…as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich, as having nothing, and yet possessing all things. (2 Corinthians 6:10)
“Welcome, dear feast of Lent.” So begins George Herbert’s poem on Lent. In five brief words, “Welcome, dear feast of Lent,” Herbert manages to use three words that we do not normally associate with Lent at all: is Lent either “welcome,” or “dear,” or a “feast”? I must confess that for me Lent is often not very welcome. Where the forty days of Eastertide seem to fly past, Lent goes on and on. In Lent difficult things always seem to happen. I miss my wine and chocolate in Lent. Instead of remembering not to eat meat on Fridays, I have to remember Fridays and Wednesdays. Lent is in many ways unwelcome and irksome, and its end is most welcome. The Easter Vigil is not only liturgically the high point in the church year; it also brings the party where all the things we’ve given up reappear. Lent seems not “dear,” but rather the unloved stepchild of the church year. We might recognize the need for abstinence and a time of penitence and reflection, but these disciplines are not particularly dear to us. And as for “feast,” we all know that Lent is no feast, but a fast. In fact it is the Fast, the great and supreme fast of the Christian year, stretching between the ashes of its beginning and the black of Good Friday. “Welcome, dear feast’”indeed.
Of course Herbert’s poem works precisely because its surprising opening is, as they say, counter-intuitive. Herbert shows us what Lent should mean by turning our surface assumptions on their head. The fast is really a feast of sorts; its austerities are dear, or should be; its disciplines are welcome, or would be if only we could see clearly. And we find a similar set of reversals or surprising contrasts in my text today from Second Corinthians. In this lesson Saint Paul argues that, as the King James’s version puts the matter in the chapter heading, “The suffering incurred is a proof of sincerity.” That is, Paul’s sufferings and labors on behalf of the Corinthians should persuade them to believe his sincerity and so to accept his advice. In effect Paul is trying to move the Corinthians by boasting, but by boasting only in his poverty, his loss, his nothingness:
…as unknown, and yet well known; as dying, and, behold, we live; as chastened, and not killed; as sorrowful, yet alway rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing all things.
Paul’s nothingness is his greatness; his poverty is his wealth; his dying is his life; his obscurity is his fame; his sorrow is his joy. The goods of the world are reversed, while the negative things of the world are exalted. All is a paradox. Or in Herbert’s terms: Lent becomes a feast, dear and welcome.
We find the same thing in the gospels. Our Lady sings Magnificat and says, “He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.” And similarly our Lord says, “He that findeth his life shall lose it: and he that loseth his life for my sake shall find it.”
Again and again we see that following Christ calls us to give something up for the sake of a greater gain. We have to undergo a kind of death if we would find our true lives: “He that loveth his life shall lose it; and he that hateth his life in this world shall keep it unto life eternal.” So says our Lord. So says Saint Paul. So says the church by giving us Lent. And because he listened to all of these teachers, George Herbert writes,
“Welcome, dear feast of Lent.”
To put this all in another way, Jesus calls us to a life of detachment and renunciation. We are called to let go the things that are dear to us for the sake of the Kingdom of God. Or at the least we are called to loosen the ties of this world, so that the Kingdom can take first place in our lives. To the world this attitude of detachment is foolishness. To the world Christian detachment and renunciation amount to giving up real things for the sake of unreal things. To the world Christian detachment and renunciation amount to giving up real things for the sake of pie in the sky by-and-by when we die. For the world Lent is just Lent, death is just death, loss is just loss.
But for us the world’s wisdom is foolishness. The world clutches to itself good things which it will have to give up eventually anyway. The beautiful grow old, health becomes diseased, peace is disturbed, and even our earthly loves pass — either through worldly estrangement or through death. These worldly goods are indeed real and good, but they are also transitory, fragile, and imperfect. If we believe in the life of the world to come, then everything in this world changes its aspect. The world shrinks to relative insignificance. Our concern for prestige and popularity, wealth and health, power and contentment: all of the things that fill our minds and our time, really are very, very little. They are not totally irrelevant, but neither are they really very important. The things that really matter — loving my neighbor, doing justice, watching carefully over my conscience, fulfilling my duties: pleasing God, in short — these things become infinitely more significant. As eternity surpasses time, so a life detached from this world and attached to God surpasses a life that is lost in the trivialities of worldliness.
“Welcome, dear feast of Lent!” Welcome, indeed, to the opportunity to remind myself that a good drink and a good dinner are of vastly less matter than self-control; that automatic self-indulgence and the desire for immediate gratification are enemies to the soul; that detachment from this world brings at least a small share in the sufferings of our Lord for the sake of his Kingdom. In Lent we imitate our Lord’s fast in the wilderness. And as Herbert also writes,
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, then one
That travelleth by-ways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
Let us starve our sins and feed our souls, and so join Herbert in his cry:”Welcome, dear feast of Lent!”