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Leader: A light that can lighten Lent

30 January 2008

BECAUSE Easter falls so early — the earliest since 1913 — this is going to be an extraordinary year for all who enter into the rhythm of the Church’s calendar and join in public worship on Sundays and holy days. It will be most memorable where the liturgy is celebrated with the changing vesture and other accessories of worship in the Catholic tradition — the candles for Candlemas, and the ash for Ash Wednesday. But the special drama is there to be pondered in the lectionary even where the services of the coming days are celebrated in the simplest way; for it rests in the contrast between the fallenness of our human nature and the glory of God — between the sinner and the holy Word made flesh.

Usually, we can feel Lent coming. The liturgy sobers us gradually. But Candlemas fills this coming weekend with the light and joy of the incarnation; and then hardly has the boy Jesus been presented in the Temple than the priests, the ministers of the Lord, are to weep between the porch and the altar and say, “Spare, O Lord, spare thy people: and shut not up the mouths of them that praise thee.” It is always necessary to remember, despite moments of exaltation in worship, the unworthiness of the worshippers. “We do not presume to come to this thy table, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.” Being brought up short may help us to appreciate how the glory of the faith is inextricable from the sorrows, the crown from the cross.

There is another side to it, however; for congregations will enter Lent with the memory of Candlemas still fresh and casting its peace over the days to come — “For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.” The difficult path is illuminated by hope. Christ, who calls his people to take up their cross and follow him, is the Christ who took their nature upon himself. He knows their trials and temptations, doubts and weaknesses. The human side of Lent, taken seriously, is often the discovery how hard it is to keep a simple rule or resolution or sustain even modest moral or devotional efforts. For God, there can be no surprise about it, but, we trust, the promise of grace, so that in all our works we may glorify his name and finally, by his mercy, obtain eternal life.

As Anglicans enter a period of corporate penitence and self-denial, they have rarely been as painfully conscious of the unloveliness of their divisions — even if these are at times exaggerated by the enemies of the Church. No purification or self-discipline is anything worth, the apostle Paul teaches, without the gift of charity. Even the most acrimonious dispute must fade into relative insignificance where Christians are prepared to receive and nurture this gift of Christ himself. The Anglican Communion’s challenge this year is to make its penitence more effective in removing everything in its character which obscures Christ’s light in the world that he came to save.

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