THE season of Lent, interestingly enough, gets its name not from any specifically Christian or even religious notion, but from an Old English word for spring. It’s a word that’s thought to be connected with the idea of length, hence with the time when the days begin to lengthen, as happens in the spring. Now usually we tend to imagine Lent as a serious, solemn, even joyless, and penitential time of year, in theory at any rate, a time when we’re urged to take on various kinds of penance, and try to deny ourselves some of the physical pleasures of life – to eat and drink less, for instance – in order
to improve the state of our spiritual life. Exercises of selfdenial – or, as it used to be called, mortification of the body and its appetites and passions – were supposed to help tame the selfish appetites of the flesh and make the life of the soul thereby healthier. But the season of spring seems far removed from any notion of self-denial or mortification. It conjures up almost exactly the opposite kind of reality. Spring is the season when nature comes back to life again after appearing
to have been almost dead all through the winter. It’s a season, therefore, that would seem to be more in tune with ideas of selfdevelopment, self-realisation, self-fulfilment even, rather than with potentially gloomy thoughts about self-denial or self-sacrifice. So why, in what should be a joyful, even exhilarating period of the year’s natural cycle, does the Church see fit to locate the season of Lent? What message is being conveyed by this choice, by this juxtaposition or coincidence
of nature’s rebirth with the Church’s most urgent invitation to us in the year to practise at least for the 40 days of Lent some kind of self-renunciation or selfdenial? Does this not just go to show yet again how unnatural, how even inherently inhuman Christianity fundamentally is? That certainly has been an accusation frequently levelled at the Christian Church, and not just in modern times. And when one considers some of the more extreme penances Christians have been empted to inflict on themselves over the centuries, there is perhaps a grain of truth in such accusations.
But the grain of truth may also point in a more promising direction. For while there may be some truth in the suspicion that Christianity is unnatural, it’s equally important, indeed maybe it’s even more important, to see that being ‘unnatural’ is not necessarily such a bad thing. At least not for humanity. Human beings are not locked into nature to the extent that other species seem to be. In that sense we are not just part of nature. We aren’t purely ‘natural’. We don’t operate
completely by instinct. Animals, by contrast, don’t appear to be able to change their mode of behaviour or alter the way they react to their environment in the same way that human beings can. We can change our minds; we can have second thoughts about things (which presumably is what metanoia means); most importantly, we can be changed by the grace of God.
So perhaps the wisdom of the Church’s choice of spring as the Lenten season lies in the need to remind us, lest we forget – as we are inevitably prone to do in this busy, demanding, and distracting world – that there is a discrepancy between our rhythms and the rhythms of nature. Spring ushers in year by year the rebirth or reawakening of nature, but the rebirth we need isn’t so predictable or so accessible. Indeed, the very coming of spring can even cruelly underline for many people the difference between the burgeoning, blossoming state of nature all around them and the desolation of their own mind and heart. ‘When will my spring come?’ is the last line of an ancient Latin poem, written by someone who was clearly acutely aware of the divergence between nature’s newly-found life and his own inner barrenness.
In that sense, in diverting our attention away from nature and towards another reality in the season of Lent, the Church, far from being condemned or chided for being unnatural and inhuman, should perhaps be seen rather as supremely human and supremely compassionate and supremely realistic. For Christianity, despite all it knows about the human condition, still does hold out belief in the possibility of rebirth and new life for humanity, but it’s a rebirth and a new life that doesn’t come from nature. It builds on nature, certainly, but it doesn’t come from nature. It comes from God.
■ Fr Martin Henry
@ St. B's
First Hymns we sang about Jesus with Laura Hogan - Thursday March 13
"Difficult Questions, Catholic Answers" with Seminarian Parker Sandoval - Tuesday March 18
"Pope Francis: the man and his message" with Father Leslie McNamara - Thursday April 3
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