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 and correct 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.
And ah, how much I’m learning to love.