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Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

If you’ve clicked over here from the Rabbit Room, where my essay Lent Against a Million Faustian Bargains appeared today, welcome. This piece is a companion piece to that one, so having seen that one first, you’re ready to read this one.

If you haven’t yet read that essay, and have some interest in the subject of “Lenten politics” — what the political philosophy of Jesus Christ might look like, so far as we can trace it from His teaching and action in the canonical Gospels [1] — then I suggest you go read that first, and then come back here [2].

Okay, done? Very good. On to the miscellanies:

1. Jesus of Nazareth was not exactly a “political philosopher” — he was foremost a man of action — but his actions in the world proceeded from a deep and peculiar political philosophy. That political philosophy was unique, and remains so even to this day. It was and is so unique that His disciples often have failed to grasp it, erring either on the side of non-engagement with the political world, or engaging it by means Jesus forbade: coercion by threats or force, building political coalitions by lies and stirring up fear, etc.;

2. The political philosophy of Jesus, like all other political philosophies, has to do with glory. The modus operandi of the politicians of the world is to seek glory for themselves — to burnish “legacies,” to vindicate themselves and their political parties, etc. Jesus refused to seek glory for Himself, or to trade illegitimate worship for political glory when the Devil offered him “the kingdoms of the world and their glory.” We should not look at Jesus’s refusal as apolitical, but as a personal challenge to every man, woman and child, and a challenge to every political system corporately;

3. The platitudes and falsehoods characteristic of contemporary political discourse are symptoms of wanton glory-lust. They are designed not to frame real debates constructively, but to motivate the members of particular voting blocs to get the polls — either by bribes, or by fear, or by anger;

4. If that weren’t bad enough, contemporary political talking points have the disastrous side-effect of alienating real neighbors, friends, and family members. And, while there are undoubtedly real and important arguments afoot, they do not justify sacrificing real relationships. We know the people; most national-level political arguments concern matters that are beyond the actual capacity of any human being to understand. I may know my neighbor. I do not know — no human really can know — whether a law binding upon three hundred and fifty million people will help their collective fortunes;

5. Finally, the Rabbit Room essay is not about keeping aloof from politics. It is meant, rather, as encouragement to regard political arguments and talking-points with healthy skepticism, our own arguments with modesty. Privilege the things you know, and the people you know and love, over those things you do not and could not know. In the words of one of His disciples, Jesus of Nazareth “went about doing good” — personally doing good by deeds tailored to uphold the real dignity and heal the peculiar brokenness of particular people, on a scale that local communities could see and understand. He commissioned His disciples to go and do likewise. If you cannot see that that has political implications enough, you cannot see.

[1] Only the canonical Gospels imply any kind of political philosophy. The non-canonical Gnostic gospels, in addition to being written much later and having far less historical value than the canonical ones, firmly divide the world of spirit from the material world in such a way that real-world political engagement becomes nonsensical.

[2] If you’re unfamiliar with the Rabbit Room, then you should make yourself familiar with it — particularly if you’re a fan of good music, good literature, and good art.

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The world is sick from a million Faustian bargains — and the revolutions that arise to overthrow them are but a different set of Faustian bargains. Except one: the one Christ inaugurated by his fasting and temptation in the wilderness, commonly known as Lent.

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Lenten quiet isn’t about mere negation, but about changing conversations. In the wilderness the devil appealed to Jesus regarding ease, power and vainglory, even quoting the Psalms to make that last appeal. That is our usual conversation, against which Scripture itself is no talisman. But in his fast Jesus was conversing with his Father through Scripture — indeed the very book of Scripture given to Moses just before Joshua and the Israelites left the wilderness and took possession of the promised land.

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Lent is neither therapeutic nor pietistic. It is political. God became King in Christ, the strong Shepherd and deliverer of His people, by means of fasting, temptation, agony and passion, and by way of the wilderness and Cross. We do not share in the Father’s Kingdom — which we daily ask Him to establish on earth as in heaven — except by sharing in His means for establishing the Kingdom.

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Here is a highly recommended link to a site that has selected and helpfully arranged daily readings from George Herbert’s The Temple (1633) for Lent.

Maybe the best recommendation of Herbert’s poetry (certainly the best one I know of) is the effect that his writing had on C. S. Lewis, in the last days before his conversion, when it seemed to him that all his favorite authors were lining up to take whacks at his dying atheism:

. . . the most alarming of all was George Herbert. Here was a man who seemed to me to excel all the writers I had read in conveying the very quality of life as we actually live it from moment to moment; but the wretched fellow, instead of doing it all directly, insisted on mediating it through what I would still have called the ‘Christian mythology’. . . .

C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy 214 (1956).

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Do you receive the imposition of ashes this Ash Wednesday?  You do well: for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Do you fast?  You do well.  For even Jonah’s Ninevites, who did not know their right hand from their left, declared a city-wide fast for forty days, and God relented from unleashing the calamity that was the due penalty for the city’s wickedness.[1]

Do you repent, and weep, and fast, and mourn, and rend your heart rather than your garments?  You do well.  For so the prophet Joel charged the people of God to do — and to plead “spare thy people, O LORD, and give not thine heritage to reproach, that the heathen should rule over them: wherefore should they say among the people, where is their God?”[2] By regarding lightly the testimonies, the judgments, and the statutes of the LORD, we have borne His Name in vain. We repent, weep, fast, mourn, that we may see his Name and heritage no longer given to open reproach, but publicly vindicated again, in our time and always.

But do you disfigure your faces, and put on a show of fasting before men?  Then the Lord Jesus tells you that their seeing your disfigured face will be your reward.[3]  Are you fasting for such a reward?

So wash your face, and anoint your head, that your fast may be secret, and that your Father may see in secret and reward you.

On your fast day, do you bow your head like a reed, and spread sackcloth and ashes under you, and stop at that?  Then the prophet Isaiah tells you that your voice “will not be heard on high.”[3]  But if you fast in the way the Creator God would choose, loosing the bonds of wickedness, giving the bread you didn’t eat to the hungry, finding room in your house for the homeless poor, covering those who have not enough clothes even for their own backs,

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’
If you take away the yoke from your midst,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually
and satisfy your desire in scorched places
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.[5]

When you find yourself cast out into the wilderness, there is Christ, cast ahead of you by the Holy Ghost, parrying the crafty arguments of the Evil One.

When you set yourself to fast, to mortify the desires of the flesh, the desires of the eyes, and pride in possessions, there before you is Christ, setting His face to go to Jerusalem — in Whom there is more life hidden for you than there is mortification in your fast.

Praise be to Him forever. Amen.

[1] Jonah 3-4.

[2] Joel 2.

[3] S Matthew 6:16-18.

[4] Isaiah 58:4-5.

[5] Isaiah 58:8-11 (ESV)

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O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without love are nothing worth; Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.[1]

Lent is nearly upon us once again.  And the Church’s last signpost before Lent, Quinquagesima Sunday, tells us plainly the motive and end of our Lenten fast: love.  We fast that we may better love the LORD our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and our neighbors as ourselves.  If we fast with anything else as our motive, to attain a different goal, our fasting is worthless.

The morning Old Testament lesson for the last Sunday before Lent, from Deuteronomy 10, is a command to the Israelites to love the LORD, their covenant God, and serve Him with all their heart and soul.  The evening Old Testament, from Leviticus 19, tells of our high duty to our neighbors: to love them as ourselves.  And the morning and evening New Testament – from 1 St John 2 and 4, respectively – reiterate the same commandments, in light of the fact that they have now been perfectly embodied and brought to completion in Jesus Christ.

As we prepare to step into Lent, then, it’s worth taking a little time looking through 1 St John. Along with the famous thirteenth chapter of St Paul’s first letter to Corinth, John’s first epistle is perhaps the best place to go to answer to the question, “what is love?”

I.             Love, warm as a beam from the rising sun

It takes John a little while to get to that question. He starts his letter where he starts his Gospel: On “the word of life,” which was with the Father and then “made manifest.”  Then he writes of fellowship, joy, light versus darkness (righteousness versus sin, truth versus falsehood, openness versus shadiness), his purpose for writing, Christ’s dying as a propitiation for the sins of the world, knowing God in Christ, keeping the commandments.  Only at the end of a sentence about keeping the commandments does John first drop the word “love” on us: “whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.”

John’s delay in getting here says nothing about the importance of love in his letter. After he drops the word once, he keeps dropping it all over the heart of his letter (chapters 2-4), stressing over and over love’s paramount importance.  But John’s decision to cover several other things in his letter before first using the word “love” does tell us that the kind of love about which he is speaking isn’t an isolated virtue, and cannot be removed from the context of a peculiar community, a particular calling, and a specific story. The commandment to love is at once old (given by Moses) and new (given and brought to completion by Jesus[2]). It is manifestly true in Jesus, and – as “the darkness is passing away and the true light is already shining” – it is becoming true in his letter’s readers, as they learn to follow the Christ who loved them to the utmost.[3]

In short, the love of which John speaks is warm, reliably warm as the rays of the rising sun.

II.            Love, keen as a well-whetted blade

The constancy of John’s directions to pursue this kind of love makes all the more arresting his admonition “do not love the world.”  This, from the apostle who elsewhere tells us that God loved the world, and that Christ is the propitiation, not only for our sins, but also those of the whole world.  What gives?

Here we must be sharp about John’s meaning: what exactly is the “world” we ought not love? John tells us by describing its contents. These are not the earth and the men and women who live in it. Rather, they are the inordinate desires of the flesh and eyes,[4] and pride in possessions. Spend fifteen minutes watching ads and you’ll get a pretty clear picture of what John means by the world. The world holds up certain things and says we need them, like yesterday. It tells us to pursue these things with all our might, at the expense of whomever or whatever might stand in our way. And if we succeed in attaining the things the world says we should want, it tells us we ought to be proud of that.

The trouble, John tells us, is that if a man loves the world and chases its sundry vanities and fashions, the “love of the Father is not in him.” Our love to God and our neighbor must be as keen, as vigilantly jealous, as it is warm. If it isn’t, then it isn’t the genuine article, and it will wither and die.

III.           The end of Lenten fasting

This brings us back, at last, to Lent.  Among the riches St John has bequeathed to us in his first epistle, he has given the Church a fantastic Lenten prologue, setting before her the glorious end of love for which she fasts.  If we are to train our eyes to look ever to God and our neighbors in love, as John tells us we must, there is nothing for us but to wean ourselves off the love of the world. We put out the fires that burn in our flesh, and put right the various distortions that affect our eyes. We do this because we know how fickle our love to our neighbors will be if we are covetous, gluttonous, lascivious, despotic, and grasping – as we are, far too often.  And because we know that to the extent that we hold our possessions proudly – as we do, far too often – so that we cannot give them away even to meet someone else’s legitimate need, God’s love cannot abide in us.[5]

For that, we fast.


[1] The Collect for the Sunday next before Lent, called Quinquagesima.

[2] Cf. St John 13:34-35.

[3] St John 13:1

[4] The translations don’t usually attach the adjective inordinate to “desire” in 1 St John 2:16, but “inordinate desire” is a better translation of the Greek word here (epithumia) than “desire.” Even without knowledge of the Greek, the whole context of the letter should tell us that John isn’t condemning desire per se. He appeals to his readers’ legitimate desires often enough, and is so insistent about the paramount importance of Jesus’s incarnation, to tip us off that he doesn’t think “flesh” is evil per se, and that he’s not pressing us to seek some kind of otherworldly, incorporeal nirvana.

[5] 1 St John 3:17.

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