With In the Company Christ, Sister Benedicta Ward, a church historian, guides us through the history of Christian procession. Through the practice of pilgrimage we live the resurrection, and join a wide Christian community. Pilgrimage is a way into the eternal Jerusalem, a way into the Gospel. Over centuries of practice, the rituals and traditions of pilgrimage have evolved.
Using the Holy Days of Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter as her signposts, Sr. Ward takes us through time. Among our stops is ancient Palestine, where we explore the writings of the 4th Spanish nun, Egeria. Leaving Jerusalem, we cross time and arrive in the rituals of medieval English monasticism. Finally, we end where we began, with a journey into the Trinity.
By taking part in this historical procession, we find a clear line of continuity between ancient and medieval times, and our own modernity. In the Company of Christ is a journey for an individual or for a parish, to be taken during Lent or any time of the church year.
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IN THE COMPANY OF CHRIST
Through Lent, Palm Sunday, Good Friday and Easter to Pentecost
By Benedicta Ward
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2005 Benedicta Ward
All rights reserved.
THE PILGRIMAGE OF LENT
Lent, one of the oldest times of the year in the Christian Church, begins with a Sunday in the spring called 'Quadragesima Sunday', the beginning of 40 days; it is also called Caput jejunium, the head of the fast. What is it about? Is it a six-week period of repentance, of fasting, of giving things up? Is it a preparation for Easter? A commemoration of Christ's 40 days in the wilderness? Of Israel's 40 years in the desert? Is it a numerical calculation of infinitely involved permutations and significances, whose problems have been added to rather than simplified by the addition of the days from Ash Wednesday to Lent I, not to mention the complexities of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays? It can be all of these; it is a time with many and rich layers of meaning. I would like to consider some of these layers, and in peeling off the skins of the onion I hope to find a sweet and simple core, without discarding the skins in the process, and to see it as the beginning of pilgrimage with Christ.
First of all, the choice of the Gospel which is read on this first Sunday of Lent, about Christ in the wilderness (Matthew 4.1–11) seems to have been used consistently since the fourth century, though it is not the obvious piece of Scripture to choose for this period. However, it contains the number 40, and the commentaries of the Fathers, who delighted in numerical calculation and its significance, revolved a great deal around the significance of this number, to which was often added the number 50, for the following 50 days from Easter to Pentecost. As St Augustine says:
The number ten ... which pervades all life, enlarged four times, that is multiplied by the number which pertains to the body, makes the number 40; whose corresponding divisors added together make 50. For one and two and four and five and eight and ten, which are parts of the '40' number, added together make 50. Accordingly, the time in which we grieve and mourn is represented by the '40' number; the state of blessedness in which shall be our joy, is represented by the celebration of 50 days, that is from Easter to Pentecost.
This may sound complex, but it is nothing compared to the nuances connected with the number 70, for the days from Septuagesima to Easter. And that is a simple affair when we consider the amazing convolutions of arithmetic and its meaning required in finding the date of Easter itself, and therefore of Lent, each year. Numerology seems today an abstruse affair; the use of arithmetic, the second means after writing by which people express and explore their world, is not popular when connected with religion, perhaps to our loss. Whatever it was for the ancients, and however entrancing in itself, it may not be our primary concern during these particular 40 days.
But the point Augustine was making about 40 and 50 introduces another aspect of Lent, perhaps more appropriate: Easter is here seen as the pivot between Lent and Pentecost, between mourning and joy, between Old and New Testaments. For centuries this link was explored through the arrangement of the public readings of the Bible during Lent; these were readings intimately linked, emerging from their solemn beginning in the pastoral concerns of the city of Rome and the processions each day of Lent to the papal station churches, to involve all Christendom. The sections read during Lent moved from Israel in the desert to Christ in the wilderness, from the story of the first creation towards the new creation, from the first Passover to the new Pasch. This was not the single yearly celebration by the early Church of an event out of time, but a drawn-out recapitulation of the history of salvation. The details of this sequence of readings have changed, but the central idea of linking Lent with the Scriptures remains. Moreover, this linking through Lent and Eastertide of Old and New Covenants was, by the ninth century at least, given expression on Easter night both by a recapitulation of the readings of Lent, and by the visual image of a procession coming out of the darkness of Adam cast out of Eden to the new banquet of the redeemed, led like Israel in the desert, by the light and the cloud of the paschal candle. This image of the 40 days linked to the 40 years as the pilgrimage of the new Israel, both in Lent and through life, is still most deeply sensed; and the great Welsh hymn, 'Guide me, O thou great Redeemer', exactly reflects such an understanding. Guided by God through 'this barren land', we go through the desert of this life as Israel was led out of captivity. For us also, 'the fiery, cloudy pillar' of God's presence leads us. We are fed by the 'bread of heaven', which is no longer manna but the 'true bread that comes down from heaven', and with the water of baptism from the side of Christ on the cross, fulfilling the type of the 'crystal fountain' of water struck from the rock by Moses. We are led no longer to 'the verge of Jordan' and 'Canaan's shore', but to the great stream of death, the way into the new heaven and earth. John Hughes's great music aptly sets off the magnificence of the words of William Williams with their ancient sense of the spiritual and moral meanings of the Scriptures: such a hymn suggests that this typological approach is by no means out of date (see Appendix).
As well as the numerical and scriptural aspects of Lent, it is often proposed that Lent should be filled with the remembrance of the two ways in which it was used in the early Church: for the preparation of candidates for the great moment of baptism at Easter, and for the equally serious preparation of the public penitents, who during these days from Ash Wednesday anticipated their no less public reconciliation. These two aspects of Lent in themselves hardly affect us, and in fact must have soon ceased to have their original significance. To pray one's way through Lent alongside the last preparations of catechumens for baptism, for instance, has a somewhat anachronistic air. It must have happened that in the fourth century the large numbers of candidates for baptism soon diminished; after the peace of the Church there was clearly no longer a large number of unbaptized adults, but instead congregations of believers. Again, Lent alongside the public sinners, the excommunicate preparing for public reconciliation, has also a fanciful air about it. The system of public penance was long ago replaced by private reconciliation, excommunication by a more personal and private repentance. But Lent can indeed still be seen as a pilgrimage towards Easter, with thoughts of baptism and repentance always before us as well as already accomplished, though perhaps now these historical layers must bear a more interior meaning. But it is as baptized Christians that we now approach Lent. Already in the fourth century, Lenten sermons put the stress not on preparation for baptism or for reconciliation, but on Lent as a special time for baptized Christians to be with Christ in the wilderness, to begin to be what they already are by baptism. St John Chrysostom was very clear on this point:
When the Lord had been baptized in water by John, he was then led by the Spirit into the desert ... Not alone is Christ led by the Spirit into the desert, but so likewise are all the sons of God who have within them the Holy Spirit. The temptations of the devil are specially directed against those who have been sanctified.
How then is the mature, established, baptized Christian to experience Lent? The theme most usually associated with Lent today is not arithmetic, typology, baptism or forgiveness; Lent is often reduced to being what it is called in the liturgy – jejunium, the fast. Moreover, this is most often seen as a chance to pull oneself together, to make resolutions; to do something, however small, with a rather Pelagian understanding of self-discipline and almsgiving. It is customary to speak of penance, fasting, doing without, a time of unusual effort, with a corresponding failure and consequent gloom. Dr Pusey, one of the leaders of the Oxford Movement, preaching at Christ Church on the first Sunday in Lent in 1875, was particularly severe with the undergraduates before him in this matter of the use of Lent to emphasize serious Christian commitment:
You who are here today profess by your being here that you do not belong to these classes of the proud and sensual, and yet I fear there is hardly a law of God, scarcely a word of our Redeemer, which if you look it in the face, see what it means, what it requires of you, you could pretend to yourselves that you were even in the way of keeping it.
He classed his congregation of young undergraduates, perhaps too flatteringly, all things considered, with 'a certain poor heathen, by whom he meant one of the major theologians of the Church, Augustine of Hippo, writing in his Confessions about his attitude before his baptism:
He was a heathen when he made a heathen prayer and knew not God; probably it is the one prayer for those who neglect to turn to God now ... It is that raven cry, 'O Lord, make me chaste, only not yet.'
In another sermon on 'lukewarmness', he left the parallel with Augustine of Hippo behind and begged the same young men, in impassioned terms, to begin
well-regulated fasting by forgoing one material self-indulgence which was absolutely unknown forty years ago and if forgone would feed Christ in some thousands in whom he is an hungered: that is, your cigars.
This abstinence may not be so demanding now as it was then, when cigars had only fairly recently reached England from Cuba after the British campaign there in 1810, but at least the students were urged to do something both possible and practical. The effect, as well as being mildly comic for us, is also deplorably negative. It is unfortunate, to say the least, that Christians so often give the impression of just giving up, of being against life and joy and for misery and loss. No serious-minded man would suppose that Christian life and its epitome as expressed in Lent can be easy, but because it is a serious matter it does not have to be a gloomy one. We are not pretending in Lent that Christ is not risen from the dead; the light of Easter shines through the whole of Lent so that it is a bright season, of lightness, of running the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus. The Anglo-Saxons, for all their enthusiasm for Roman ways, stubbornly and without argument preserved this sense by their use of the words 'Easter' and 'Lent', words with a different connotation from the universal Pascha and Jejunium. Easter they took from Eostere, goddess of spring; and Lent was their word for spring itself. This sense of life and energy about Lent seems vital in our approach to these 40 days. 'Now God be thanked', we might say with the poet Rupert Brooke who was commenting on a different battle, 'who has matched us with his hour ... as swimmers into cleanness leaping'.
While aware of the rich layers of numerology and scriptural exegesis, of the rites of baptism and reconciliation, of the asceticism of fasting and almsgiving, nevertheless we now look forward and not back. 'Not what thou art, nor what thou hast been seeth God with his merciful eyes, but what thou wouldst be', says the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. Lent is no romantic reflection on the past but a moment of eager adventure now. The Venerable Bede exclaimed, 'Behold, this wondrous and most profitable time of our Pasch is now approaching.' Lent for Christians is not an imaginary and depressing replay but the whole serious and glorious matter of salvation. The point of the Gospel reading on this day is not to show a past event of Christ, baptized by John and then led into the desert by the Spirit of God, where he was with the angels and the animals, alone for 40 days, and fed by the word of God, then tempted suddenly, awfully, at the end. The man Christ Jesus is Adam, is ourselves, outside Eden, in the desolation he has made, receiving there the new gift of redemption. This desert experience, the solitude for the 40 days of aloneness before God, of living at the limits of human existence, near to the beasts and angels, has a central importance for us. This response with delight to the opportunity Lent gives to know ourselves in the silence of God is found particularly in the literature of early Christian monasticism. When St Benedict said that the life of a monk is always Lent, he means that condition is a privilege, not a bore. Anselm called it pondus cantabile, a burden to be borne singing.
I will take one instance of this 'wondrous and most profitable time' from the earliest records of the Christian monastic tradition. It is a story from the desert about a very good man and a very bad woman. Zossima, the good man, was a well-educated monk; in fact, he had reached a point in his life where he believed he could not find anyone more good and clever than himself. On the first day of Lent, he went out, as did the rest of the community, to spend the 40 days alone in the Judaean desert. As he walked along on his own he saw a shadow out of the corner of his eye, and following it he met Mary, a former prostitute from Alexandria. He was the first human being she had seen for 47 years. She told him her story, an account of consistent and eagerly chosen lust, the pattern of the easy choices of all humankind, and of the equally dramatic change of heart that came to her in the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by the simple discovery that you can't have everything; that what you have made yourself is what you are. On that momentous day she had found that she could not enter and venerate the True Cross with the pilgrims. Shocked to the centre of her soul, she sought no counselling, no confession, no after-care, no instruction, no sacraments or good works; she immediately took herself into the desert, crossing the Jordan. She then lived alone in all the anguish of reality before God. When Zossima heard her story he wept not for her but for himself, seeing his self-righteous efforts at discipline for what they were: attempts to buy Christ, whose only joy is the heart broken open towards the freedom of his love. And so he saw the sinful woman coming towards him by the fitful light of the moon, and she was walking lightly on the waters of the river.
Perhaps this glimpse of the wilderness shows that Christ is too plain for us, that the gift of God is not complicated but utterly simple. Though Lent could be approached through numerology, baptismal images, echoes of penitence, fasting, almsgiving and especially the Scriptures as the way into Easter, they have meaning only when discovered in a stillness that is quiet enough and simple enough to enable us to receive God as a gift.
To enter into silence could, of course, be the reverse of life giving; there are some silences which are negative and destructive. But the true stillness of the wilderness is not idleness or contempt: it is an entry into another kind of converse, to know yourself within the light of the mercy of God. It can remind us that there is always a need to refrain from reliance on our busy activities and works. The praying man has to stand back, in order to let God be God and to be known by him, and this is our desert. There is the parallel need of any scholar at any stage to be silent before the text and let it be itself in its context and speak, and that also is our desert. The fact of Lent underlines this permanent need; this stillness poises us to receive the gift called insight, the space needed for thought and deep consideration, when we can be free for the night of understanding. Truth I suppose to be our aim, and perhaps the hardest truth to know and to communicate is the fact that talking and writing is not the great matter we think it, unless it is held within the vast stillness of God. This knowledge out of silence is not an easy way to know truth, but for it we have the greatest Exemplar of all. As Guigo the Carthusian puts it, 'Without form or comeliness, weak and nailed to a cross, thus is Truth known.'
These themes were recognized in Jerusalem in the fourth century by the pilgrim Egeria, who observed the keeping of Lent there and wrote home to tell her sisters about it, stressing what would be new to them. She noticed that there was in Lent an increase in the number of services and processions, with singing, which were there not as something imposed but because they were wanted. This was not so different from the life her sisters knew in Lent at home but there was a new detail which was a pastoral one: everyone who could, would arrive eagerly on each of the 40 days at the central church in order to understand better what was to happen later:
During Lent the bishop preaches daily; his subject is God's law; during the forty days he goes through the whole Bible, beginning with Genesis and relating the meaning, first literally and then spiritually. Thus all the people in these parts are able to follow the scriptures when they are read in church.
The basis was the Bible, explained simply, and it is clear that this preaching was not a passive affair:
At ordinary services when the bishop sits and preaches, ladies and sisters, the faithful utter exclamations but when they come to hear him explaining during Lent, their exclamations are far louder, God is my witness, and when it is related and interpreted like this, they ask questions on each point.
Excerpted from IN THE COMPANY OF CHRIST by Benedicta Ward. Copyright © 2005 Benedicta Ward. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
1 The Pilgrimage of Lent
2 Palm Sunday
3 Good Friday
5 From Pentecost
Appendix of Hymns