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Lent and the gathering storm

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WHAT is it about this time of year: its peculiar sparseness and intensity? The light broadens but for a long time it seems to get no less cold. The winter has gone but the full green of summer is a hemisphere away. We can recall or imagine the countryside and swift clouds over a pastel landscape; daffodils and, if all goes well, new lambs. And think on the Lamb of God. Springtime is the promise of the eternal return. There is a tension in the English springtime and that is what prevails, what insists itself in this season of Lent. It is a time when even those who are not much given to these things turn, however temporarily, to spiritual wonderings. I feel this spiritual tension is inseparable from the atmosphere of springtime.

The tension is there also in the English Bible, in the gospel readings for Lent. Here is something dark – something that starts on the first Sunday in Lent when Our Lord confronts Satan in the wilderness. And the mood of confrontation was continued last Sunday when we heard Jesus’s tetchy conversation with the Canaanite woman. We remember her snappy riposte: 

It is not meet to take the children’s bread and cast it to the dogs.

Here it is again today – more conflict and aggro: 

And if I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your sons cast them out? 

Beelzebub’s name in English is ‘Lord of the Flies’, the essence of filthiness. Then next week comes Christ’s climactic confrontation with the religious authorities which finally convinced them he had to be done away with. What else could they do after he had said these words? 

Before Abraham was, I am

Lent is a gathering storm like black anvil clouds hurling spring hailstones. The storm breaks in those fearful readings for Holy Week

And they smote him on the head with a reed and did spit upon him . . . and they bring him unto the place Golgotha . . . the place of a skull.

We witness the execution of God. Nowhere more tellingly revealed to us than in Bach’s St Matthew Passion – the last chorus of that sublime work so terribly portraying the scene in the tomb.

This season of Lent is the story of how Jesus is gradually deserted by everyone. Why? For which of his kindnesses? For which of those miracles of healing wrought by the divine compassion? The crowds desert him first. Then the large group of disciples. Then the inner circle of friends. Then even Peter – the rock on which he promised he would build his church – curses and swears at the barmaid, 

I know not this man of whom ye speak! And the second time the cock crew. And Peter called to mind the word that Jesus said unto him, Before the cock crows twice thou shalt deny me thrice. And when he thought thereon, he wept.

Only the women do not forsake Jesus. Their faithfulness is a great mystery and an everlasting blessing which I will write to you about another day. But notice how Passiontide so often coincides with the Feast of the Annunciation of Mary, his Mother: that’s something for you to think about, to pray about. Mary’s vocation is to watch her Son being executed. By the cross she stands. Stabat Mater Dolorosa. This weeping woman who laid him in a manger also lays him in his tomb.

But what are we to make of him, this man, here in the bright springtime walking towards a criminal’s death? Coleridge said, 

A peculiar and surpassing light shines from the visage of the oppressed good man . . . When thy insulted anguish winged the prayer harped by archangels, when they sing of mercy! Which when the Almighty heard from forth his throne, diviner light filled heaven with ecstasy! Heaven’s hymnings paused: and hell her yawning mouth closed a brief moment.

And Blaise Pascal informs us how Jesus was

 . . . in a garden, not of delight as the first Adam, where Adam lost himself and the whole human race, but in a garden of agony where Jesus gave himself and saved the whole human race. 

The Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head. Jesus Christ had nowhere to rest on earth but in his sepulchre. Listen to the great Karl Barth preaching a Passiontide sermon to criminals in a jail: 

In Jesus, God took upon himself the full load of our evil; he made our wickedness his own; he gave himself in his dear Son to be defamed as a criminal, to be accused, condemned, delivered from life unto death. And in Jesus God made the daybreak for us after the long night, and spring came after the long winter.

All this was foretold by the prophet Isaiah hundreds of years before the event: 

He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed . . . He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter.

Our salvation was earned not by three or six hours’ physical pain on the cross. Many have endured much worse through long illnesses, through war, through concentration camps. No, our salvation was bought when the incorruptible God subjected himself to corruption, when that which is immortal put on mortality. The pain was all in the Creator’s being rejected and disowned by his creation; being destroyed by what he had made; being killed by the people he loved. As C H Sisson wrote:

What he did on the cross was no more

Than others have done for less reason

And the Resurrection you could take for granted.

What is astonishing is that he came here at all

Where no one ever came voluntarily before.

All those stories about Christ in the gospels. All the oratorios. All the master paintings. A hundred thousand stained glass windows. A million crucifixes. And yet Jesus Christ remains unfathomable, unknown. Chesterton ends his testament Orthodoxy (1908) – the book he wrote 22 years before he became a Roman Catholic – with these words:

The tremendous figure who fills the gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed his tears: he showed them plainly on his open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of his native city. Yet he concealed something . . . 

Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained his anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of hell. Yet he restrained something. I say it with reverence: there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness {as when he sketched in the sand by the well}. There was something which he hid from all men when he went up the mountain to pray. There was something that he covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon our earth: and I have sometimes fancied it was his mirth.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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