Bear up, gentle reader. Lent has begun, and now you are going to be served my annual Ash Wednesday sermon.
The sense that “for our sins we have been afflicted” seems written into the human psyche. We have the instinct to celebrate national as well as personal triumphs; to wail and gnash when disaster befalls. These are natural sentiments that will find their place, and be expressed, whether elegantly or coarsely. Yet I think they are equally distant from the spirit of Lent.
My secular creed is drawn from Rudyard Kipling, and is succinctly reviewed in his “If” poem, wherein the applicable text reads: “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster / And treat those two impostors just the same.” It is a creed in which, plainly, wailing and gnashing of teeth is for savages. As likewise, hysteria at funerals, chauvinist displays, and expressions of hatred in the public square. Ladies and gentlemen don’t do that sort of thing, and don’t even need a religion to know better. Unmanly behaviour is “not British”, if I might use an expression our Canadian ancestors understood, whether French, English, or whatever. For we all aspired to be “British” once, in the sense just given: it was something deeper than ethnicity.
One's religious creed strikes deeper, still. This is true for everybody, even those whose religion is (for instance) environmentalism. And what one holds sacred, whether it is God or (for instance) "the science of climate change", ultimately determines one's secular creed — the attitude one brings to politics and public life. For it goes beyond politics. That Kiplingesque outlook (for instance), is not specifically Christian, yet like democracy and rule of law and many other things we also used to call "British", it could only be the product of an essentially Christian mindset, deeply rooted in what is not British at all, because long prior to it. Lent is such a thing, lying much deeper. Deeper, ultimately, than wailing and gnashing.
There are sobering features in the season of Lent, in the forty days and nights of Christ’s wandering in the wilderness, and in commemorating a path that can only lead from Ash Wednesday, through Gethsemane. To the Christian view, that is earthly life. The fact of our own death is before us, and the reality of the Crucifixion can never be dismissed. We offer, “blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” together with the joy of salvation. Only through that portal, only in the knowledge that “we owe a death”, can we glimpse an eternity that is not false. This is written in the very words of the Lord’s Prayer, uttered daily by every Christian. In praying, “Thy will be done,” we’re inevitably praying for a good death. And not necessarily for a painless one.
Sometimes it seems even our own bishops have forgotten, that “the catholic truth” is entirely incompatible with the “happyface” of pop doctrines. Even what we mean by the words “life” and “death” is incomprehensible, without heaven and hell. Baudelaire once said, “Everyone believes in God, but nobody loves Him; nobody believes in the devil, and yet his smell is everywhere.” Except that belief in God has declined, this strikes me as a fair description of Western man in late modernity.
Lent, in its penitential spirit, can make no sense except in terms wherein the reality of evil has been acknowledged — not as some ancient myth, but as a present force working to our destruction. This was what was faced down in the garden of Gethsemane, where Christ began to lift upon himself the full weight of the sins of this world, the full horror not only of the evil that was done, in times past, but would be done, in times future. For the last time in his earthly ministry, he was tempted by the devil, and offered the “happyface” of a life without suffering, of a mission that might not involve the Cross; offered the intensely attractive lie of an easy way out — the lie that every human being is offered. It is the side of the devil we find hardest to type-cast: the side that is offering that happyface grin.
For it is an offer that we, collectively, have bought — hook, line, and sinker. It is an offer that we could only accept, on the assumption that someone else will take care of it, that someone else can pay, since the yoke is thus lifted off our shoulders. We ourselves can now be satisfied with simply making demands of others (to cut their CO2 emissions, or whatever). Our job is to be smug, their job is to face consequences. We are not involved.
In the contrasting spirit of Lent, we end this denial, that is finally our denial of Christ. We do not blame others, but freely offer to take upon ourselves in expiation some tiny share of the immense burden of the sins of this world, including our own sins — doing this towards our own, and the world's purification, while remembering that penultimately, Christ has paid, that ultimately, it was we who nailed Him.
I know this is very hard for the postmodern mind to think its way into, and I am not always that good at explaining. You have been very patient with me in getting this far, gentle reader, and God bless you. Just one more thing.
Lent is joyful. And we are specifically instructed, not to fast like the hypocrites, putting on a show. We will not do that, when we begin to feel the joy that comes, from buying into reality. For it is specifically in moments of “taking up our cross”, that we begin to see what lies beyond it. Let us therefore fast, that we may find our joy.
David Warren. "Gethsemane." Ottawa Citizen (February 21, 2007).
This article reprinted with permission from David Warren.
David Warren, once editor of the Idler Magazine, is widely travelled — especially in the Middle and Far East. He has been writing for the Ottawa Citizen since 1996. His commentaries on international affairs appear Wednesdays & Saturdays; on Sundays he writes a general essay on the editorial page. Read more from David Warren at David Warren Online.
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