Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; Psalm 104.26-end; Colossians 1.15-20; John 1.1-14
IN HIS poem “Lent”, George Herbert describes the coming season as a “feast”. Our lectionary restores the ancient practice of having a time of preparation before Ash Wednesday — helping us to make the best use of the spiritual food that the Church will set before us.
If we think of Lent as a “world-denying” season, this Sunday’s readings may seem odd passages on which to meditate. All four readings have a focus on creation. They are an important corrective to Christian “other-worldliness”, reminding us that the physical world is a gift from God. As Wendell Berry put it, “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Since the Fall, violence and greed have desecrated our world and all who live in it. The ascesis of Lent should help us to inhabit the world anew — with reverence and generosity.
In the New Testament, the “world” and the “flesh” are each used in two distinct senses. Sometimes, they refer to the fallen creation in its state of rebellion against God. Today’s Gospel, however, tells us that “the world” is created by God, and that his word has “become flesh” to bring us salvation. Indeed, the message of Colossians 1 is that the process of salvation is one that embraces the whole created order. All things were created through Christ, who, by the cross, is reconciling all things to himself.
If our readings call us away from “other-worldliness”, they also caution against an opposite temptation. The Christian life is not a matter of transforming the world (or, indeed, ourselves) by willpower alone. The prologue to John’s Gospel is a glorious reminder that salvation is God’s initiative. The verbs in John 1 are striking: the primary invitation is not to emulate Jesus but to “receive” him, and “believe in his name”. Faithful imitation of Jesus flows from being born again as children of God. So, far from being a time for self-improvement, Lent as we observe it should open us more fully to God’s grace.
As our Psalm recounts God’s goodness in creation, it invites each listener to recognise his or her dependence on him. J. C. McCann observes that only praise can “dislodge our arrogant assumption that we can save the world” (quoted in Brueggemann and Bellinger’s New Cambridge Bible Commentary: Psalms).
This theme is echoed in our epistle. The Colossians have become stuck in a “kindergarten stage of religious taboos and restrictions”, as if the process of salvation depended on their actions (Ralph P. Martin, Interpretation Bible Commentary: Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon). St Paul’s response is to draw his readers into an offering of praise (he is probably quoting a hymn that was sung in their church), and so to recall them to a life that recognises the priority of grace.
The hymn also reminds the Colossians that Jesus is “the head of the body, the Church”. As we are drawn into deeper union with Christ, we are bound more closely to our brothers and sisters. Both our salvation and the sin that weighs us down have a corporate dimension. Our observance of Lent needs to reflect this reality: addressing the sins that separate us from our neighbour, as well as from God, and receiving God’s grace through the Church’s common life.
These readings, then, offer us important insights into the nature and purpose of Lent. Instead of being “other-worldly”, the season calls us to treat God’s creation with greater reverence and generosity. Instead of being a time of self-improvement, it invites us to open our hearts more fully to God’s grace. And, instead of being a purely individual observance, Lent has a corporate dimension.
While these insights are universal, each Christian needs to discern the distinctive ways in which he or she can make the most of the “feast” on offer. Such a process of discernment was at the heart of the ancient pre-Lenten season of Shrovetide. As the name suggests, this was a period when Christians would be “shriven”: confessing their sins to their priest, and receiving absolution, counsel, and an appropriate Lenten penance.
The final verse of Herbert’s poem makes a useful Shrovetide prayer — as we seek to discern the practices that will help us keep Lent most fruitfully:
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 parlour; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.