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Great Lent | Thomas Howard | From Evangelical Is Not
Enough: Worship of God In Liturgy and Sacrament | Ignatius Insight
Presently Lent arrives. This is the forty days leading up to Easter, which also
recall the forty days of Christ's temptation in the wilderness. There is a
telescoping of things here, since His temptation did not in actual fact
immediately precede His Passion, but "liturgical time" is such that
spiritual significance may override chronological exactness.
Lent, like Advent, is a time of penitence. Here we identify ourselves with the
Lord's fast and ordeal in the wilderness, which He bore for us.
This raises a point worth noting in passing. There are some varieties of
Protestant theology and spirituality that so stress "the finished work of
Christ" and the fact that He accomplished everything, that they leave no
room at all for any participation on our part. Such participation, encouraged
by the ancient Church, does not mean that we mortals claim any of the merit
that attaches to Christ's work, much less that we can by one thousandth
particle add to His work. Nevertheless, the gospel teaches us that Christians
are more than mere followers of Christ. We are His Body and are drawn, somehow,
into His own sufferings. We are even "crucified" with Him.
My own tradition stressed this, but it was taught as a metaphor that meant only
the putting to death of sin in our members. There was very little said about
the sense in which Christ draws His Body into His very self-giving for the life
of the world and makes them part of this mystery. Saint Paul uses extravagant
language about his own filling up "that which is behind of the afflictions
of Christ." We had succinct enough explanations as to what he might have
meant here, but these explanations allowed no room for any notion of our
participating in Christ's offering. This was looked upon as heresy, violating
the doctrine of grace .n which all is done by God and nothing by us. We are
recipients only. That the gracious donation of salvation by God could in any
manner include His making us a part of it all, as He made the Virgin Mary an
actual part of the process, and as Saint Paul seems to teach, was not the note
The ancient Church, in its observance of Lent, once more asks us to move
through the gospel with Christ Himself. The most obvious mark of Lent to a
newcomer is the matter of fasting. I had own about this practice all my life.
My Catholic playmates would give up chocolates or Coke or ice cream for Lent. I
also knew that a few devout people in my own tradition of evangelicalism
practiced fasting now and again for special purposes—a time of especially
concentrated prayer, for example.
I myself thought of Lenten fasting and also of the old Catholic practice of
refusing meat on Fridays as being legalistic, and perhaps even heretical, since
it seemed to entail some notion of accruing merit. Since Christ had done all,
why should we flagellate ourselves this way? Was it not a return to the weak
and beggarly elements condemned by Saint Paul? Was it not to be guilty of the
very thing that the apostle had a sailed the Galatian Christians for?
I discovered that the ancient Church teaches just what the New Testament
teaches on the point, namely, that fasting is a salutary thing for us to
undertake. Jesus fasted and assumed that His followers would. "When ye fast," He said, not "if." Saint
Paul both practiced it and taught it. It seems to constitute a reminder to u
that our appetites are not all and that man shall not live by bread alone.
Furthermore, if we may believe the universal testimony of Christians who do
practice it, it also clarifies our spiritual vision somehow. Lastly, it is a
token of the Christian's renunciation of the world. There is no thing that a Christian will insist he must have at all costs.
Fasting supplies an elementary lesson here.
Lent asks us to ponder Christ's self-denial for us in the wilderness. It draws
us near to the mystery of Christ's bearing temptation for us in His flesh, and
of how in this Second Adam our flesh, which failed in Adam, now triumphs.
Lent also leads us slowly toward that most holy and dread of all events, the
Passion of Christ. What Christian will want to arrive at Holy Week with his
heart unexamined, full of foolishness, levity, and egoism? To those for whom
any special observances hint of legalism or superstition one can only bear
witness that the solemn sequence of Lent turns out to be something very
different from one's private attempts at meditating on the Passion. To move
through the disciplines in company with millions and millions of other
believers allover the world is a profoundly instructive thing.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday. The first time ashes were imposed on my
forehead, I found a cacophony of voices inside me: "Come! Now you have
betrayed your background! This is straight back to the Dark Ages. Fancy Saint
Paul's doing this!"
I knew it was not so when the priest came along with the little pot of damp
ashes and with his thumb smudged my forehead—my forehead, the very frontal and crown of my dignity as a human
being!—and aid, "Remember, O man, that dust thou art and unto dust
thou shalt return."
I knew it was true. I would return to dust, like all men, but never before had
mortality come home to me in this way. Oh, I had believed it spiritually. But
surely we need not dramatize it this way....
Perhaps we should, says the Church. Perhaps it is good for our souls' health to
recall that our salvation, far from papering over the grave, leads us through
it and raises our very mortality to glory. We, like all men, must die. I felt
the strongest inclination to wave the priest past as he approached me in the
line of people kneeling at the rail. Not me—not me—like Agag coming
forth delicately, hoping that the bitterness of death was past. Yes, you. Remember,
I was beginning to learn that when we encounter some "spiritual"
truth in our bodies, it is
brought home to us. We can meditate on suffering all day long, for example, but
let us have migraines, and we know something we could not have known through
merely mulling over the doctrine of suffering. We can meditate on love all day
long, but let us kiss the one we long for, and we know immediately something we
could not have known if we had thought about love for a thousand years.
Nay—our very salvation came to us in the body of the incarnate God.
"O generous love! that He who smote/In Man for man the foe,/The double
agony in Man/For man should undergo," says Cardinal Newman's hymn. The
ashes effected something in me more than a smudge on my forehead. I had felt,
if only for a moment, the thing that I wished most earnestly to be exempted
Thomas Howard biography
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by Thomas Howard
Thomas Howard was raised in a prominent Evangelical home
(his sister is well-known author and former missionary Elisabeth Elliot),
became Episcopalian in his mid-twenties, then entered the Catholic Church in
1985, at the age of fifty. He is an acclaimed writer and scholar, noted for his studies of
Inklings C.S. Lewis (
Narnia & Beyond: A Guide to the Fiction of C.S. Lewis) and Charles Williams (The Novels of Charles Williams),
as well as books including Christ the Tiger,
Chance or the Dance?, Hallowed be This House,
Evangelical is Not Enough,
If Your Mind Wanders at Mass,
On Being Catholic,
The Secret of New York Revealed, and
Lead, Kindly Light: My Journey to Rome, the story of his embrace
of Catholicism, and Dove
Descending: A Journey Into T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets. Visit his IgnatiusInsight.com author page
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by
IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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