FOR some years past each return of Lent has been, we believe, regarded with additional interest. Many who were not trained up within the pale of the Church, are looking to her fold as a refuge more fixed and stable than any they can find elsewhere. They of course eagerly inquire into the History, Object, and Proper Observance of the Holy Seasons which are set forth in her Calendar. Among those, too, who have been educated to attend her services, there seems to be a growing appreciation of their beauty, and a wish to know more of their origin. They appear to be turning away from the empty, boastful professions of this age of novelties, and to be more inclined to adopt as a settled principle, that golden decision of the Council of Nice, LET ANCIENT USAGES PREVAIL.
In this state of things, the writer has frequently sought--but without success--for something, which in a small compass might contain the necessary information with respect to the Lenten Fast. He could only find, a few pages by one author--a sermon by another--or perhaps some brief tracts, which, although excellent in themselves, did not attempt to discuss the whole subject. Having waited therefore for several years in vain, in the hope that the desired work would be furnished by some one better able to do it justice, he has at length ventured himself to undertake the task.
After the following pages were prepared for the Press, there was accidentally brought to his notice, a treatise by Dr. Gunning (afterwards Bishop of Chichester), entitled, "the Paschal or Lenten Fast," which fills a quarto volume of between five and six hundred pages, published about the year 1670. Its size, however, together with the style in which it is written, would render it at the present day useless to any but the theologian or the scholar. The author has also confined his attention principally to one single point, owing to the circumstances under which he wrote. The work was prepared after the Restoration, when in consequence of the rule of the Puritans for so many years in England, the observance of Lent had been almost entirely discontinued. The object of Dr. Gunning is, therefore, to revive in the minds of men a reverence for this ancient season by proving its Apostolical authority; and the argument he presents is rendered most conclusive by extracts from every prominent writer who treats of the subject during the first seven centuries of the Church. It is evident however that this truth, if sustained by quotations from the first three centuries, is as well established as if the testimony of the remaining four was added. The present writer found therefore, that even if he had met with this treatise at an earlier period, from its being thus narrowed down to a single topic, it would have afforded him but little assistance. He mentions it however in this place, as it is the only work with which he is acquainted devoted to this subject, and because he was happy to find in its numerous quotations, a full confirmation of the statement he had made with regard to the origin of the Lenten Fast.
It would of course have been easy, after once commencing the investigation, to have entered more deeply into the subject and expanded this volume to twice its present size by multiplying quotations from the early writers. In refraining from doing so, and in turning aside from many tempting paths of historical inquiry which opened before him, the writer (although acting contrary to the opinion of some of his friends), has "been influenced by the consideration, that to have yielded, would entirely have changed the character of the work. It is intended, not for the clergy (for they must be professionally familiar with all it contains), but for those among the laity whose daily avocations prevent them from searching the early records of the Church and to whom information conveyed in this form is sometimes acceptable and useful. The object has therefore been, to quote from the ancient Fathers, merely enough to sustain and illustrate the different points brought forward.
It was for a similar reason that advantage was taken of the, subject of Easter Even, to introduce a discussion of the intermediate state. Those arguments we already have, able as they arc, seem rather too controversial and theological in their character to be adapted to general readers. An attempt has therefore been made, to present this important subject in a more simple and popular form. Perhaps exception may be taken by some, to the adoption of Bishop Horsley's rendering of 1 Peter, iii. 19, 20. If so, the writer can only say, that some years ago he himself thought differently, but after frequently studying this difficult point with all the help he could derive from the learned labor of others, he was finally obliged to settle down upon this interpretation, as giving the most natural explanation of the passage. It is the one adopted by Dr. Bloomfield and other eminent Biblical critics of the day. If, however, this passage should be entirely withdrawn from the argument the loss would not materially weaken it. There is, even without it, abundant Scripture evidence to prove the doctrine.
In conclusion then the writer would say, that it is with unfeigned diffidence he commits tins little volume to the Press. Occupied with the engrossing cares of a parish, he has been obliged to prepare these pages almost entirely after the regular duties of the day were over, at night, and in times redeemed from sleep. Yet while engaged in the work, he has felt that such silent hours, when the noise and din of the busy city around had subsided into quietness, seemed an appropriate season in which to turn over those writings, bequeathed to us by the ages of a dim antiquity, and which we may well style--in Milton's eloquent language--"the precious life-blood of so many master spirits, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." Their words, coming down through the mist and haziness of fifteen centuries, appeared to be gifted with a more touching emphasis when read in that still and solemn time, while the outward world, wrapped in slumber, gave no token of existence. To him therefore this labor has already brought its own reward. It has deepened his love and reverence for the Church at whose altars he is permitted to minister, and whose services he has here endeavored to illustrate. It has taught him to realize more fully than ever before, the beauty of her ancient ritual, in which the solemnities of religion are performed--to use the words of Edmund Burke--"with modest splendor, with unassuming state, with mild majesty, and sober pomp."
If then the perusal of this little work should strengthen these feelings in the mind of any member of our Holy Apostolic Church, or awaken within one single soul which in uncertainty is "sounding on its dim and perilous way," the wish to turn to her as an Ark of safety, the writer will be most richly recompensed for all that he has done. If it can not thus aid the cause of truth and holiness, let it be like "the arrow shot into the air, which strikes no mark, creates no noise, leaves no track behind it, and is discovered after a little space, lying idly on the ground." But he hopes that this humble effort will not prove entirely in vain, and sends it forth therefore with the earnest prayer, that in some way it may be permitted to advance the glory of that Lord, whose blessed Passion the Church would solemnly commemorate on earth, while in Heaven a remembrance of its benefits will through all eternity furnish the theme for her noblest, loftiest anthem.
ASH WEDNESDAY, MDCCCXLIII.