Lent and Beginnings
Another Ash Wednesday arrives. Another beginning to Lent. Again we receive the ashes on our foreheads and begin to sing the Lenten hymns. Again we are called to fasting, penance, and self-examination. What shall we find? Very probably the same sins as last year, unless, of course, we have actually succeeded in adding a few new ones. Shall we feel that we have made any progress at all in the intervening twelve months? Probably not. But then, as our spiritual directors will have reminded us if they know their job, it is really not up to us to say. God knows, just as God knows what God has in mind for our fellow disciples. “What is that to you? Follow me!”
So—another beginning. But perhaps that is the very thing on which to reflect: another beginning. And here, indeed, the name of the season may help us, for our English word “Lent” is so much more usefully informative than its rather prosaic romance equivalents, such as Italian quaresima—equivalents that tell you nothing save the length of a season that begins on “the fortieth day before the Paschal time,” as Lo Zingarelli says. English “Lent,” by contrast, says something about the season’s quality, for it derives from Middle English “lenten,” which means “Spring.” “Lent” speaks to us of new life, of
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty
–as Shakespeare’s Perdita puts it. Should such a season—season of love, stagione d’amore, as tradition has it—be also a time for personal reflection, for penance and fasting? If Geoffrey Chaucer knew anything of the matter (and we may well suppose that he did) then our forebears certainly thought that it should:
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has, with his sweet breath,
Quickened again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and buds, and the young sun
Into the Ram one half his course has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)-
Then do folk long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in sundry lands.
And specially from every shire’s end
Of England they to Canterbury wend,
The holy blessed martyr there to seek
Who helped them when they lay so ill and weak[i]
So Chaucer begins his The Canterbury Tales. Not just when things are sad and cold and dark, but when they are merry and warm and light—that is when we should look to our soul’s health, and ask ourselves, in view of all that is good and lovely in the possibilities of life, what manner of women and men are we? Lent speaks to us, or should speak to us, not only of penance and fasting, but also new life and new hope: day following night, summer following winter, new birth, birth from above. The universe is a place where all things die, but it also throbs with resurrection.
In the same way, theologians tell us, heaven itself will always be a beginning. There will always, to all eternity, be more of paradise ahead of us than we yet have known or dreamed, always new possibilities, new things to learn and to become: for God’s possibilities are infinite, and God will always give more of God’s Self to those who seek. Heaven, Israel reminds us, is to be a perpetual Shabbat. It is to be an eternal rejoicing in the divine Shalom, the everlasting peace and harmony of God. We Christians rejoice in that insight given us by our Jewish friends, and add to it our own – that heaven is also always a first day of the week, a perpetual Sunday, a perpetual day of resurrection.
I remember as a teenager reading Fred Hoyle’s Nature of the Universe, some of which I found rather exciting. For a while I wanted to be a cosmologist! But one little bit of it—a bit that seemed to me to have little or nothing to do with the nature of the universe, made me sad. Hoyle said that he would not want everlasting life, because after a certain length of time there really would be nothing else to do, and he would become bored. Even as a teenager, I remember thinking what an extraordinarily limited imagination that betrayed. Here was a man who had seen many wonders in the universe, yet had somehow failed to see its secret — “l’amor che move il sole e l’atre stelle,” the love that moves the sun and the other stars. Always there will be new hopes, new beginnings, and new life in the inexhaustible possibility of the One who makes all things new. Of one thing we may be absolutely sure: there is no coming to the end of God, and no exhausting of God’s infinite possibilities and variety. That is what Lent is about. That is why it is a good preparation for Easter, and not just for Easter, but for eternity.
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every venyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendered is the flour,
When Zephirus eke with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale fowles maken melodye
That slepen al the night with open ye,
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages),
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelonde, to Caunterbury they wende
The holy blisful martir for to seke
That hen hath holpen whan that they were seke.
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