“Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee…and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1): from the beginning, the blessing promised to Abraham comes with the demand for a radical change of life. For Abraham, believing God’s promise means physical relocation, leaving his home, embarking on a new life with his family as pilgrim and sojourner, in hope of a new homeland and a new future prepared for him by God. Yet it is more than just physical relocation. For Abraham to “walk in the way of the Lord” means learning a new outlook and perspective, new priorities and practices. It is to be changed.
The Christian life is also a journey and a pilgrimage in hope of a new and heavenly homeland, and it also requires we learn to think in a new way. It means embracing a new identity as wayfarers, “strangers and pilgrims on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13): “here have we no continuing city, but we seek one to come” (13:14), “Jerusalem which is above” (Gal. 4:26). Our prayer is that of the psalmist: “show thou me the way that I should walk in; for I lift up my soul unto thee. Teach me to do the thing that pleaseth thee; for thou art my God: let thy loving Spirit lead me forth into the land of righteousness” (Ps 143).
It’s significant that the lessons for this last Sunday before Lent are images of journeying. “Behold we go up to Jerusalem”. The Messiah goes up to Jerusalem to die and rise again, in fulfilment of God’s promises to Abraham; his disciples follow him in the way of faith, hope, and charity, in the journey from perplexity to understanding, from blindness to vision (Luke 18:31-43). “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The disciplines of Lent, of fasting and abstinence, prayer and almsgiving, are the practices of those who are embracing this new identity in their lives. By fasting and abstinence, we learn to sit light to the flesh, feeding our souls on the bread of heaven; in prayer we put our hope not in this world but in the promises of God; in sacrificial charity to the needy we practice the same unmerited love God freely gives to us. In these practices we are training ourselves in our new identity, learning to think and act as “strangers and pilgrims”, as those on the way to the heavenly city.
Such is the rationale for Lent, and it is compelling. Many Christians, however, find Lenten discipline intimidating, and settle for token observance with little impact. Some tentative thoughts on how we could make it real:
Fasting and abstinence: Fasting and abstinence from rich food and drink, pleasures and amusements, means some meaningful reduction in their quantity and quality. The traditional rule enjoined abstinence from flesh meat and other rich food and drink and the closing of the theatres. In contemporary terms, it means eating and drinking more simply and healthfully; taking a break from the contemporary theatre of computer games, television, and social media, to feed on the word of God in the Scriptures.
Prayer: food, drink, pleasures, and amusements absorb a lot of time and energy. When you fast, the time and mental energy you were investing in digital devices can be invested instead in the work of prayer. Take your Prayer Book, a Bible, and a quietly attentive half-hour each day. (The weekly Bible lessons are posted in the Friday email; a comfortable chair is not to be despised.) Begin by taking a few moments to remember (in this order of priority) something to confess, something to give thanks for, someone to pray for, and something to ask for. (A simple review of the prior day will supply most of this list – and if you get distracted by thinking about some unfinished task, write it down quickly so you can stop thinking about it in the knowledge that you won’t forget it). Then read with unhurried attentiveness and an open heart, seeking to know his will and align yours with his, looking to him for all your needs with expectant hope.
Almsgiving: Jesus said “make to yourselves friends with the mammon of unrighteousness [money], so when ye fail” [or when “it fails”], those friends “may receive you into everlasting habitations”. He is talking about using money to build relationships of the charity that unites the citizens of the heavenly city, even now in the time of our pilgrimage. Charity “seeketh not her own” but another’s good, and is attentive to those that others have neglected. Fasting and abstinence from rich food and drink, pleasures and amusements, not only frees up time and energy for prayer but frees up money for the service of the needy neighbour. (For hands-on experience in charity, join us on the first Wednesday of the month from 4-6 p.m. at P.A.C.K. to help feed children in Savannah.)
In all these disciplines the goal is not self-improvement or the accumulation of brownie points. The point of these disciplines is to embrace a new identity in action. It is to be changed from the inside out, by the grace of the Spirit. Expect to be transformed, and be ready to embrace the change. – GGD
The public-domain image is courtesy of WikiArt.org. The painting is entitled, “The Indigent Family” by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1865). This essay was published in the St. John’s Parish Paper for Sunday, Feb. 14, 2021. If you have questions or topics for a featured story, please send them to Rector Gavin Dunbar.