“Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks…”
∼ Ash Wednesday
Can you believe it? It’s only the first week of Lent, and I’m already tired of it. When will this ordeal end? Surely there’s a door somewhere leading out of this desert.
Does that sort of tell you how badly I need it? And as I’ve resolved to remain totally honest about the matter, I won’t deny it. The prospect of spending forty days disguised as a penitent does not exactly light my fire. Does it stoke yours? Give me the sybaritic life every time. The joys of asceticism are not for me.
I remember years ago asking a friend what sacrifice he’d be making for Lent. “Taking cold showers,” he said. It nearly froze my blood. Left me speechless, too, especially when he asked what I’d be doing. Should I have told him about the sugar I’d be leaving out of my morning cup of tea? Followed by constant grousing in the teeth of so intolerable a privation? How that used to drive my wife crazy. “I don’t care what you give up,” she’d say, “so long as you give up complaining about it.”
Well, there’s a resolution for you. Stop complaining. Let that be the first down payment on a deposit of heroism. But first let me tell you what my father used to give up. Watermelon. An amazing exercise in self-abnegation, I used to think. Only later did it dawn on me that he never ate it anyway. If God has a sense of humor (And why not, asked Chesterton? He made the hippopotamus, didn’t he?), then I like to think of my dad’s stretch in Purgatory as consisting of endless watermelon eaten in holy haste.
In the meantime, let’s try and look at Lent from another angle. From the vantage point, say, of Christ, whose absence from our lives is the real reason for the season. Because there are certainly no reasons for penance in Paradise. But for now, however, the Bridegroom having gone away, it is not unnatural that the wedding guests retire for a time to await his return. Left in a Vale of Tears, why shouldn’t we fast? It simply isn’t right that he be taken from us, his glorified body returned to the Father. And yet, suspended between two poles, that of past presence and future Parousia, we are obliged to live in hope, grateful for this time of penance and prayer; indeed, we welcome these Lenten rigors that remind us of our emptiness until Christ returns in Easter triumph.
Try to imagine an undiscovered country, an entire universe even, whose inhabitants are awaiting word from our world. What shall we tell them? Should we send them something? “The complete works of Johann Sebastian Bach,” snapped the poet Lewis Thomas. Then—after a short pause—he adds: “But that would be boasting.” Well, what would you send? Why not the biggest and best boast of all? God’s very Word imperishably set down in the two great Testaments of our faith. Here is the Good News for which all creation longs, including creatures from another world, to whom God may not yet have shown himself. And if it’s too big to fit into the space capsule, then why not a copy of the Fourth Gospel, every blessed word set in stone by that master craftsman, John the Divine, the clear-eyed eagle, who saw more deeply into the things of God than any man living. Let them see the face of God in the figure of the Pierced and Crucified Christ, who took on the flesh of sin in order to nail it all to the Cross. Let them move, with Jesus, in rhythmic prayer and silence toward the summit of the stair, the mysterious hour toward which everything in the Gospel moves. Not less than seventeen times does the word appear, pointing us always along the high road to his Passion, to the time of Easter triumph through the Dark Night of torture, desolation and death.
Isn’t this why the Church in her wisdom has given us the season of Lent? So that we might spend forty days following hard on the footsteps of the Son of God, who first blazed that trail from life, to death, to eternal life? Lent is the necessary journey we take to go from sin to sanctity, from the disfigurements of the one to the transfiguring glories of the other. All the while growing ever closer to the One who with his blood bought us freedom and salvation.
In a strange little tale told by Flannery O’Connor called “The Displaced Person,” one of the deepest things she ever wrote, we see an old priest telling a woman that the family from Poland she allowed to live on her farm really have no other place to go. Yes, but she has grown weary of them, their oddities of speech and dress grate on everyone, and she resolves to rid her farm of their alien presence. “I’m not responsible for all the extra people in the world,” she complains. And, besides, she wants to know, “Why did they have to come in the first place?” The priest, who only half listens to the harangue, and is getting up to go, mistakenly thinks she’s been talking about Christ. “He came to redeem us,” he tells her.
Isn’t that the question taking us all by the throat? Why did Christ come in the first place? What was he thinking, this ultimate Displaced Person who has come among us to live and to die? The answer, which I have spent most of my adult life as a Catholic theologian trying to unpack, is that he came to redeem us. To rescue and deliver us from the scourge of sin and death, followed by an eternity spent in the company of evil spirits determined on our destruction. Isn’t this what the forty days of Lent remind us of? We are to harness our sluggish spirits to the hard discipline of Lent in order to sharpen awareness of the looming eschatological choices before us. What the old Penny Catechism used to call the Four Last Things ever to be remembered—Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell. And not only to augment our awareness of them, but to fortify our resistance by the practice of precisely those virtues that enable us to overcome the devil and the temptations he delights in surrounding us with. What Lent is really about, the Church reminds us, is a solemn forty day summons to experience Christ anew, to enter into the humanity of his life so as to be drawn ever more deeply into the mystery of his divinity, his unending intimacy with the Father. Christ having spent forty days in the desert preparing to die, you and I are thus enabled to enter into life everlasting. There to commune forever in the company of the angels and saints. And all those we have loved and lost along the way.
This is, you’ve got to admit, pretty exciting stuff. Never, in fact, was a tale told we’d rather find true. “Show it to the heathen,” Dorothy Sayers challenges us, “and they may not believe it. But here is something a man might be glad to believe.”
Isn’t this what faith is finally about? And to the cultivation of that faith we are to consecrate our lives. Consumed by that “devouring fire,” Hans Urs von Balthasar has called it, “between two nights, two abysses: the night of adoration, followed by the night of obedience.” What a splendid opportunity Lent affords us to stoke the fires of each.
Editor’s note: The image above, titled “Christ in the Desert,” was painted by Ivan Kramskoi in 1872.