Before I start the actual “Ramblings”: I am going to be heading up to Maryland for several days, to see my family – including, hopefully, all three of my grand-nephews! I will be returning, Lord willing, at some point in the afternoon or evening of Monday the 20th.
While I am gone, Fr. Terrence McGillicuddy (781-801-4813) will celebrate the Holy Communion on Sunday, and otherwise take care of any necessary pastoral, liturgical, or sacramental needs for the parish; Senior Warden Chris Gerry (919-356-6672) will have charge of any administrative or related issues which may arise.
They will both be able to contact me, of course, in the event of any emergencies which may arise that require my direct intervention, but please contact them for any ordinary needs between now and Tuesday.
And now, let the ramblings begin…
“What are you doing for Lent?” is a fairly common question, asked among Christians: especially sacramental and liturgical Christians, like Anglicans, who keep the seasons of the Church’s year. It usually translates to “what are you giving up?” But what it really means, or should mean, is “what Lenten discipline are you taking on?” But the following saying – I wish I could recall where I first saw it – reminds us of an important truth about our Lenten discipline:
“Lent is not for doing things we never do otherwise. Like Sunday, Lent is for intensifying things we do all the time.”
And if we do not, I would add, Lent is also an excellent time to begin doing them! What things am I referring to, here? The elements of what is traditionally known as a “rule of life.” The website Full Homely Divinity comments,
“Many Christians have a formal rule of life which they observe throughout the year. Their Lenten rule will usually add a few seasonal exercises. For those who do not already have a formal, year-round rule, Lent is a good opportunity to begin one. The purpose of a rule of life is not to set impossibly high standards that might be admirable but are not practical. A rule of life must fit the person… Holiness of life is the goal of every Christian, but progress towards that goal is a lifelong task, not the accomplishment of a single Lent. At the same time, the basics of a Lenten rule can set a pattern for a lifetime of spiritual growth.”
The time for deciding what one is “giving up (and/or, taking on!) for Lent,” for deciding on the nature and extent of one’s Lenten rule, should not be when Lent has already begun; or even at bedtime on Tuesday night, when you suddenly remember that tomorrow is Ash Wednesday! It’s something that, hopefully, you have been thinking about at least since Septuagesima Sunday began the season of Pre-Lent; but if you haven’t, there’s no time like the present to begin. Here’s Full Homely Divinity again:
“Since Lent is itself a season of preparation, it may seem like overkill to have to prepare for Lent. Yet, how will we take full advantage of the opportunity of Lent if we wait until the last minute to decide how to keep it? Both the Eastern and Western Churches have long traditions of a pre-Lenten season that is designed to set the stage for keeping a productive and holy Lent… [Without this time of preparation, we are lacking] any formal or liturgical impetus to have a Lenten rule in place and ready to go on the very first day of Lent.
“The purpose of a rule of life is not to set impossibly high standards, which might be admirable, but are not practical. A rule of life must fit the person… Holiness of life is the goal of every Christian, but progress towards that goal is a lifelong task, not the accomplishment of a single Lent. At the same time, the basics of a Lenten rule can set a pattern for a lifetime of spiritual growth.”
Self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; along with reading and meditating on God’s holy Word, are the fundamental elements of the traditional Lenten discipline, or Lenten rule. I’ve mentioned these in the past; but let’s look at them in a little bit more detail, here.
Self-examination and repentance:
Penitence and preparation are the very core of Lent: as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ took on our sin, and bore its penalty for our redemption, so we respond facing up squarely to the ways in which human sinfulness – in which each of us shares, by reason of our humanity – led to His Crucifixion, and continues to lead to many evils in the world today. Our shared responsibility for His death is expressed movingly in the classic hymn, “Ah, holy Jesus”:
Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended,
that man to judge thee hath in hate pretended?
By foes derided, by thine own rejected,
O most afflicted.
Who was the guilty?
Who brought this upon thee?
Alas, my treason, Jesus, hath undone thee.
‘Twas I, Lord Jesus, I it was denied thee:
I crucified thee.
In other words, Lent calls us, not only to repentance for our own personal sins, whether of commission or omission, but of our shared responsibility, with the rest of sinful humanity. But when it comes to our own specific sins, it can be a helpful exercise to compare our conduct against the standard of the Ten Commandments (BCP 1928 pp. 68 and 69), Christ’s Summary of the Law (p. 69), or such measures, articulated in the Church under the impetus of the Holy Spirit, as the seven deadly sins and their positive counterparts, the seven cardinal virtues.
A full discussion of these would lengthen this over-long, but for general reference, the seven deadly sins, also known as “mortal” or “cardinal” sins, is a list of vices: behaviors or characteristics which are not only bad in themselves, but give rise to other forms of immorality; they include pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, and sloth. Corresponding to these are the seven cardinal virtues: virtues being firm, habitual dispositions to do what is morally good; these consist of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity. Obviously, we should seek to cultivate the latter, and eschew the former!
Prayer, fasting, and self-denial
For Christian “proficients,” as English Anglican priest, spiritual director, author and lecturer on ascetical theology Martin Thornton called those might be considered regular soldiers in the army of God – faithful Christians who seek to practice their faith in an intentional, disciplined, and ordered fashion – prayer is central to that practice.
1. formal, liturgical prayer – the prayer of the Church, the body of Christ assembled for His worship – which is further divided into
a. the Daily Office of Morning and Evening Prayer, as found in the Prayer Book, both in its full form (pp. 3 through 34, plus the additional prayers, Litany, and Penitential Office which follow) and in the “Forms of Prayer to be Used in Families” found beginning on p. 587, and
b. the sacramental services, preeminently (for our purposes here) the Holy Communion, also known as the Lord’s Supper or the Mass; and
2. extemporaneous prayer: prayer in our own words, typically offered when we are alone (or perhaps with a few family members or friends), which generally falls into one or more of the categories encompassed in the acronym “ACTS”: Adoration (praising God for His goodness, majesty, glory, etc.), Contrition (sorrow for sins, repentance), Thanksgiving (gratitude to God for benefits received, or just the beauty of His good creation), and Supplication (asking something of God, for ourselves or others).
As I mentioned at the beginning of this, Lent is not for doing things we never do otherwise (thus, the importance of having a Rule of Life), but for intensifying things we do all the time. And nowhere is this more the case than in prayer!
Fasting and Self-Denial
Fasting and self-denial are disciplines which are clearly and closely linked. In fact, fasting is a form of self-denial: denying oneself food, either a particular type of food (meat being the most classic example, or other favorite foods such as chocolate or other sweets), or food in general (what most of us think of when we think of fasting).
Fasting has a long history in Christianity: in fact, in Matthew 17:21, Jesus, after casting out a devil from a child, tells them that “this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fasting.” It also has a long history in Judaism, and even other religions. Fasting is perhaps one of the most common means of purifying one’s body and mind alike: disciplining the body to focus on spiritual things.
The Prayer Book rubrics regarding fasting are found on p. li in “A Table of Fasts.” It may surprise some to find that The Book of Common Prayer list “All the Fridays in the Year, except Christmas Day, and The Epiphany, or any Friday which may intervene between these Feasts,” as “Other days of fasting, on which the Church requires such a measure of abstinence as is more especially suited to extraordinary acts and exercises of devotion”!
Self-denial may be equally seen as another form of fasting: in this case, what is given up is not food, but something else that one would normally enjoy – examples include alcoholic beverages, caffeine, tobacco, even television or the internet. Often money which may be saved as a result of fasting or other forms of self-denial is given to the church, or to a worthy charity; and indeed, alms-giving is also a classic and highly appropriate Lenten disciple.
Again, this should not be seen as something we do only for Lent – we should always be striving to overcome our physical passions, whether for food or for other things – but rather, something we do more intensively during Lent, as a discipline performed to focus our attention on our Lord’s Passion, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.
Reading and Meditating upon God’s Word
Here again, these are things we should be doing on an ongoing basis. If we are making use of the Daily Offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, we are also reading a significant portion of Holy Scripture each day; if we are not, this is another reason that Lent may be a good time to start! But many people who read the Scriptures regularly use Lent as an opportunity to engage in either further reading of the Bible, and/or delve more deeply into God’s Word written (Article XX) through the use of theological or devotional commentaries. And if you are not reading the Scriptures on a daily or near-daily basis already, there is no time like Lent to begin.
There is, of course, much more that could be said; but this is probably over-lengthy as it is. May the Lord bless and keep you, as you ponder what Lenten disciplines you may feel led to take on – and of course, as you enter into the holy season of Lent, itself. I look forward to seeing many or most of you after I return! Thank you, and God bless you.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
Fr. Tom Harbold