Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Week of the beginning of Lent, 2010, Part One


This Wednesday is the First Day of Lent, commonly called Ash Wednesday. Some notes on this day, including Aelfric’s homily on Ash Wednesday, were posted on this site last year on 23 February. Some other comments on Shrovetide were included in the posting on 19 February.
The name dies cinerum, Day of Ashes, probably dates from around the mid-eighth century. At first the ashes were imposed on the public penitents, but later the custom of distributing the Ashes to all the faithful arose from a general desire to imitate this practice. It is mentioned as being for general observance by both clerics and laity in 1091 (Synod of Beneventum) but nearly a hundred years before Aelfric (in the sermon included in last year’s notes) assumed that everyone took part in the rite.
With the beginning of Lent upon us, there is little time for looking at the disciplines of the season. Since there are plenty of resources available for prayer, bible-study, daily devotions, and the like available, we don’t need to add anything here, except perhaps to suggest that personal Lenten study could well begin with the Sermon on the Mount (chapters 5-7 of St Matthew). Advice on your personal Lenten reading should only come from someone who knows you. This more or less leaves Self-denial, or abstinence and almsgiving, or Giving Up and Giving Away.

“Every person who has read his prayer book with any degree of attention, knows that this season of Lent is appointed by the Church for the especial exercise of repentance; that she intends us to refrain for a while even from the innocent pleasures of the world, that our time and thoughts may be the freer to consider our past lives, to bewail and confess our sins, and so prepare ourselves, with thankful hearts, to acknowledge the infinite mercies of God in Christ Jesus on the great days of his Death and Resurrection.” ~ John Keble, Sermon for Ash Wednesday of Not Receiving the Grace of God in Vain.
So what should I give up for Lent? Keble leads us to the answer: it should be one of “innocent pleasures of the world.” As a wise colleague said to me the other day, “You give up for Lent something that you can quite rightly take up again at Easter”. It should be something good and lawful that you can do without, though perhaps not easily. The fact that the thing given up is not sinful or wrong is precisely why giving it up is a discipline. For while that word has many shades of meaning, its root is ‘to learn’, for it is what a disciple does. By choosing to give up for a time something perfectly innocent, a person learns to be stronger in self-control, more able to reject temptation when it comes, less dependent on pleasure. And since the thing given up is not itself wrong, failure in the discipline is not catastrophic. It merely shows where one needs to pray more and seek strength. Beyond that I have no suggestions to make as to what any person should give up, except to say that traditionally ‘giving something up’ is in addition to abstinence from meat in Lent.. There are some helpful ideas in two articles which may be found on line at Project Canterbury. They are:
“Some thoughts about Lent for Busy People” By E.F. Pemberton (London: Mowbray, no date):
“The Lenten Fast” by the Rev. Charles T. Stout (Milwaukee: Morehouse, no date)

Almsgiving is a Christian duty all year round: it is clear from the Gospels that there are no exceptions to the Lord’s commandments (see, for example, Mt 5.42; Lk 6.29-30). Nor does the ‘all’ in the baptismal promise to ‘seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbour as yourself’ leave much room for manoeuvre. Lent is a time to be more serious and more intentional in following the commandments of Christ. It is perhaps an odd thing that the fact that in a modern city where opportunity is never lacking to obey the commandment “Give to him who begs from you” it is often so hard to obey. But at least once a year let’s remember that our Lord doesn’t say we should ask if the beggar deserves it, or wonder what horrid thing our alms might get spent on, or discuss the state’s duty to alleviate poverty. Still, what any individual does about all this is between you and God, and we are not to judge one another (but see Mt 25:31-46).

Of course when we talk of all these things, we need to bear in mind that Lent is for Christians who want to practice their religion. It is not a set of tricks we think will make God love us (he already does), or forgive us (he already does), or will get us extra brownie points (merit). It is a way by which we make ourselves keep our hearts and minds set on what God has done for us in Christ as we prepare to celebrate the Christian Passover.
Above all, Lent is not an end in itself; it is about preparing to celebrate Easter. All the restraint and self-denial is a holding back so that we can let loose in the greatest feast of the Church Year. Some words of the Bishop of Durham are helpful here, and worth quoting at some length:

“…if Lent is a time to give things up, Easter ought to be a time to take things up. Champagne for breakfast again—well, of course, Christian holiness was never meant to be merely negative. Of course you have to weed the garden from time to time; sometimes the ground ivy may need serious digging before you can get it out. That’s Lent for you. But you don’t want simply to turn the garden back into a neat bed of blank earth. Easter is the time to sow new seeds and put out a few cuttings. If Calvary means putting to death things in your life that need killing off if you are to flourish as a Christian and a truly human being, then Easter should mean planting, watering, and training up things in your life … that ought to be blossoming, and in due course bearing fruit. The forty days of the Easter season, until the ascension, ought to be a time to balance out Lent by taking something up, some new task or venture, something wholesome and fruitful and outgoing and self-giving. You may be able to do in only for sic weeks, just as you may be able to go without beer or tobacco only for the six weeks of Lent. But if you really make a start on it, it might give you a sniff of new possibilities. new hopes, new ventures you never dreamed of. It might bring something of Easter into your innermost life. It might help you wake up in a whole new way. And that’s what Easter is all about.”
- N. T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: Harper One, 2008), p. 257.


Felicity Pickup said...

Oh dear! I could wish you'd been a bit less helpful herein.;)

William Craig said...

Perhaps I can try to be less helpful next year.