Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.
The coming of the Son of Man in glory with the holy angels. You might think that these words belong more to Advent than to Lent. I hope to convince you that Lent too is a season oriented towards the end of the world and that which lies beyond it. Lent is an eschatological season.
Lent has an eschatological reference in that, like life as a whole, it is a preparation for the ‘Eternal Eastertide’
One of our great Lent hymns concludes ‘Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear | Ever constant by Thy side; | That with Thee we may appear | At the eternal Eastertide’. Our brief, yearly journey to Easter is an image of the whole of our life. Our lives are a journey to the ‘Eternal Eastertide’. Seen that way, Lent becomes a lesson showing us how to live, not simply for forty days and forty nights, but right through our lives and, indeed, beyond them, as I shall point out in conclusion.
Notice than many of the images and parables that bear upon the period of Lent apply, in the first place, to life as a whole. The Easter Sermon of St John Chrysostom likens Lent to the labourers in the harvest field. Whether we have fasted all of Lent or half of Lent or a quarter of Lent, we share alike in the joy of Easter. But the parable of the labourers in the vineyard, which is where he gets that image, is a parable about the whole of life. Similarly, today’s Gospel is rightly a Lenten Gospel – you must take up your cross and follow me – but here Lent represents life as a whole, for Christ’s injunction to take up our cross is a permanent call.
If Lent is life in miniature, then Lent helps us to understand life. But the reverse is also true – the dynamics and structure of the Christian life as a whole help us to understand Lent. This current season is not simply for the sake of the coming temporal Easter; it is also for the sake of the great and final Easter. Yes, once the celebration of the Resurrection is upon us, we will rightly cast aside fasting and abstinence. Nonetheless, the ascetic benefits that have accrued over Lent should not fade away; the disciplines of heart that have been instilled are not to be cast aside.
Lent is orientated not only to the springtide celebration of Easter, which comes once each year, but to the ‘Eternal Eastertide’. That ‘Eternal Eastertide’ stands for us as a promise, in the same spirit in which the idea of promise so animates our reading from the Letter to the Romans. Lent is a season of hope, when we follow our father Abraham who ‘hoped against hope’, believing God.
Not only do we prepare in Lent for that which lies beyond this life, we also respond to it having come among us already
The disciplines of Lent would be futile if they were not directed to an end that lies in God, to an end which is guaranteed by the promise of God. The end, the goal, is the point. We are not to loose our lives for the sake of loosing them; we are to loose our lives for the sake of saving them. Lent involves real privations, but it is for the sake of a real and redemptive good, which lies with God.
Our Lenten disciplines do, certainly, prepare us for Easter. They ought to have a cleansing quality. But they are not simply a regime of Church-sanctioned detox, of the kind that might appear in an advertisement on Channel Four but with the Archbishop of Canterbury giving the endorsement rather than Carol Vorderman.
Lent, discipline, denial, sacrifice – these are worked out in terms of hope in God. Our hope lies beyond the world. They do not have a merely temporal, merely this-wordly reference. This would be to set our mind on human things and not on divine things.
Lent, I have said looks forward to that which lies beyond. In this it is like Advent. But like Advent it also a season of encounter – for God has pre-empted our longing. Consequently, our relation in Lent to that which lies ahead is not simply one of anticipation or preparation. We do not only prepare in Lent for the cataclysmic action of God, we are also responding to it. An apocalyptic confrontation with God is coming, but has also come and is coming still. In Lent we are responding to the arrival in time of that which lies beyond time. Each of our readings makes this clear: the Lord appeared to Abram, Jesus stood in the midst of the disciples, grace arrived when there was only law and only the expectation of law.
Grace is gratuitous; it is of the nature of grace to arrive out of time; it is not according to the order of things. It is the encounter with God, ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’: life when there was no expectation of anything but death, creation when there was not even anything to expect to be created.
Our faith – which is expressed in works, for us no less than for Abraham – only makes sense in terms of our encounter with the God of grace. Faith is in God who irrupts upon the world: ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’.
I have said that Lent is an image of life and that the dynamics of the Christian life as a whole – which is one of grace – applies therefore to Lent as well.
Lent is eschatological in that it prefigures purgatory
Let me say in conclusion, that Lent is a symbol and a road map not only for this life but also for what lies beyond it. Lent is symbol of purgatory. In this way too, Lent is an end of the world-ish sort of season. Lent reminds us that purgatory begins now. And if the purgatorial process is bearable now, then perhaps Lent steels us with courage for our journey beyond this life, into the region that C S Lewis described as Lenten lands. We can also embrace, in hope, that portion of our journey into holiness which lies beyond this life.
As I say, the link between Lent and purgatory is not mine. I came across in C S Lewis – who made his confession in this church. On the death of his friend Charles Williams, another of the Inklings, he wrote a poem on this theme. He later adapted for his wife’s epitaph. Referring to her mortal remains, he wrote:
Here the whole world (stars, water, air,
And field, and forest, as they were
Reflected in a single mind)
Like cast off clothes was left behind
In ashes, yet with hopes that she,
Re-born from holy poverty,
In lenten lands, hereafter may
Resume them on her Easter Day.
And to that Easter Day may Almighty God conduct us all also, through our own Lenten lands: for his grace gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.