In the back of The Oxford Book of Carols, there are a few carols for seasons other than Christmas. My favorite of these is called “White Lent.” It is six stanzas long, set to the familiar Christmas tune ANGEVIN, known to most of us as “O Leave Your Sheep.” The third stanza goes like this:
To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent’s goal;
But to be led
To where God’s glory flashes,
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.
I first came upon this carol more than 20 years ago, and I am still pondering the connection between the discipline of Lent and arriving “where God’s glory flashes” so that I can come near to His beauty.
The promise of being led to this place could be understood in two ways. Perhaps the carol means that, even as we practice the disciplines of renunciation, we encounter God’s glory. Or perhaps the carol means that Lent prepares us to see God’s glory when we come upon it at Easter, that Easter is the goal of Lent. I wish that I could believe the first – that even in the midst of the most ascetic practices, I should expect encounters with glory – but that hasn’t been my experience of life. Surrender and pain are not always or even usually accompanied immediately by visions of truth and light. The second way of reading this text makes better sense to me: there are seasons of glory that we pass through in this life, but we can easily miss the glory if we haven’t been training to see it. Without training, we won’t be able to “come nigh” the glory because it will be too bright for us to bear. So I take it that the carol is saying Lent offers such training, that it increases our capacity for experiencing God’s glory.
The season of Lent is framed by the memory of two events that reveal the flashing beauty of Jesus: the transfiguration (celebrated on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) and the resurrection. All of the confession and self-denial of Lent is set between these two events, and it is only the glorious, shining, beautiful revelation of Jesus in His fullness that makes any sense of our little sacrifices. We certainly know that we do not give up chocolate or television in order to earn God’s favor. Rather, if we choose to surrender things during Lent, it should be in order to make more space for an experience of the truth, the light, and the beauty of Jesus during the season of Easter.
In Acts 2, Peter preaches the very first Christian sermon. He takes as his text Psalm 16, which he then applies to Jesus’ death, descent, and resurrection. This path of dying, descending, and then rising is, according to Peter, what the Psalmist means by “the path of life,” a path that ends in “fullness of joy” and “pleasure forevermore.” The season of Lent is an opportunity for us to walk the first part of that path, or – better – to participate in Jesus’ walking of the path, just as in our baptism we participate in his dying. But our baptism is also a sharing in his rising, and the longest part of the path of life is not spent in dying; it is spent rising into joy and pleasure. Easter is the point of Lent, the goal of Lent, which is why the season of Easter is intentionally longer than the season of Lent. This signifies that our time of sacrifice is a “slight momentary affliction … preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure” (2 Corinthians 4:17).
Not all churches make it obvious that Easter is longer than Lent. We don’t tend to celebrate Easter for its full 50 days. Whereas the observance of Lent is increasingly popular with Protestant congregations, an intense observance of Easter is not so common. But this is an odd situation. When Lent is more interesting to us than Easter, when it requires more of our attention and more of our energy, when there are more special events planned during Lent than during Easter, when we reduce Easter to one day while we recognize the whole Lenten season – something is backwards.
Is it possible to make the celebration of Easter more extensive, more comprehensive, and more intimately present than the observance of Lent? Perhaps we should start a practice of observing the Great Fifty Days of Easter by promising to experience something beautiful every day, or by resolving to spend at least a few minutes every day experiencing God’s joy. Perhaps we should read three psalms every day during Eastertide, and thereby experience the whole journey of the psalter, culminating in those great psalms of exaltation and praise. Perhaps we should promise to spend some time outdoors every day during Eastertide, enjoying the beauty of the creation and looking for signs of God’s glory.
Here’s the last stanza of the carol “White Lent.”
Then shall your light
Break forth as doth the morning;
Your health shall spring,
The friends you make shall bring
God’s glory bright,
Your way through life adorning
And love shall be the prize.
Arise! and make a paradise!
That’s a destination we cannot reach on our own, but it is the destination Jesus secures for us in his resurrection. He has gone before us and invites us to follow on the path of life.