Project Canterbury

Of Advance in Lent
By Father Congreve, SSJE.

London: Mowbray, no date.

'But grow in grace, and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. To Him be glory both now and for ever. Amen.' (2 S. PET. iii. 18).

WHAT expectation have I of growing in grace, and how is Lent to help me to advance in the knowledge of Christ? Lent is no mere ceremonial regulation, like the Lord Chamberlain's order for Court mourning for so many days. As if the Church should announce that on Ash Wednesday immemorial custom and ecclesiastical propriety demand that we begin to live sadly for forty days, put aside every encouraging consideration, and dwell upon past sin and the consequences of eternal sin. All ornaments are veiled. The silence of a house where one lies dead falls upon the Church according to the Almanack, and joy is out of season for six weeks. On the contrary, George Herbert writes, 'Welcome, dear feast of Lent'; and the meaning of Lent is the spring of the soul and of the Church. It symbolizes not the despair or indifference of the dead in sin, the winter of the soul, but the spring, the stirring of mysteries hidden in the depths of our nature, the silent awaking of a desire to love God, which is new and wonderful--of a capacity of growing in likeness to Christ, which we did not dream of as possible for us; an interior stirring of faith, hope, and love coming to a new life in us; a new glimpse caught of the height of the true aim of the Christian life; a new start in following Christ closely, instead of afar off. Is not that the meaning of the gravity, and of the silence of Lent? The Christian soul is setting herself in a quiet time to remember the highest and deepest thoughts she ever had, and deliberately to choose afresh the highest aim she ever caught sight of. All who intend to obey the Church, and keep Lent, mean that by the grace of God they intend to grow through these forty days in the knowledge and love of God.

The wise world laughs at keeping Lent, a mediaeval custom quite gone out of fashion, and which has long ago lost its symbolism and significance. No; Lent never was in the Early Church a mere significant ceremony; it was a real time of self-discipline, by means of which souls made some way in their escape from the prison of self-love into liberty in the love of God; it was a time in which they took courage to deal practically with selfish sin, strove and conquered lust, laziness, pride, unkindness. Here, where S. Etheldreda and her holy companions served Christ, the keeping of Lent was a serious and practical matter. [The Church of the Holy Trinity, once the Lady-Chapel of the Minster, Ely.] It was just as hard a fight for them to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil here in the seventh century as it is for us to-day in the nineteenth. No touching Church ceremony could do it then; it was a hand-to-hand fight then by prayer and fasting to cast out the love of self, in order to cause to spring up the mystery of the love of God, sown in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Lent was a school of Christ for them, and they became saints through discipline. And Lent must be no less serious a discipline for us, but never a discipline of gloom. By the exercises of prayer and self-denial in Lent the soul comes to find out that she is a living soul, made partaker of the Divine Nature, and intended for spiritual advance. On Ash Wednesday, therefore, each of us asks himself, What hope have I of growing in the love of God this Lent?

Lent awakens spiritual hope in us, just as the sight of the enemy awakes the spirit of an army. They were lagging just now, tired with the march, dispirited; but a sudden signal, one turn in the road, shows them the enemy's lines stretching right across their way. How the men's hearts leap up: who is fagged now? So Lent awakes the energy of hope by showing us our enemy, the reality of the battle of life, of our conflict with evil. We all know that our fifty or seventy years in this world were given to us for a great achievement--to conquer the world, the flesh, and the devil, to win holiness for eternity; but we easily forget this, and slip out of range. But Lent rallies us, reminds us of the seriousness of our moral life, of the reality of sin, of bad tendencies of our childhood not conquered yet, of the strength of sins of the flesh, of pride and temper, of love of the world, of cowardice in confessing Christ, of sloth and depression, of neglect of prayer and the sacraments. As we look up, Lent shows us the way to God and our heavenly country, and right across that way, cutting off our road to God and holiness, lies our sin. So Lent brings us to face the enemy and prepare for battle. And hope is the very soul of a battle: the men intend to win that position now held by the enemy at any cost. So in your case, suppose there is sloth, or unbelief, or ill will, or some other vice: your Lent battle means your hope to wrest that position from the enemy. That sin, that indifference, or bad temper, shall be conquered by God's help. There is no evading the issue; that sin is going to conquer me, and separate me from God for ever, or I am going to conquer it. Lent means nothing if it does not imply in each of us a very definite resolution to deal with our besetting sin. But if that resolution of facing the particular evil that holds us back is made, then Lent will not prove for us a mere mediaeval ceremony gone through. No; in two months time we shall be in the middle of April. Will that be nothing? merely two arbitrary divisions of time passed through? Ah! this world will have come to a new life in that short time; the blossom will be on the pear tree then; every field will be aflush with tender green, every willow bush will have its flower. So the honest effort to repent more deeply, to conquer our chief sin by a good Lent, brings us to our spiritual Easter, a new spring of the soul. And we shall see the change; we shall not be coming to one more ceremony in our Easter Communion: we shall welcome and receive Christ risen from the dead, in His power and beauty, putting forth all the energies of His victory in our changed hearts, our self-conquest, our humility.

The journey of a good Lent is a way of hope from beginning to end, and of advance in the spiritual life. The way which has no hope is the way in which we are satisfied to go on just as we are, with no spiritual desire, caring nothing for the love of God, nor for sin that separates us from Him, with no effort to arise and go to our Father Christ. But the least effort to keep Lent means a spiritual movement in the soul towards God, an interior working of the Holy Spirit in the soul. A schoolboy, suppose, makes a resolution on Ash Wednesday to fight some sin, some cowardice, laziness, untruthfulness, impurity, for the love of Christ: here is already an energy of the new life, a fresh springing of grace in the lad. It is not good merely because it might possibly lead to a noble change and a loftier life some future day, it might lead some time or other to his becoming spiritually alive: it means much more than that, it means that by the grace of God he is spiritually alive already, and that the kingdom of heaven begins to grow in him.

So I ask you all to make some resolution to-day as we begin Lent, and to write it down, and to offer it to our Lord in true fellowship with Him in His temptation and Sacrifice--a resolution about fighting your oldest and most serious fault, the bad habit that keeps you far from Christ. And I say that your promise so made to God in humble trust in His Spirit, is already an actual advance, a growth in grace, and an earnest of further growth.

If any one declines to respond to any such appeal, saying to himself, 'It is enough for me if I can get through life without scandal,' I ask you to consider whether God could ever have made a man in His own image without intending him to rise above the level of fallen nature in its depressed indifference? At the judgement will the question be, 'Did you live a decent life, without public disgrace?' or will it be, 'Where is that lovely image of God that I gave you? Where is that seed of a heavenly life, which I sowed in you in Baptism, that princely Spirit of Christ, God's love, which I shed abroad in your heart at Confirmation? Did you cultivate the noble plant? Where is its beautiful growth through these twenty or forty years, which I gave to you for nothing but that you should use them in growing in likeness to Me?'

Then Lent will encourage us to advance, by giving us a taste of heavenly things; since 'every one that seeketh findeth.' Our discouragement means that we are not finding Christ; the kingdom of heaven has no reality for us, no interest; but if we are not finding Christ, it is because we have left off seeking Him. And Lent is the beginning of a new quest. Here is a Christian family, a Christian congregation, banded together at the call of the Catholic Church, to seek God together in repentance more earnestly: your keeping of Lent is a holy league of Christians in this place, resolved to follow Christ; and every one that seeketh findeth, and shall come to taste and see how gracious the Lord is.

Then, again, your real keeping of Lent by a practical resolution in regard to fasting, prayer, and almsgiving--as to discipline of the body or of the temper--will help you to grow in grace, because it will bring you and keep you nearer to Christ. When an army is on the march, a few will fall out, giving way to weariness or a little slackness, and lagging so they begin at once to lose the spirit of the corps, and feel the discouragement of solitude, and are left behind. Those who keep up with the body have the stimulus of their officers' presence, and of the spirit of the regiment. So Lent means that you are not going to play at soldiering any longer, but that you take up Christ's Cross in sober earnest, and begin to follow Him closely. As you strive by prayer and self-denial to follow, you are keeping well up with our Leader, Who knows who is with Him, and the swing of the march of His companions cheers you.

But Lent is so full of the hope of advance, because the energy of every Christian's Lent resolution is the stirring up of the life of God that is in him--the calling up of the power of Christ's victory over sin, and putting it forth under new circumstances. You might smile to know that a boy here is going to fight against some fault this Lent--is going to get up as soon as he is called in the morning, in order to have time to say his prayers; is going to behave like a gentleman to some one who has been no friend to him; is going to work hard in school instead of idly--you might smile over that Lent resolution, because it is such a small matter! Yes; small, like the live seed that has a huge oak tree of a hundred years hence folded up and hidden in it. You smile over the child's Lent resolution; but your laughing at it will not stop its growing, till it becomes the power and beauty of Christ enthroned in the grown man's character. I know a noble person who converts many to righteousness, of whom a school-fellow said to me, 'I knew him as a boy, and he was just the same at heart when he was at school as he is now; he would never allow a word to be said against the honour of God, against truth or purity.' There was the divine seed, the life of Christ on the throne, hidden in a boy's heart; and here to-day is the great tree, the man whose whole life from the beginning has been the same, but growing--a life of grace, always given to God in the service of men. You may trace the history of that tree of grace fifty years, back to its seed, the child's Baptism, Confirmation, Communions. But when did this seed begin to grow--begin to know the life that was stirring in it, and exert it? It was very likely some call of God responded to, like the Rugby schoolboy Noble's resolution to give his life to God as a missionary; or it was the first time he made a Lent resolution, denied himself, and gave his first Lent savings for the love of God to some charity.

The hope of growth in grace springs out of the self-denial of Lent, for that is the exercise of the sorrows and sacrifice of Christ, of which we are made partakers by the Sacraments. A poor man resolves to cut off some unnecessary small luxury for forty days for the love of Christ in fellowship with His holy fasting and Passion; spends something less on himself that he may have to give to others poorer still. By that small self-denial carried out he grows in Christian manhood; he tastes the joys of Christ's victory by the Cross. Already he is no longer a babe in Christ; he has won his spurs, has dared something, suffered something for the honour of the King, Advance! You can see it in his face; he has grown from Christian childhood to the first hope of Christian knighthood.

And then our hope of advance in Lent will never be the hope of our own solitary improvement. We must try, not merely to get a blessing from keeping Lent, each for himself, but we must seek first the glory of God, and then His blessing of spiritual growth for our own family, our parish, the Church of England, the kingdom of Christ everywhere. The congregation must keep Lent well, every communicant taking a real part in the spiritual movement, the penitence of Lent, so as to be a support to all the rest: each trying to bring some one to Church who has not found his way there. This Lent will have its special penance for us, in the anticipation of possible attacks upon religion in Parliament and elsewhere. Our Lent exercise will be patience, that exchanges hot and angry thoughts and words for prayer. And the choir must keep Lent well, as they will be taught by their choirmaster. Then their leading of the daily Song of the Church will be more than ever sacrifice, something given as a means of union with God. There is nothing in public worship that helps us more to seek God earnestly than the song of a choir, who sing not of constraint but for the love of Christ's service, who are reverent in Church, and try everywhere to keep the character of Christ's servants, of which the surplice is only the outward sign.

And whatever victory we win in Lent over any sin, we win it not for self alone, but for the joy of heaven ('there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth') and for the support of all who are trying to serve God. One real prayer every day persevered in, one manly effort to do right instead of wrong, how mysteriously it affects and changes the spiritual atmosphere of life all around. Like a change in the weather: yesterday we were frozen up in mid-winter, but the wind changed from north-east to south in the night, and when. we woke spring was here. Your Lent prayer and effort carried right through to Easter has brought a change of moral temperature, has touched other souls, softened and encouraged them, wakened the remembrance of forgotten blessings. Not one in a family keeps Lent like a Christian, perseveres in prayer and self-denial, but somehow he changes the general tone of life round him in ways nobody can explain. So the whole Body of Christ grows in grace, through the good Lent of one member.

And there is no end to this advance. The ancient chestnut trees yonder that stand round the cathedral, each of them has grown from one seed, dropped there ages ago, and yet their top branches are growing still. This spring the white spires of bloom will be lifted up nearer to heaven than ever, and the giant arms will cast a wider shade, because the life that was in that small seed has not exhausted God's purpose for it yet. But a day will come when old age or a gale of wind will end the growth and history of the great tree. And the Christian penitent who kept Lent well--death will lay him low too, when God wills, but will not end him, but will only set free the life of God that he cherished by prayer and self-discipline--set it free for a new and endless advance.

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