Herbertian Lessons for Lent

I live in an area where Mardi Gras is in full swing, and I can remember from my upbringing that Fat Tuesday was a last ditch effort at debauchery before the pseudo-spiritual practice of “giving something up for Lent” really began. In my youth I would give up some kind of chocolate or candy, something that appeared to be a fast, and I would join others around me in sharing with friends and family what I’ve given up and why. Around day thirty it would turn into some kind of joke about how long I’ve been able to go without this first-world luxury. My aristocratic sacrifice was hardly creating in me a clean heart. Those imaginings still haunt me and each year I must consider anew why this kind of extended fast ought to be recognized.

As an evangelical I have both been taught and believed that the core of Christian conduct is what we have come to call “sharing the Gospel.” For this reason I have found Lent a bit difficult to wrap my head and heart around. Add to this my particular eschatology where I believe, living post-resurrection, that there are very few things, if any, which should make me hang my head, very few things I should not have a triumphal spirit about. Come to think about it, I can only count a few which would cause in me an ongoing, persistent disposition of mourning or sadness, and even in those I wonder how much of my response is righteous and how much is self-centered and ignorant. The sovereign will of God does not make a man cold, but it does indeed warm him to resolve. I believe the resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ with all I have, and they have found their way to the center of my faith and practice. What then are we to do with Lent? What is Lent to do with us? In a world where Christ is now seated at the right hand of the Father, why does Lent matter? This year I have started Lent with two great pieces of literature as my guides: Mark’s account of the Transfiguration and George Herbert.

This past Sunday was the last Sunday in Epiphany, and the Gospel reading from the lectionary was the Transfiguration in Mark chapter 9. This coming week we move into Lent. Lent, like Advent, is a time of waiting, of consideration, silence, and anticipation. As evangelicals, we can tend to have a hard time with these seasons, because we think they somehow minimize the Gospel. But this is not so. When done properly, the penitential seasons of our Church calendar will do what Jesus says in our Gospel reading: they will further root the Gospel in our hearts and minds. Lent, therefore, is a time not of proclamation but of examination, deliberation, and speculation. It emphasizes our consideration of the question, “What is man? Who are we and what has God come to do to and with us?” This is what the penitential seasons do. In them we do not take our gaze off God, but they do ask us to look closer at man. The beauty of those next calendrical chapters following both Advent and Lent is that they are in calendar form those small clauses which begin, “But God…” Hear again those words from Mark’s account of the Transfiguration:

“And as they were coming down the mountain, he charged them to tell no one what they had seen, until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead might mean.” (Mark 9:9)

Questioning, it says. Considering. Discussing. And they were not to say a word until…the first Easter. If we see Jesus’ command as our own framework for Lent, we indeed see the framework for why Lent matters. As Biblical Theologian John Frame states, “…the theophanies through Scripture anticipate our heavenly fellowship with God.” This theophany, that of the Transfiguration, coupled with Jesus instructing Peter, James, and John to say nothing, in addition to the obvious contemplative status that followed until the first Easter, and we see that Lent is a time of holy anticipation, of considering more deeply those things which break our fellowship with God here on earth, those things which cause us to forget (because oh do we forget) that eternal banquet with Christ, which we call heaven, that everlasting theophany.

My second guide for Lent has come about due to my bad habit of finding some way to have George Herbert show up at the end of my sermons. I have taken Herbert at his word, and he has not failed me yet:

Thou, whose sweet youth and early hopes enhance
Thy rate and price, and mark thee for a treasure;
Harken unto a Verser, who may chance
Rhyme thee to good, and make a bait of pleasure.
A verse may find him, who a sermon flies,
And turn a delight into a sacrifice.

The poem I chose to end this past week’s sermon, of course, is “Lent” by Herbert. The poem is in its entirety below. There are five important principles, along with five of the eight stanzas, I pass to my reader for their consideration during this Lenten season:

First, any hesitation we feel toward Lent is no reason to throw it by, to say the thing is corrupt. As when we read Scripture, we should let Scripture read us. In the same way, as we enter the Lenten fast, we allow the Lenten fast to enter us. Herbert in the second stanza:

The humble soul composed of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree.
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

Second, any abuse of Lent, either by those in our ecclesial tradition or those outside of it, should cause us to seek further how we may treat it with holy imaginations rather than dismiss it as the defiling agent. As Hebert says in the fifth stanza, it is the same with our Creeds.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men’s abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

Third, Lent is not the pathway to super spirituality, some kind of ladder climb where the one who had the greater fast reaches the top first. Lent is a season of uniquely living into our Christian name with humility and reverence, not jockeying with others atop the ascetic pole. We can never give up enough for God, and that remains the point. Herbert in the sixth stanza:

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
In both let’s do our best.

Fourth, we should in Lent seek Christ’s face, his strength, and his voice. In the Christian life it is never enough to turn from something. This is indeed the story of the great skeptics. We, in both feasting and fasting, in both denying and confirming, are to turn our gaze, our hope, our joy more and more to Christ, who is, even now, seated at the right hand of the Father. Herbert in the seventh stanza:

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.

Finally, our fasting is a great metaphor, a material prayer which must reach the immaterial soul. It is a forty-day song, a seasonal cinematic to remind us we are mere men. Lest our besetting sins be further starved, we have not prepared ourselves for the coming feast, in this life or the next. We do not fast because we want to be holy; we fast because in Christ we are holy. Herbert in the eighth and final stanza:

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

“Lent” by George Herbert

Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not Temperance, or Authority,
But is composed of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev’ry Corporation.

The humble soul composed of love and fear
Begins at home, and lays the burden there,
When doctrines disagree.
He says, in things which use hath justly got,
I am a scandal to the Church, and not
The Church is so to me.

True Christians should be glad of an occasion
To use their temperance, seeking no evasion,
When good is seasonable;
Unless Authority, which should increase
The obligation in us, make it less,
And Power itself disable.

Besides the cleanness of sweet abstinence,
Quick thoughts and motions at a small expense,
A face not fearing light:
Whereas in fulness there are sluttish1) fumes,
Sour exhalations, and dishonest rheums,2)
Revenging the delight.

Then those same pendant profits, which the spring
And Easter intimate, enlarge the thing,
And goodness of the deed.
Neither ought other men’s abuse of Lent
Spoil the good use; lest by that argument
We forfeit all our Creed.

It’s true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior’s purity;
Yet are bid, Be holy ev’n as he.
In both let’s do our best.

Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.

Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast
As may our faults control:
That ev’ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.

Brian G. Daigle is in the ACNA clergy, and is headmaster at Sequitur and Director of Chesterton College.

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References   [ + ]

1. sluttish. Unclean; dirty; grimy; untidy. (Oxford English Dictionary
2. heumes. watery matter from eyes, nose, ears, etc.; said to cause disease. (Oxford English Dictionary
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