An Essay on Lent

I.

It’s the time of year when we awake from the drowsy hedonism of summer and jump to our feet, only to glimpse our plans and projects getting away from us. The year is getting into swing. There is a rhythm, like a Dave Brubeck time signature, but you think you can grasp it: work, family, classes, church, sport, to-do lists. But just as you think you’re about to reach ‘inbox-zero’, just as you coil for the spring that promises to place us on top of all the doings that need to be done, someone presents a dusty ankle which intertangles itself with your chopping legs, and rather than spring, we sprawl. In the dust and the ash of the city.

It’s the season of Lent. Lent sits in our calendar like the homeless man in the city street with his bare ankles sticking out. As soon as the year begins to gather pace, as soon as you feel like you have a sense of your goals and a clear direction, Lent trips you over and tells you to repent. Lent says, ‘your efficiency and effort is perverse, left untutored it will only produce more beautiful death machines’. Lent says, ‘your busy-ness is a flight from reality, if you want to live, you must stop and die.’

Evangelicals don’t really know what to do with Lent. Some embrace it, seeing the recovery of the traditional liturgical calendar as an ancient treasure part of the wealth of spiritual wisdom that is the inheritance of the communion of saints; some are suspicious, not unaware that part of our spiritual inheritance is the wisdom, passion, and godliness of those who fought against the chains of tradition when it had obscured the heart of the gospel: that God’s grace is not bound to human works or observances. Some of us think ‘lent’ is just the past tense of a verb most likely to occur in awkward conversations about your neighbour’s tools. The reality is, of course, that all of these things are weighty considerations (not least returning your neighbour’s tools). It’s worth pointing out, however, that both the uncritical observance of Lent or the uncritical dismissal means that we are failing to listen to a theological friend, someone who God has placed us into community to live with and learn from (even if they are now hidden with Christ): whether Athanasius, or John Calvin, or the Puritans. 

I’ve become increasingly interested in the calendar of the church as a means of education and discipline in the real realities brought to light in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Churches have traditionally had a set pattern for reading Scripture (a lectionary) that enables us to be sure we are hearing the full counsel of God in our gatherings, in a similar way, the church calendar can function to direct our attention to the core doctrines of the church. It actually makes a lot of sense to me that we would remind, encourage, train, elaborate these realities in the form of a calendar. Christians aren’t interested in a purely intellectual appreciation of the truth about God: that would make us nothing more than philosophers. Christian truth is an integrated intellectual-affective-practical activity. That’s why, when we gather we are taught from the word, we lift up our hearts in songs and prayers and stories designed to move our affections-emotions, and we engage in a variety of symbolic actions and acts of care toward those around us). The church calendar is a mode of education in christian doctrine that insists that we must all learn together (the whole church from the children to the elders, rather than me on my own going off to study a night course on the doctrine of the Trinity through a Bible College); that we must think and feel and act together in response to who Christ is and what he has done; that our faith is rooted in history (both the historical facts of Jesus’ life, the growth of the early church, and the chain of remembrance and respect, what we sometimes call ‘tradition’, that embodies our claim that the fellowship of Christians is with far more than those who presently possess the present); and finally, that we are a community still waiting, we engage in the discipline of truthful remembrance for the sake of the future. This revolving wheel of seasons keeps whispering to us, “until he comes”.

II.

In order to understand Lent we have to delve back into the memory of the Church, to recall the times when Lent was observed differently and for different reasons.

First of all, you’ve got to remember that for many years celebrations like Easter or Lent weren’t fixed in stone. They almost certainly don’t originate in the very earliest period of the Church. Different Churches around the Roman Empire disagreed about precisely when to celebrate Easter, and had very different ideas about when to fast and what their fasting should involve. The idea of celebrating Christmas comes along later still. Most scholars would agree that probably the earliest Church period (the time of the Apostles and the generations immediately afterward) celebrated Easter every week! Every Friday became a remembrance of Jesus death (marked by some sort of fast) and every Sunday was celebrated as a reminder of his Resurrection: the Lord’s Day (Actually, that’s basically what we still do with our Church meetings on a Sunday). Gradually these weekly remembrances were supplemented with a larger Church calendar

In some form, the practice of observing Lent was established by the time of the Council of Nicea (325AD). The fifth Canon (Rule) of Nicea reads:

“And let these synods be held, the one before Lent, (that the pure Gift may be offered to God after all bitterness has been put away), and let the second be held about autumn.”

(The Canon concerns the need for the churches to hold twice-yearly Synods to review appeals against unfair excommunication of Bishops, if only we had such a need!)

Around the time of the Council of Nicea it seems that churches around the Roman Empire were beginning to divide up the year into periods of time marked by reflection upon different events within the history of God’s redemption of his people. This might sound like a weird thing to us Digital-Moderns, but it certainly wasn’t strange in a society where time was marked out by the quality of events and activities rather than quantities. Time passed in the cycles of sowing and harvest. Years were counted against the lives and rules of Emperors (“in the third year of Caesar Augustus…”) . And all of these events correlated to religious activities: sacrifices, offerings, pilgrimages, fasts, feasts. That was how time passed, not primarily because the Earth sashayed around the solar system, or a metal arm rattled around a dial.

The Fifty Days after Resurrection Sunday (what we call Easter Sunday)  was known as ‘Paschal time’ or ‘Eastertime’. In traditional Churches you’ll still see the weeks after Easter counted out: 2nd Sunday after Easter, 3rd Sunday after Easter, right up until the 50th day after Easter: the Day of Pentecost (lit. fiftieth Day). This whole period was coming to be regarded by the  Church in the Nicene period as a time of celebration of Jesus’ resurrection and rule.

At the same time, a similar thing was happening with the period before Easter. These days, or weeks, were increasingly regarded as a special time of preparation for the celebration feast of Easter. The word in the Greek text that we substitute with the word Lent is tessarakoste, i.e., ‘fortieth day’. The word appears to have been formed on analogy withpentekoste (Pentecost, i.e., ‘fiftieth day’). Different churches in different parts of the Roman Empire observed different periods of preparation, so the reference to ‘Lent’ in the Nicene Canon doesn’t necessarily refer to a 40 day fast. But, clearly, people were taking some sort of pre-Easter time out to prepare.

One of the most famous participants at the Council of Nicea was the theologian Athanasius, a Bishop in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. Athanasius had a habit of writing a ‘Festal Letter’ to the ministers of the churches in his region each year, many of which have been preserved. We get a detailed description of his practice of Lent in his Sixth Festal Letter.

We begin the fast of forty days on the first day of the month Phamenoth (Feb. 25); and having prolonged it till the fifth of Pharmuthi (Mar. 31), suspending it upon the Sundays and the Saturdays preceding them, we then begin again on the holy days of Easter, on the sixth of Pharmuthi (Apr, 1), and cease on the eleventh of the same month (Apr. 6), late in the evening of the Saturday, whence dawns on us the holy Sunday, on the twelfth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 7), which extends its beams, with unobscured grace, to all the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost. Resting on that day, let us ever keep Easter joy in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom, to the Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. All the brethren who are with me salute you. Salute one another with a holy kiss.

Essentially, Athanasius is describing a 40 day fast (not including Saturdays and Sundays) for the period before Easter Sunday. Christians didn’t (and still don’t) fast on the Sundays of this period because they are all ‘mini-Easters’: days in which Jesus’ resurrection is celebrated. The fact that Athanasius has to spell out the details of how the Lenten period should be observed probably suggests that people were still trying to reach a consistent practice among different churches.

The word ‘Lent’ came into English from a Germanic root for ‘long’ (via Anglo-Saxon) and refers to Spring, the season in the Northern Hemisphere when the days begin to lengthen. One of the many ironies of life in the Antipodes (Australia) is that we observe the season of Lent in Autumn, when the days shorten. But at the same time, the fact that the church could observe different lengths of time as ‘Lent’, and do it at different seasons of the year (Spring, Autumn) tells you that Lent belongs to a different kind of calendar, a quality-of-time calendar. In fact, this represents quite a different way of thinking about time itself, one that we have mostly lost. I’m not going to go into that here other than to notice that our culture has shifted away from qualitative to quantitative appreciations of time. We still have a functional engagement with ‘qualitative’ time – we operate with a keen awareness of the difference between weekday and weekend, but we only conceptualise time in terms of quantity: seconds, minutes, hours, etc. It’s part of our general quantification of reality. Protestants, in their desire to purge the church of superstitution and idolatry, played a large historical role in this  quantification but it’s worth asking if, perhaps, we have been the victims of too much success. The New Testament is full of qualitative statements about time:

But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, (Galatians 4:4 NIV11)

Paul isn’t saying that God waited until the correct number of seconds had passed. He’s saying that the time was ‘right’, it had a certain quality to it based on the weaving together of history. It’s one of the distinctive features of Jesus’ biography that he ordered his life around these qualitative evaluations of time:

“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV11) [a word search for ‘time’ in the Gospels will make it strikingly clear just how often Jesus talks about ‘time’.]

What have we lost by becoming so obsessed with quantitative time? Let me give you two things to think about:

First, it reinforces an ‘anti-realist’ approach to the world that is the sworn enemy of Christian theology. Christians believe that God’s creation of the world involved him putting an order into it, one that we can discern and respond to. Things in the world do not get their meaning purely through our use or evaluation of them. ‘Jesus has been raised from the dead’ therefore ‘Repent and Believe’ has a logic that blatantly violates the ‘is/ought’ distinction: the ‘ought’ is built into the ‘is’. In a similar way, Christian thinking about time (and Christian doctrine that utilises temporal concepts) operates with a sense that time has an intrinsic meaning, history has a sense.

Secondly, the Christian understanding of time means that we think timing is part of virtue. Virtually all the great Wisdom Literature of the world agrees that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1), but late moderns have become entranced with the instantaneous and the spontaneous. It is a habit of thought that is piling up catastrophe for us in the near future. We do not know how to control and interpret the correct timing for the satisfaction of our desires and the result may well be a global climate catastrophe. In contrast, Christians are constantly exhorted to ‘patience’. ‘Waiting’ is a core description of the Christian way of life, precisely because we believe in qualities of time: now is the ‘last days’ when waiting and patience are temporal virtues; soon to come is the ‘age to come’ when waiting becomes satisfaction.

Lent serves as a disciplined education in the difference between Christian and non-Christian thinking about time. It’s a practices that can teach us a habitual way to think and feel that provides us with deep resources for living as ‘temporary residents’ within a cultural milieu whose intellectual and ethical foundations are profoundly different to ours.

 

III.

What is most significant about these Festal Letters, however, is not the details about dates, but Athanasius’ reasoning for why Christians should get involved in this practice. Whereas, much later medieval understandings of Lent revolved around the idea of ‘penance’, for Athanasius, Lent was about preparation, about ‘palate cleansing’ for the feast which was up and coming. Anyone who wants to genuinely enjoy a feast does not gorge themselves at McDonald’s on the way to the party.

Athanasius in full flight, it’s a beautiful thing:

The whole creation keeps a feast, my brethren, and everything that has breath praises the Lord, as the Psalmist [says], on account of the destruction of the enemies, and our salvation. And justly indeed; for if there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, what should there not be over the abolition of sin, and the resurrection of the dead? Oh what a feast and how great the gladness in heaven! how must all its hosts joy and exult, as they rejoice and watch in our assemblies, those that are held continually, and especially those at Easter? For they look on sinners while they repent; on those who have turned away their faces, when they become converted; on those who formerly persisted in lusts and excess, but who now humble themselves by fastings and temperance; and, finally, on the enemy who lies weakened, lifeless, bound hand and foot, so that we may mock at him; ‘Where is thy victory, O Death? where is thy sting, O Grave?’ Let us then sing unto the Lord a song of victory.

(Athanasius, ‘Sixth Festal Letter’ in Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, edited by Philip Schaff, online at ccel.org)

Lent isn’t about giving something up in order to win favour with God. You’ve been invited to the feast! The liberation has been won, the triumph was glorious, you’re expected. It was for you. It’s the height of foolishness to try to pay your way into a party designed to celebrate and demonstrate the overwhelming generosity of the host.

Lent is about timing, about recognising that the feast is imminent and not spoiling ourselves with junk food on the way. This might mean repentance and regret, most of us are deeply immersed in a culture that thinks entertainment is the purpose of life. Most of us live like the pagans, who aren’t waiting for anything. It might well mean fasting in some form as a spur to remind yourself of the priority of waiting. It’s a discipline, like memorising Scripture, that will help to transform your mind.

But in Athanasius’ Letter there is something else. For him, the repentance of Christians, is itself the cause of rejoicing at the heavenly feast. This is because he has an ‘evangelical’ doctrine of repentance. Athanasius does not view repentance or ‘penance’ as a human work that moves God to act. It’s precisely the opposite. Repentance is a divine work of God’s Spirit making human hearts thrill with the objective reality of what has been achieved in Christ’s death. People don’t repent unless God repents them. And therefore, the sight of Christians turning away from pleasuring themselves, sorrowing that they wasted themselves in these ways and instead waiting patiently for the feast to come, is a sign that God is on the move! The triumph of the resurrection is effective: you can see it in the changed hearts of these people. 

Christians always sorrow joyfully in Lent.

Give something up, not because you’re giving up on the world, but because you’re waiting for something better for all of us. Cry happy tears, because you’ve spent so long satisfying yourself on junk food and dvds—pursuing mindless desires, and now you don’t have to any more. You’ve been set free to long for something better. Get hungry, for you will be satisfied.

 

For a beautiful set of resources for thinking through Lent see: the Lenten Project 2014

 

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