needs space in which to grow. The word of God cannot thrive as just one concern among the others, but must be cultivated and tended as the central focus of our lives.
And so, we are called to make good the soil of our souls, to cultivate the word of God within us, with understanding and devotion – deeply, and not just superficially; to practice our religion with steadiness of purpose, and thus “to bring forth fruit with patience”. Renewed attentiveness to the word of God, renewed commitment to the practice of religion, to prayers and works of charity: that is the challenge of these scriptures, and that is precisely the challenge of the Lenten season, for which these lessons are intended to prepare us.
On Quinquagesima the Gospel sets all this in the context of Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, to die and rise again; and the Epistle first tells us that the “more excellent way” of charity must be the character of our own journey; for without that, all our labour will be “nothing worth” – only “sounding brass and tinkling cymbal”. But what is this “charity”, which is more important than all other spiritual gifts – more important than knowledge and prophecy and miracles?
It isn’t what we usually mean by the word “charity” nowadays; and modern versions of the New Testament, therefore, generally substitute the word “love”. That is a correct translation, more or less, but it’s not altogether satisfactory either. We commonly use the word “love” to refer to feelings and sentiments and affections, and that is not really what St. Paul had in mind. Our natural preferences and affections are not charity; sometimes, in fact, they are quite the opposite. Charity means willing the good – the eternal and perfect good, which is God; and sometimes that is not at all what we happen to like.
To live in terms of our affections, our likes and dislikes, is childish; in fact, that’s the very essence of childishness. It’s childish to think that my own particular preferences are the standard of what is good. To grow up, to put away childish things, is to recognize a good which is beyond our particular likes and dislikes, and to serve that good with a steadfast will. Charity means to will the eternal good, and to do that good, and thereby to conform our affections to that good, so that finally, as one of our Collects puts it, we come to love God’s commandments, and desire his promises.
The Gospel lesson sets before us the perfect example of charity, as Jesus sets out for Jerusalem to be crucified; also healing, by his charity, the blind man by the wayside. It is not a journey of preference; it is a journey of obedience. Jesus knows what he is doing, and he wills it. It is not a matter of his preference; he does not wish “to be mocked and spitefully entreated, and spitted on”; but he wills the Father’s will.
In the Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Lent, we have St. Matthew’s account of the temptations of Jesus. This lesson is clearly intended to establish the meaning and message of the Lenten season, and we should examine it with careful attention. This is where the Gospel story begins: “Then was Jesus led up of the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil”; and it was there, in the wilderness – the place of barrenness, and peril, and privation – that the terms of the struggle for God’s kingdom, the age-long conflict of good and evil, of light and darkness, became fully manifest.
First, Jesus is tempted to turn stones into bread – to turn the divine power to serve immediate worldly ends. Not that the physical needs are in themselves evil; not that there is anything evil in being hungry and wanting to eat; the temptation lies rather in looking upon such satisfactions as the central and essential point of God’s kingdom. For the kingdom of God does not consist in satisfying the cravings of the senses, nor in miraculous devices for making the world more comfortable or more convenient. “Man does not live by bread alone, but by the whole word of God.”
The second temptation is to test the divine power: “If thou be the son of God, cast thyself down … ” It is the temptation to measure the divine power, to control and manipulate the divine Spirit, in one’s own terms. But a god who is subject to human whim and human caprice is not the true and living God. The miracles of his kingdom have quite another character and purpose. We may, indeed we should, raise to him our earnest intercessions in time of need, but we must never presume to manipulate his power. “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.”
The third temptation is the most fundamental, and, indeed, it is the root of all the others. It is the ancient diabolical temptation of Adam in the Garden, to set one’s finite self in the place of God. But that is really to worship the devil: “All these things I will give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” It is, of course, an illusion, a futile pride and ambition, because it is untrue to the absolute reality of God, and the objective truth of his creations. “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.” So, finally, the devil is unmasked. The illusions are revealed for what they are – fundamentally absurd. And the angels – the pure and everlasting principles of the just order of God’s universe – acknowledge this and serve Jesus.
Lent II and III
In the Gospel lessons for the Lenten Sundays, we hear a great deal about devils. On the first Sunday, we hear about Jesus being “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness, to be tempted by the devil”. In the second Sunday’s Gospel lesson, the Canaanite woman implores Jesus to save her daughter, who is “grievously vexed with a devil”; and in the third Sunday’s Gospel lesson, Jesus is accused of casting out devils “through Beelzebul, the prince of the devils”. The message of Lent seems much concerned with devils, and with what can and should be done about them.
But what, really, are we to make of such stories as these? Who, or what, are these devils? In the Bible, and indeed in all ancient religious literature, Christian and non-Christian, they seem to have a prominent place; but for most modern readers, I think, these old stories of devils must seem very strange. Talk about devils seems weird, and occult, and superstitious. How can we take such stories seriously? Yet our Gospel lessons keep insisting upon the reality and power of devils. What are we to make of it?
Well, our vocabulary in speaking of such matters has, no doubt, changed a good deal since ancient times, and we do not now speak commonly of devils. And yet, the realities of spiritual life remain very much the same from one age to another, and the devils are very much with us still, around us, and within us. To be “vexed by a devil” means to have one’s will, possibly one’s whole personality, fixed and focussed upon some spiritual crookedness – some worldly lust, for example (as suggested in the Epistles for these two Sundays), some idle curiosity, some vain ambition. We do, of course, make mistakes, and we are, of course, troubled by all sorts of accidents and problems in the ordinary course of nature and human affairs. But to be possessed by a devil is something more than all that: to be possessed is to will a lie, to espouse and love a lie, as though it were the truth, and then to be captivated by that lie. And, unwelcome as the idea may seem, every one of us is vulnerable to such pretences, obsessions and fixations in many more or less subtle forms.
In the Gospel story for Lent III, the Canaanite woman begs Jesus to deliver her daughter, who is “grievously vexed by a devil”. In the Gospel stories, details are always significant, and in this story, it is particularly significant that the petitioner is a Canaanite. The Canaanites, as you will perhaps remembers, were the old, pagan population of Palestine, whom the Israelites tried to expel when they took possession of their Promised Land; and those Canaanites who remained, remained as despised outcasts. Thus, the Canaanite woman is as far as possible from having any claim upon what Jesus calls “the children’s bread”; as far as possible from having any natural right in the nation of Israel, the Commonwealth of God.
But she comes, nevertheless, in humility and trust: “the little dogs”, she says – those who have no rights – “eat of the crumbs which fall from their master’s table”. And the grace of God, unmerited by any natural claims, is not withheld: “O woman”, says Jesus, “great is thy faith; be it unto thee even as thou wilt.” This Canaanite woman, you see, is the symbol of all of us, who have no claims upon God’s favour. Jesus’ gift to her stands for the free, unmerited grace of God.
“O woman, great is thy faith.” It is only in relation to faith, humble faith like that of the outcast Canaanite woman, that the grace of healing comes – grace that is free and unmerited by any of us. That is to say, it is only in the recognition of the true and living God that we are delivered from the false gods – those fantasies and lies which are our devils.
Those demons, those false gods are not impregnable, and their pretensions can be shattered. Often enough, they reveal their feet of clay, and we become disillusioned with them, and cast out one of two of them. We can, perhaps, sometimes cast out one devil in favour of another. But that is no deliverance. As the Gospel for Lent III explains: “When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest; and finding none, he saith, I will return unto my house whence I came out; and when he cometh, he findeth it swept and garnished; then goeth he and taketh to him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first.”
Simply to cast out a devil, to cast out one false god, is just to invite another in. Disillusionment is not enough. The empty, disillusioned soul is no solution – it is vulnerable to more, and yet more vicious, demons, and invites the bitter devils of cynicism to come and dwell there. Deliverance comes only with faith; only when our souls are filled, our minds renewed, with God; nourished and nurtured by his living word.
In the Bible and in Christian tradition, numbers are often full of symbolical significance, and such is the case with the forty days of Lent. These forty days, of course, of course, recall the forty days of Jesus’ fasting and temptation in the wilderness. But they recall, as well, the forty years of Exodus, of Israel’s journey from captivity in Egypt, the struggle through the wilderness to the promised land of freedom, led by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, sustained by manna from the skies, and water from the stony rock.
Behind all this rich and complex symbolism, there are ideas which are both simple and altogether basic for our spiritual life as Christians. There is, first of all, a diagnosis of our condition as alienation – exile, bondage, and captivity in a foreign land. Spiritually, it means our alienation from God, our separation from our spirit’s home, and our wandering through a barren wilderness, a place of trials and temptations, striving to return. Then, there is the journey’s destination, the promised land, the city of Jerusalem, the house of God, the place of peace and reconciliation. Spiritually that means the spirit’s home, the true and perfect and eternal good, for which our spirits yearn. Thirdly, there is the idea of divine sustenance and guidance through the journey. Spiritually, that means the providence of God, the watchful care and nutriment of our poor spirits by the truth of God, in word and sacrament.
From the Gospel of the third Sunday in Lent, we learned that the empty soul is in a perilous situation. And thus, the lessons for the fourth Sunday speak to us of spiritual nutriment, the filing of our souls with the truth and grace of God. The Gospel is the story of the multitude in the wilderness, miraculously fed by Christ; and the Epistle lesson bids us rejoice in the promise of the free and heavenly Jerusalem, “the mother of us all”. Because of these themes, the day has several traditional names. Sometimes it is called “Laetare Sunday”, from the first word of the ancient Latin introit, which means “Rejoice”. Another ancient name is Dominica Refectionis, which means “Refreshment Sunday”. And still another traditional name, reflecting the theme of the Epistle, is “Mothering Sunday”, and the day has been observed, especially in England, as Mothers’ Day.
These several names reflect one basic thought: the homeward journey of our souls is sustained and nourished by the Word of God in Christ, by that Providence which keeps alive within us the vision of Jerusalem, the City of our freedom, our native land of pure and perfect good. That is the bread which sustains us in the wilderness, and nothing less will ever satisfy the restless heart.
Lent V (Passion Sunday)
Lent leads into Passiontide, and it is in the Passion of Jesus that all the lessons of Lent are summed up. The whole point of the teachings and disciplines of Lent is that the demons of worldliness, the demons of false and empty ambitions and aspirations, the demons of self-seeking, should be cast out of us: “It shall not be so among you”; and that our souls should be filled with the living bread from heaven, the Word of God himself, the word of obedient and sacrificial love, which is both death and resurrection: death to our old and worldly nature, but new birth in us of life which is eternal.
On Passion Sunday the Epistle lesson, from the Epistle to the Hebrews, speaks of what Christ has done for us: he is “the mediator of the new covenant, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first covenant, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance”. That is to say, our Saviour, Christ, both God and man, by his pure and perfect sacrifice, freely offered, pays the price of our transgressions, destroys the enmity, and opens up for us the way of our return to God, and life eternal. Thus, the sacrifice of Christ is something done for us, once for all, something which we could not do, something which we can only faithfully and thankfully accept.
But the sacrifice of Christ is also something which must be done in us, in our own minds and hearts, day by day. Our thankful acceptance of Christ’s work for us must change us inwardly, must transform our minds and hearts; as the Epistle expresses it, must “purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God”.
That is precisely the message of the Gospel lesson, which narrates the request for James and John to sit at the right and left hands of Jesus in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus’ response; it speaks to us of the inner transformation of our own lives; it speaks of a very fundamental change in attitude and aspiration which must be ours, if we would live in the humble obedience of the sacrifice of Christ. “The princes of the Gentiles exercise dominion over them … but it shall not be so among you”; you must have the humility and obedience of faithful servants, “even as the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many”.
Lent VI (Palm Sunday)
On Palm Sunday, we celebrate the kingship of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ. We celebrate the dramatic moment of his entry into Jerusalem, the Holy City, as all the people cry, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” It seems a moment of great triumph, as Jesus enters the holy city, and goes on to cleanse the temple at the city’s heart. It seems a moment of great triumph; but how quickly is that moment overshadowed by the terrible events which follow. Jerusalem cannot accept this king. It cannot understand his kingship; it will deny him, and he will be crucified outside its gates.
It seems such a tragic and painful contradiction. But in that very contradiction there is a simple, and powerful, and all-important message, which sums up all the lessons of our Lenten season. The point is just this: the kingship of Jesus, true kingship, true liberty, true dignity, do not consist in worldly pomp and power, in worldly glory and ambition, nor in worldly grace and beauty. What is really going on here is a complete overturning of conventional worldly attitudes and understandings about true dignity and true worth. The lesson here has been present in one form and another in all the Scripture lessons of the Lenten season, beginning with the story of Jesus’ rejection of his own temptations in the wilderness.
The words of St. Paul in the Epistle for this day sum it all up very precisely. “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, who … took upon himself the form of a servant (the form of a slave) and became obedient, even unto death.” In his word, and in his Passion, Jesus declares that the pomps of this world are vain, and our trust in them is ruinous. True kingship requires the rejection of all that, the casting out of all those worldly demons that possess our souls.
The signs of his glory are the signs of body broken and blood outpoured. “He reigns and triumphs from the tree.” That is the glory we celebrate on Palm Sunday, and that is the glory we show forth week by week in the Church’s liturgy as we break the bread and drink the cup. And that is the glory which must adorn our lives. That is the logic of Lent.