“We love him, because he first loved us” (King James Bible, 1 John 4:19)
Lent is a very special time in the Church’s year. It encourages us to find time to focus on all that Christ has done and suffered for, to reflect on the great love he has for each one of us and to ask ourselves how we show our love for him and we might grow to love him more.
However, there are dangers associated with Lent, in particular it is so easy to make ourselves the centre of our Lenten rule and exercises. We may propose to say our prayers better and to spend more time on them; to make our Communion more often; and to follow a plan of spiritual reading. And we hope by these means to make spiritual progress, and to be better Christians at the end of Lent that we were at the beginning.
And rightly too: we all have the duty to make good use of those opportunities for growing in Christlikeness which God gives us through his Church.
Nevertheless, we must beware that our observance of Lent does not degenerate into a formal drill for self-improvement, into a sort of spiritual keep-fit. All our Lenten rules and activities are dead and valueless unless they are warmed and inspired by an inner love and devotion for God.
We should pray, therefore, that God will purify our motives so that when we come to worship him in his House we do so simply because he loves us, and we want to show our love for him by our adoration. So we ask that we should come to him chiefly for his sake, not for our own; that we seek to know him simply because he is worth knowing more than all the world besides; and that we love him for himself alone, just because he is the holy and eternal God, “perfect in power, in love, and purity”. (1)
And we should strive to become like him because only so can the offering of ourselves be in any sense worthy of him.
But we show our love for Our Lord, not only by our worship and adoration but also by our acts of self-denial.
During Lent we shall be going without various pleasures in order to gain greater control over our instincts and thereby over ourselves. But self-denial by itself will not bring us nearer to God. The Pharisees were very exact and thoroughgoing in their self-denial – much more than any of us is likely to be. But Our Lord condemned them because they were content for it to be a routine course of training in which they never got beyond thinking about themselves.
So our Lenten self-denial will be valueless if it is done just to prove to ourselves what we can do if we try. That would result only in self-admiration and complacency and would entirely fail to bring us any nearer to God. But the purpose of self-denial is to weaken the power of our lower self only so that we can love God more.
And that we shall do if we treat self-denial as an opportunity to share Our Lord’s hardships which he undertook for our sakes. The cost of his mission to save us was great and varied. “Foxes have holes,” he said, “and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (RSV, Matthew 8:20).
This Lent, therefore, is an opportunity to prove our love Our Blessed Lord by regular acts of self-sacrifice. They may not cost much by comparison, but because they involve successive acts of the will, they cost something.
Ideally, of course, the whole of our life should be given and dedicated to God, but particular acts of self-denial, made with the purpose of sharing his privations, show our love for him in a particular and practical way as nothing else can. We are then in a small but true way entering into his own earthly life.
Now, just as we express our love for Our Lord as God by our worship and as Man by our self-denial; so we express our love for him as our Saviour by our penitence.
Lent, culminating as it does in Passiontide and Good Friday, placards up, in front of our very eyes, the full cost which Jesus paid to gain our salvation – that ghastly Crucifixion.
And each single one of us can truly say, “He did all that for me. He did all that to lift me out of my sins in this life, and to save me from their eternal consequences in the next. And were it not for my Crucified Saviour, those consequences would be the outer darkness where I should be a lost and wandering soul, separated for ever from the dazzling glory of the all-holy God by the evil things which I have thought and said and done”.
The Crucifixion is an event which is eternally and personally relevant to each one of us, and that is why it is a good thing for us to make our self-examination and acts of penitence with the Crucifixion in our mind’s eye.
That will help us to have a true sorrow for our sins, induced not by a fear of Hell but by a contemplation of his surpassing love for us. Without that element of love our self-examination produces merely a list of offences against God’s law; and our penitence and purpose to amend become a superficial formality, rather than a deep and decisive move towards God.
But once we make the Crucified the centre of our repentance, then our heart and our will are stirred. Then we love him because we see with unbearable clarity the depth of his love for us; and it is his love for us and ours for him which makes so poignant the realisation that when we sin we are not just breaking some law or regulation. No. We are then striking back at the very Person who gave his all to save us from what we are even then about.
When we see things like that our resolve to do better has real point and meaning and becomes a freely offered proof of our penitence and love.
Let us then keep Lent in this spirit, not regarding it as an irksome discipline imposed on us by Holy Church for our betterment, but rather using it as an opportunity to express and to deepen our love for him who loved us and gave himself for us.
1. Heber, R. (1783-1826) Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty. Available from: http://www.oremus.org/hymnal/h/h297.html (Accessed 22 January 2016) (Internet).