The more I study this image, the more I find. The whole of creation is caught up in this presentation of the Cross as the cosmic renewal of life, love, and fellowship. I especially love the detail of chickens and flowers and little animals; these are charming but also a powerful image of incarnational life reaching into the very tiniest corners of the ordinary, intent to redeem. Thus, continued:
The image central to our first piece of art, the apse mosaic in the church of San Clemente in Rome, is that of the Cross as a living tree whose burgeoning life is a living vine encircling the world in total renewal. Though dating to a later period, this piece robustly embodies the vision of quickened life inherent in the spirit of the early church and its emphasis on Christ’s victory over death. Constructed in the twelfth century and dedicated to Pope St. Clement (supposed to be either first or third in the line of St. Peter’s successors), the mosaic sits over the high altar, drawing the eye to the central figure of a peaceful Christ on a living cross, with the apse filled by the tendrils of the vines that grow from the foot of the cross, each circled vine picturing an aspect of human culture, work, or creation, the whole of the picture crammed with human and animal life and activity.
It is fascinating to note that in early Christian portrayals of Christ in art, Jesus was not pictured on the Cross until the 5th century. The early church was intent upon the portrayal of Christ as risen, the victor over death and redeemer of creation. Even in the earliest extant images of the crucifixion (in a series of ivory panels dated c. 420, and a rougher image on a church door from Rome, dating c. 432) the Christ portrayed is alive, alert, and muscular, not defeated by the cross, but defeating it by his very presence on it. The vine cross in St. Clement reflects that life-affirming portrayal. Also worth noting is that though the image of the Cross as the tree of life isn’t frequent, there are other luminous examples, including the 14th c. painting by Pacino di Bonaguida, as well as the much later image created by Sir Edward Burne Jones in 1888 for St Paul’s Within-the-Walls in Rome, suggesting a recurring fascination with this symbolic image. Christopher Irvine describes it as ‘ubiquitous’ in Christian ‘liturgy and iconography’, alluding to a phrase of the Venerable Bede ‘about the cross being planted at the centre of the world’[i].
The cross, in this great work, reflects exactly that, sitting in the centre of the apse and the centre of what can be seen as a garden, the self-giving of Christ in Gethsemane making it a second and renewed garden of Eden. Furthering this reading are the four streams portrayed as flowing from the foot of the Cross, the four rivers of Eden renewed, with harts portrayed quenching their thirst, a clear allusion to Psalm 42, and also perhaps to the water that Jesus offered to the Samaritan woman. These images of life rooted in and springing forth from Christ’s death communicate several theological ideas.
First is the incarnational emphasis on Christ’s given body as restorative of, not just the soul of mankind, or even of peace between God and mankind, but rather the whole of creation. As Torrance made clear in his magisterial work on the Incarnation, the work of Christ was to ‘assume our human nature as we have it in the fallen world that he might heal, sanctify and redeem it’[ii]. Christ was the second Adam, Gethsemane was the Garden of Eden renewed, and because of Christ’s already redemptive life, his death accomplishes the victory in which Paul exults in Romans 15:55.
‘Recapitulation’ is the reality pictured in the apse mosaic, a model of atonement drawn from the writings of Ireneaus ‘whose ‘central element is… the restoring and perfecting of creation’[iii]. Indeed, the whole world appears to be framed in the whorled leaves stretching round the apse. Within their circles are images of every aspect of human culture and endeavour; medicine, law, agriculture, religion, right down to the delightful addition of a housewife feeding her chickens in the left hand corner. The vines rooted in the cross directly suggest Jesus’ words at the Last Supper of ‘abide in me’. They present a profoundly Incarnational picture, portraying the whole of creation renewed by its rootedness, its ‘abiding’ in the given body of Jesus. The kingdom of heaven thus comes in the local, particular spaces of daily human life as they are rooted in the Incarnational life of Christ.
Second is the cross as a place of life renewed and death defeated, with the emphasis on what is created afresh, rather than what is lost. There is no hint here of God’s wrath or of Christ as punished, elements inherent in a penal view of the atonement (to be discussed below), but rather as God and Christ both participating in the total self-gift of Jesus to restore the lost creation and humanity. The underlying idea is one of victory as a symbol of excruciating torture and violent death has been transformed by Jesus’ sacrificial death into the enduring symbol of verdant life. The atonement emphasis in this work is upon Christ’s self-gift as restorative rather than punitive. His hands are opened upward as he gives his body as the seed from which the new life of humanity and creation grows. His eyes are closed, not in resistance or agony, but in what appears to be quiet acceptance. Irvine observes that though this is not the ‘open-eyed victorious Christ of earlier liturgical art’, his death is portrayed as ‘release…to the new and burgeoning life’ of ‘God’s redeeming work’.[iv]
Third is the presence of God the Father in this crucifixion and renewal. A strong theology of Incarnation makes God the Father active and present in the person of Christ, not separated from Jesus, but participatory in his redemptive life. God is both ‘the reconciler and the reconciled’[v], and in the mosaic he is represented by the great hand that reaches out of heaven (and the ceiling of the apse) to hold the top of the Cross. There is here, in the words of 20th century theologian Gustave Aulen, ‘no cleavage between Incarnation and atonement’[vi]. Rather, as Hebrews has it, Christ is the very image of God, and that image, as the contemporary theologian Hans Boersma poignantly argues, is that of a welcoming Father, a hospitable God imaged in the apse by the opened hands of Christ and the protective hand of the Father. The imagery of the apse mosaic is thus of an all-encompassing redemption accomplished in the very person of the incarnate God as his life, and willing death, renews every aspect of humanity and creation.
[i] Irvine, Christopher The Cross and Creation in Christian Liturgy and Art (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013) pg. 163
[ii] T.F. Torrance, The Incarnation, (Downer’s Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008) pg. 62
Well friends, I’m about to go all academic on you – or at least as academic as art, story, song obsessed me can get – by giving you a taste of what I’ve been working on in the past couple of years. I yearn to write here, to have time to work out more creatively the ideas I’m discovering academically. That will come – and this season of study is so rich. But I hate to leave a static silence, so I’ll let you see where my curiosity has been roaming in the past year. (And you can pray for me as I study for my exams – three more weeks!)
This essay was one from last year in which I looked at different models of atonement theology through the lens of art. I will admit, I have combined theology and art or literature in as many of my essays as I could because I so believe in the imagination as a ‘truth-bearing faculty’ (thank you, Malcolm Guite). I deeply believe that theological truth can be encountered and known in a ‘language without words’, and the power of this shapes us in a further and different way from doctrinal statements alone. In art, story, or song, we are given the chance to see theology afresh, to encounter its power and beauty in image.
So. It’s a bit technical. But I’ll work it out someday in poetry and story too. Let us begin:
In the opening to his book on the subject of beauty as ‘a category indispensable to Christian thought’, David Bentley Hart observes that ‘the church has no argument …more convincing than the form of Christ.’[i] Hans Urs von Balthasar echoes this by describing the ‘beauty’ of the Cross, noting that it is ‘unbearable’ to a worldly aesthetics.[ii] Yet one of the primary ways that the Cross has been presented throughout history is in countless works of art, created both for the sacred realm of church, and the wider arena of culture. That these works of image and imagination are also ‘arguments’, able to communicate theological truth, is where this essay begins. For as John Ruskin, the great art critic observed, ‘great nations write their autobiographies in ‘their deeds…their words… and the book of their art…and the last is the most trustworthy’[iii].
Replacing ‘nations’ with the institution of the Church, this essay will open with a brief exploration of the way in which the form of Christ is presented in the autobiography of its art, presenting both theological claims and the history of the Church in a language without words. Our specific focus will then turn to artistic depictions of Christ’s death, and the theologies of atonement that they embody. We will survey major models of atonement theology, using this basis to explore what two specific pieces of art communicate regarding the death of Christ. The pieces of focus will be the ‘vine cross’ mosaic in the apse of the church of San Clemente, in Rome, and a lithograph by Walter Spitzer, created as an illustration for the French writer Malraux’s novel, La Tentation de l’occident(The Temptation of the West).
To open, we must briefly examine the validity of art as a means of theological communication. In a modern context shaped by Enlightenment empiricism, truth, even theology, is commonly regarded as the transmission of objective statements that can be analysed and argued. This concept of knowing is one that grew concurrently with the scientific age, in which materialism and objectivity moulded our understanding of knowledge as something observed and quantified. But as postmodern theory, not to mention theologians like Rowan Williams, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and generations of our ancestors would instantly recognize, some knowledge cannot be reduced to stated information. In evaluating the potential of art to communicate theology, we must first recognize that truth can be present in a language other than words, whether of image, emotion, or experience.
In Richard Viladesau’s explanation, the communication of art is ‘nonverbal, but… not for that reason pre-rational or pre-spiritual’[iv]. Art can actually be ‘a way of thinking’[v] theologically in and of itself, allowing us a qualitatively different understanding via image and symbol from the knowledge gained by ratiocination. Jeremy Begbie says that ‘the arts give expression to a metaphorical way of perceiving the world… which reminds us there is always more to the world than we can name, control, and grasp’[vi]. Rather than standing apart from the doctrine we wish to understand, quantifying and describing it, we can look through a piece of art, gaining a ‘symbolic apprehension’ of ‘theological truth’[vii]. This immersive knowledge is precisely the alternate view that a piece of art can offer us as we look through its portrayal of Christ.
Gerardus van der Leeuw gives this theological shape with his assertion (quoted by Viladesau) that ‘a theological understanding of the arts must begin with soteriology,’ with Christ’s incarnational representation of God giving ‘art and religion their common essence as answers’[viii] or responses to the startling fact of the Incarnation. In this, one hears echoes of Tolkien’s idea that artists are ‘co-creators’, makers made in the image of a Creator, or the poet Madeleine L’Engle’s concept of the artist as participating in the ‘courageous obedience’ of Mary, mother of Jesus, becoming a ‘bearer of the work’[ix] at the request of the Holy Spirit. Both writers recognise that art shares in the incarnational task of Christ as He comes to live in all believers so that the believing artist can participates with the Holy Spirit in revealing Christ to the world.
The resulting multifaceted presentation of Christ powerfully conveys the reality that theology is not static nor wholly contained in one doctrinal system. In a mode profoundly different from stated truth, art allows us to ‘see’ the crucifixion through another’s eyes, enlarging our own perspective while helping us to recognise the limited nature of our view point when it remains in isolation. When centuries of artistic portrayals of the same theological event are set side-by-side, we immediately grasp the various ways in which the artists have seen this event, and the theological ideas shaping their aesthetic communication.
Art is thus inherently a portrayal of church history as well, enfleshing the doctrinal arguments and developments of the Church in the imagery of its devotional, architectural, and popular art. As witnessed in Richard Harries’ book examining ‘the passion in art’[x] through the centuries, artists of every age ‘could not avoid making a doctrinal point’[xi] in their works. The art of the catacombs, of church basilicas, or prayer books and privately commissioned paintings, is a unique record of theological debate and imagination. Art is thus uniquely suited to a discussion of differing theological viewpoints in that a picture offers a literally alternate point of ‘view’, not a differently worded or argued statement. We encounter their particular theological emphasis in the immediacy of image…
…to be continued.
‘Vine Cross’ in apse of San Clemente, Rome
[i] Hart, David Bentley The Beauty of the Infinite (Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 2004), p. 3
[ii] von Balthasar, quoted in Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 149
[iii] Ruskin, John St. Mark’s Rest: The history of Venice, written for the help of the few travellers who still care for her monuments, (Oxford: 1879), pg. vii
[iv] Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pg. 16
[v] Viladesau, Richard, Theological Aesthetics (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), pg. 16
I may have three essays to finish (20,000 words all told), two exams to study myself silly for, and you know, laundry to do and floors to clean, but I was up and out the door at 5:30 today with the birds singing me down the streets. May Morning in Oxford is a spectacle not to be missed, a child-hearted festival that makes me want to laugh and dance all at once. And let us be honest, that’s exactly what all the Morris dancers on the street do.
I joined the restless, happy crowd as the sky blushed with dawn and right at the stroke of 6, the Magdalen College choir raised their lovely voices in a hymn sung on the top of the Magdalen College Tower for centuries. And the crowd hushed (mostly, helped by vigorous ‘shusshing’!) to hear the woven harmonies raised to open the merry month of May:
If you’ve never heard of Oxford’s May Morning, go here for the BBC ‘s take on this 500-year-old tradition.
But the gist of this delightful festival day is that at dawn on the 1st of May, the Magdalene College choir welcomes the spring with the Hymnus Eucharisticus, a song of praise lifted to God at start of the joyous May season. It’s sung in Latin, but here’s the first verse:
We worship you, O God the Father, we offer you our praise, for you nourish our bodies, and minds with heavenly grace…
And then, a vividly imaged blessing is said, evoking the luxuriant beauty of spring and asking that it spur us to love and grace… or something close to that. I’ve searched and searched and can’t find the text. But the pith of it made my heart swell with thanks for the beauty of the earth today, for the wholeness always on its way to find us even here in the broken place. And it reminded me of this gorgeous tapestry that I found last week and have been waiting to show you:
This is by Pauline Baynes, the original illustrator of The Chronicles of Narnia. Look at it! It’s the whole of creation in redeemed dance! It reminds me so richly of the ending to C.S. Lewis’s Perelandra, where he describes the great music and harmony of all living creatures in an unfallen world. This circled dance is the original reality, and its the one we’re journeying toward in Christ. It’s a feast for heart and eye.
Friends, may the first morning of merry May set you dancing in heart and body.
And now, I really do have to go act like a responsible student again…
Friends! I bear glad tidings. Let me begin with a (very short) story:
Once upon a time there was a girl named Sarah who loved good books and wanted the rest of the world to know why they should too. Being an idealistic girl and the child of idealistic parents, she wrote a book about it (Caught Up in a Story) and started a website where people could come to delight in and discover stories galore. But, then, being also adventurous and led by all the great books she’d read into the attempting of her dreams, she ended up in Oxford, city of her writerly heroes, and before she knew it she was a student of theology. With a gazillion papers due all the time. And then, on top of all that, she got married. And somewhere along the way the Storyformed project got put drastically on hold, much to her dismay.
Until the charming, insightful, and courageous Holly showed up to save it and revive the website and start the conversation afresh….
I am so very happy to tell you all that my dear friend Holly, a writer and fellow-lover of books will be re-launching the Storyformed website and project with regular reviews, blogs, and a Storyformed podcast to boot. Holly has her own rich vision of coming alongside parents and teachers and all lovers of children’s books as a companion, resource, and encourager in the reading life. I’ll be joining in for podcasts and blogs here and there, but I cannot wait to see how the Storyformed concept grows afresh under Holly’s nourishment.
If you are looking for great children’s literature recommendations, for podcasts and blogs on the power of reading and imagination, and for a community eager to share the delights and joys of the reading life, then please, pop over to Storyformed.com and say hello to Holly. Listen to the new podcasts, enter the giveaways, and join with me in celebrating the renewal of Storyformed.
There’s nothing I like better than for someone to ask me for a booklist. So since various lovely commenters have requested book lists in response to recent posts, I feel delightfully honour-bound to comply. Those requested were a list of the grace-filled novels I mentioned in the Lent in Love post, and the titles of the books I am exploring for my paper on theodicy (i.e., the paradox-studded study of God’s goodness and power in a clearly fallen and often evil world).
I’ll start today with the novels, since we are in Lent, and I think they are a gift to give shape to the quietness of this season, to provide companions of imagination in this reflective time. I’m delighted to share these – they are the quiet books that delve into the inner lives of their characters. They are pilgrimages, not of outer adventure, but of inward exploration. They are stories that have companioned me in some of the most difficult times of my life. We’ll start with those in this post.
I find the theodicy booklist to be more difficult as I am reading widely. While there are several main ‘camps’ that theologians generally join, there are countless, subtle variations in the way that theologians wrestle with the reality of God as good in the midst of a fallen world. Some of the books in my reading list, I mostly embrace, some I find challenging, some problematic or just downright wrong. The wide reading allows me to form the argument and theology I need to make a claim in a paper, but its difficult to know what to recommend here.
I’m thinking on it. And I’ll have a list to you soon. But for now, the novels.
Lila, Home, andGileadby Marilynne Robinson. I was late in loving Gilead, and in fact, it was the last book I read in what could loosely be considered a trilogy. It was Lila’s story that captivated me first, the inward journey of an orphaned girl in her quiet wrestle with a Christianity that would seem to set her at odds with the woman who raised and protected her. I love Lila’s frank questions and stark wisdom, and the slow, startling love that rises between her and a deeply solitary minister. Robinson’s narration is masterful, I found myself thinking along with Lila, forgetting myself as the reader and simply looking through her eyes. Home gripped me differently. I read it during Lent last year, a story of, well, a difficult story, a tale of one family’s many hidden sorrows, a story of human frailty and the way that the hurting of one person so often wounds another, even those beloved to us. I love this as a Lenten book, one that helps a reader to journey admit what is broken, to realise the sorrowing state of the human heart. Only in acknowledging our frailty can we realise the possibility that we will be made whole. It’s a story to make you hope for Easter. And finally, Gilead, the one I was supposed to read first: the letters of an old man to the young son whose adulthood he knows he will not see.
Remembering: A Novel (Port William) and Hannah Coulterby Wendell Berry. I’ve been on an unintended, but no-less intent campaign to get as many people to read Wendell Berry’s novels as I can. It started with a paper I wrote in the doctrine of the Incarnation, when I suddenly realised that the novels of Wendell Berry were saying in story form exactly what I was reading in the best works of Incarnational theology. Remembering is, I think, an ideal Lenten story, one you could read (possibly) in a day, the story of a man who has lost his hold on identity, family, and faith. It is his inward pilgrimage as he comes near to breaking, but finds that he is ‘held, though he cannot hold’, as he discovers afresh ‘the blessedness that he has lived in, in his anger, and did not know’, one that kept the faith when he could not. Hannah Coulter is equally arresting in a different way, the quiet account of a Kentucky housewife who comes slowly to understand that it is in our faithfulness to the place and people given it, ‘our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven’.
The Island of the Worldby Michael O’Brien. Imagine that a medieval mystic poet wrote a modern novel with communist Yugoslavia as his setting and a little boy as his hero and you will begin to get the gist of this book. Following Josip from his idyllic childhood in a village called ‘Rajskja Polja’ (the ‘fields of heaven’), the book chronicles the brutal loss of his innocence and his growth into a mathemetician and ‘cultural rebel’ under Tito’s regime. The gift of this story lies in its unblinking portrayal of human brutality as it is juxtaposed with the light, the poetry, the Love that still bubbles up in the heart of a wounded boy and calls him relentlessly home. Longer review HERE.
The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. I know I’ve mentioned this one before, but of all Goudge’s novels, it is one that is for me almost devotional, a riveting story that traces the making of one woman’s soul in the wild solitude of mental illness, and the way that her story captures and renews the faith of the girl to whom she left both her home and her journals. I have a quote from the book as the background to my laptop screen at the moment: ‘there are three necessary prayers and they have three words each. They are these: ‘Lord have mercy. Thee I adore. Into Thy hands.’ If in times of distress you hold to these, you will do well.’
Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. It’s been too long since I read this, but it was one of the novels I read in my teens that helped me to understand what profound grief looks like, what doubt and struggle can be in the heart of a faithful believer. Set in South Africa in the era of apartheid, it is a story in which grief, the brokenness of sinful people, and the sorrow of those that love them, is unblinkingly recounted. It is a tragedy in its way. But one whose final word is a grieved, aching hope.
Adam Bede (Oxford World’s Classics)e by George Eliot. George Eliot is just ever and always one of my favourite writers, a woman who wrestled profoundly with her faith, and eventually rejected the Christianity she knew, but lived always in pilgrimage toward the Christ whom, I think, she never completely abandoned and whose self-giving love she portrayed again and again in her profoundly human heroes and heroines. This story of a pure-hearted farmer and his love for both a passionate Methodist woman and a fallen girl explores compassion, sacrifice, and selfless love.
Ah friends, may these stories companion you from sorrow to grace, from grief or frailty, to the knowledge of the Love that holds you all times, even when you feel you cannot hold.
Last month I was in London, very early on a frosty morning. Thomas was in town for a theological conference and I’d tagged along, intent on finally snatching a couple of hours at the British National Gallery (can you believe I’d never visited before?). But I was tired. The day had barely begun and I already felt bone weary, dogged by work half-finished and my own travel bag of current troubles and a few of the headlines I’d read on the bus that morning. The walking day ahead looked very long, and my adventurous spirit seemed to have wandered off without me. It was cold, so I walked aimlessly around the squares of Covent Garden, downhearted, waiting for shops to open, hoping for a cafe.
And then there was music. Abruptly. Music so full and living and quick it was like sunlight slicing through fog. The tint of the air seemed to visibly brighten. I watched people all round the echoing, high space perk up their ears, and start walking toward the music, something golden and swift by Mozart. I followed. We found the musicians, four of them, by leaning over a balcony, looking down into one of the warmer corners of Covent Garden. They were grouped in a half moon, a cellist, a flautist, and two violinists. Bundled in faded sweaters and battered boots, with sly flairs of colour in one violinist’s blue scarf, and the flautist’s red beret.
And they danced as they played, stomped and twirled in perfect, but friendly, laughing sync. They played with frost-reddened noses and fingers, but the swift, laughing music belied the cold. In fact, that music took no notice of anything but its own joy, and it seemed to come from deep within them, part of heart and muscle, emerging into their fingers, received by the strings of the violin or flute or mellow-throated cello. I watched them, with a dozen others, fascinated. People smiled. Toes tapped. Who knew why they had braved the cold and dawn to shatter the fog with their song light. All we knew was that they laughed as they played. They caught our eyes and winked.
And in a sudden, unravelled happiness, standing at that rail, I knew a quality of joy that comes more and more rarely to me since childhood. I knew innocence. Happiness without shadow of fear. I stood there for half an hour as they played on and on, and I left the cold and heaviness of my heart behind. The music made me childlike because for an instant, its potent beauty allowed me a shifted, inner vision of the joy that is coming, coming, coming. The dark, fleeting shadows of my morning trouble, my weariness, my fear, were phantoms that blessedly died in the strong light of the beauty singing around me.
And I knew afresh, as I have known it in my truest moments before, that the great promise of beauty, the thrummed message that sings to us in those moments when we are struck by art or music or story, is that ‘everything sad is coming untrue’. Like Sam in Middle Earth who saw a high star and knew that the Shadow was a ‘passing thing’, I stood in the light of that music and with Julian Norwich, for an instant, I knew that ‘all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well’.
There are ten theological things I could say about this. There is incarnational theology to be applied. Defences of art and imagination to be made. Book-length arguments to be written…all of which I intend in the future. But for this moment, I want simply to bear witness to the truth that beauty speaks. I want you to know even the briefest gleam of the light that came to me and made me a child, holding my Father’s hand once more. I want you to trust that when beauty comes to you, in its illogical, unreasonable joy, it speaks a truth larger than any darkness you have known.
Trust it. Trust joy. Trust hope.
Because, you know, it’s easy to distrust those things. We live in a world of headlines and reason, where shouted doom and daily controversies define our waking moments. We live in adult hurry. We work and give and measure our success. We live in an age of reason, where we tend to think that only what can be argued is true. We mistrust things we cannot explain or see.
But today, in this season in which we prepare our hearts to receive the risen Christ, I hope that you may be given the grace to stand in the light of a beauty that speaks a joy beyond reason. Redemption, happy endings, resurrections, are entirely beyond explanation. We can only receive them, as we receive new life at the hand of a Creator who is always kindling light in darkness. In this dark and difficult world, may you have the grace today to believe the promise of beauty, to believe it in the face of despair. May a song or a phrase of story or a glimpse of new-sprouted blossom or a burning note of music grip you.
And may you believe the story it tells.
And… may you find a sister-friend like Joy. Who teaches me to embrace… Music. Childlikeness. Laughter. Every single day. I couldn’t resist.
Lent, my friends, is upon us, a season that feels to me a little like a journey through the wilderlands of quiet and repentance. It’s a new practice in my history and sometimes I look forward to it, sometimes I dread it, wondering if I have the strength for the road. Last year though, I found that the heart of Lenten practice really isn’t about my discipline or devotion. It may take me the rest of my life to fully grasp it, but the truth remains:
Lent is the season in which I rediscover love.
For most of my life, I have equated Lent with law. With repentance, yes, and under grace, I know. After all, Lent ends with Easter and a feast to mark salvation. But since discovering this practice of the church, I’ve mostly seen ‘the penitential season’ as a time in which I made laws of discipline to express my true contrition, to prove to God that my sorrow over all the ways I sin and fail is real.
Lent dawned bright this year in England, bright as my good intentions. On the day when much of the church begins a season of repentance, the sun blinked and gleamed in a stark blue sky and birds whistled as if it were May and the daffodils in the vase on my desk finally bloomed.
But that evening, after a long day, after a service in which the ashes of repentance were crossed into my forehead, I looked down the long trail of the coming days, and all I saw was grey. I was weary and afraid, doubtful that I could keep strict laws or great fasts. I felt too busy and tired to keep up the strictures of dawn devotion or the renunciation of chocolate. (You know?)
So my Lent began in doubt – of myself, and let us be honest, of God’s capacity to love an undisciplined me. I might have spent the whole of this quiet season in just such a mindset was it not for an encounter with a passage from Luke (during one of those attempted dawn devotions) and a woman of whom a self-righteous pharisee named Simon spoke exactly the words I felt were true of myself: ‘she is a sinner’.
The story in Luke is set in the pharisee’s home, at a dinner he held for Jesus, ostensibly in Christ’s honour, but presumably to prod and test him, find out if Jesus was, by pharisee standards, ‘the real thing’. Simon comes to his own conclusions when a woman who had ‘lived a sinful life’ creeps in to express her love for Jesus. Bringing an alabaster jar of perfume and a heart so brimful of repentance that it spills into tears, she kneels at Jesus’ feet to weep and wash him with her tears.
Simon’s conclusion is instant. If Jesus really had God in or with him, he would know what kind of sinful woman was touching him. And, Simon must have assumed, send her packing. For Simon was one of the pharisees who counted out tithes even of their mint leaves, kept the minutest tenets of the Law, tithed and cleansed and followed the Law so well that even God, they thought, couldn’t condemn them. But Simon was also of those, according to the passage just before, ‘who rejected God’s purpose for himself’. And what was that purpose? Love.
For the marvel of the story is that Jesus knew exactly what kind of woman was bathing his feet with her tears. He knew exactly the sin and grief that tortured her heart. He also knew the elaborate facade of good deeds andcorrect opinions by which Simon, the supposedly spiritual leader, kept guilt at bay. So Jesus told a story of two debtors, one who owed much and one who owed little. Both are forgiven by a generous moneylender and at the conclusion, Jesus simply asks of Simon which of them will love him more?
‘The one who was forgiven most’, says Simon, of course.
‘Like this woman at my feet”, says Jesus, ‘who has loved and wept and washed me with her tears, while you have not even given me the kiss of hospitality or a towel to wipe my weary feet. She has been forgiven much, and so she loves much. But he who has forgiven little, loves little.’
In a brief stab of insight I saw myself both in Simon and the woman. In Simon, because with him, I thought that God’s acceptance of me dwelt in my being correct and keeping my countless little laws of performance. I thought Lent was about proving myself so good that judgment couldn’t touch me. In the woman, because deep down I knew myself frail and weak, unable to assure my own salvation or even abstention from chocolate for forty days. Both were equally sinful, but one hid it even from himself, and so did not recognise Love at his table, while the other in her repentance saw him clearly and wept with gratitude.
In that moment, my understanding of what it means to keep Lent changed. Lent often has the reputation of being something that the super godly do, a sort of iron man competition, open only to the spiritually elite. I think we often look at the spiritual life in general this way. I look at the people near me in study and church and think that everyone must be doing it better than me as I scurry through papers and strive to make time for those I love and try to catch sleep and make it to my kitchen at night too tired to cook, let alone pray. The irony is that Lent (not to mention the Gospel) is precisely for the lost and discouraged, the brokenhearted and disappointed who know they have nothing left to give. Lent is for the hurried and distracted, the lonely.
The disciplines of Lent – prayer, devotion, fasting, stillness – aren’t meant as a heightened performance, an extra extravagance of discipline to prove we’re really Christians. Rather, they are meant to create a quiet space in which we listen afresh for love, ‘accept God’s will’ as we come and remember that we are forgiven. Discipline is a good thing – quiet is a gift. But only if rooted in Love and used as a means to push back the cacophony of life long enough for us to look heartward, knowing ourselves afresh as the ‘sinful women’ and ‘wretched men’ in whom God’s plan to save the world by grace is worked.
But we find that grace only when we face what needs forgiving. As long as we, with Simon and the pharisees, believe we need not repent, need not admit our insufficiency, we will simply stand rotting and wounded in the armour of our good deeds and defiant self-confidence, dying, if we only knew it, of the festered guilt we will not face. In facing that messy guilt, in coming to the broken place in which there is no longer any scaffolding of piety to uphold us, any pretense of righteousness to disguise us, we discover, first, our eternal inadequacy. And second, grace. Real grace. Not the cheap kind that slaps a mask over a distorted face, but the deep kind, the backward working magic of Christ in which we are met in our most broken places by Love.
I changed my Lenten rhythms after reading that marvellous story. I haven’t quite managed the giving up of chocolate or the eager rising at dawn each day that I had planned. But I have stepped away from certain distractions (don’t get me started on the number of screens that jostle for my attention), and taken the extra quiet to listen, to pray. I’ve risen early once a week to write, just to get my soul in the habit of articulation, and in the posture, once again, of listening. I’ve read a couple of novels whose words drip with grace. And in the hushed moments of these sweet times, I remember that I am forgiven.
When lovely Joy was a-visiting a couple of weeks ago, we took a Sunday afternoon tromp round Addison’s Walk. This is the lovely loop of forested path in Magdalene College where Lewis and Tolkien had a talk about myth that turned Lewis toward believing that the epic of Christ just might be true. At the first turn of the path, on the other side of a small bridge, there is an unassuming plaque paying tribute to Lewis’s presence at Magdalene through the words of a poem he wrote in the springtime one year.
I have rarely encountered a poem so taut and trembling all at once with the hope that thrums in the coming of spring. I read this aloud to my poetry group a couple of weeks ago, and we looked out the window and felt like we heard the trill of a bird in the light, sweet repetition – listen, you can hear it in the lines ‘this year, this year’. And with that haunting call, the quickened heartbeat, ‘quick quick!’ of hope.
I simply had to share:
What the Bird Said Early in the Year C.S. Lewis
I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you.
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well worn track.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick! – the gates are drawn apart.
A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life, in order that worldly cares may not obliterate the sense of the beautiful which God has implanted in the human soul.
-Johann Wolfgang von Goethe