IN THE Church of England, you have a choice: as your thoughts turn towards Lent and patterns of self-discipline, you can, with the 1662 Prayer Book collect, remember that “all our doings without charity are nothing worth” and ask to be given “the most excellent gift of charity”. Or, with Common Worship, you can reflect on how the Son of God “was revealed in majesty before he suffered death upon the cross” and so pray to be “changed into his likeness, from glory to glory”. In any case, Ash Wednesday beckons, and the messages amount to much the same thing; for here is the path of charity, which leads to glory, and there will, for those who take it, be repentance and suffering along the way.
Repentance comes about less by the recognition of “laws that never shall be broken”, or a standard that ought to be reached for, than by a rekindling of love. It is the sinner’s response to a fresh realisation of the divine compassion: of God’s readiness, in the incarnate Christ, to come down to his creatures’ level and suffer with them. In churches where confessions are heard, matters are usually so arranged that the penitent kneels before a crucifix rather than faces the priest who listens and gives absolution and advice. The Church stumbles pastorally when it draws attention to itself rather than to the suffering figure of “Jesus and his love”, as the hymn puts it. The handling of tender consciences and vulnerable individuals requires gentleness above all else. Every priest who cultivates this quality of ministry helps to counteract the messages sent out by megaphone moralists and abusers who discredit the name of Christian.
Charity is love, but it is specifically redeeming and suffering love. That its lack can be, paradoxically, a besetting sin of religious people may be because it is easy for them to hold in their sights lesser graces that become substitutes for it. But, as the theologian John Baillie observed (in The Place of Jesus Christ in Modern Christianity, 1929), “The world being what it is, and sin being what it is, there can be no effective helping or saving of our fellows except through self-sacrifice. The principle of this vicarious suffering may be seen in all family life and even in the lesser kinships of the animal creation, as when a mother gladly suffers pain for the sake of her child’s welfare or a mother-hen braves many a danger for the protection of her brood. But what is distinctive about the Christian fellowship is its realisation and utilisation of this particular movement of natural instinct as holding within it the main secret of the further spiritual development of the race, and its consequent imaginative extension of it to all those who in any way need our help.” The fruitfulness of our keeping of Lent is to be tested against this principle.