Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
—Collect for Passion Sunday (2019 Book of Common Prayer)
If we asked a hundred Christians what they know about Lent, ninety of them would say that Lent is the time of year preceding Easter when people “give stuff up.” Some of them would note that Lent is a season of repentance and penitence, a time for self-examination and confessing of sins. To be sure, Lent is a time when Christians give things up, practice self-denial, and repent of their sins. And because this is what folks think about Lent, it is sometimes perceived as a rather unpleasant, even fearsome, time of year.
No one would deny that there is a certain gravity that characterizes the season of Lent. It is a somber season—a season of leanness, stillness, and silence. It is indeed observed by “giving things up.” Hence the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting and almsgiving. Lent is also a time specially marked for self-examination, repentance, and confession of sins, leading to sincere contrition and penitence. These are essential disciplines in the observance of a holy Lent, and they can produce in us a degree of discomfort. It is painful to relinquish things we hold dearly, even if those things are bad for us. “Grant me chastity and continence,” Augustine prayed, “just not yet.”
But while the disciplines are important, they are not what Lent is ultimately for. Consider Hebrews 12:11: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Discipline is the means to the end, not the end itself. Thus, Lent is not ultimately about “giving things up,” though self-denial is clearly a wise and biblical practice, commanded by Christ himself. And confession, repentance, and penitence, though also clearly commanded by Scripture, are likewise not the ultimate ends of Lent. What, then, is the end?
Near the beginning of his Confessions, Augustine explains why he confesses his sins, and his reason points us to the proper end of Lent:
I intend to remind myself of my past foulness and carnal corruptions, not because I love them but so that I may love you, my God. It is from love of your love that I make the act of recollection. The recalling of my wicked ways is bitter in my memory, but I do it so that you may be sweet to me, a sweetness touched by no deception, a sweetness serene and content.
In that spirit, I suggest that while the Lenten disciplines are essential elements in the observance of a holy Lent, they are merely the means to the end of Lent.
The end of Lent is love.
I mean this in a telic sense. The telic end of Lent—its objective, purpose, and outcome—is to lead us to better, holier, purer, more humanizing, more life-giving loves.
With all the talk about “giving stuff up” that fills this time of year, one might be tempted to think that the problem that Lent aims to address is the fact that we want things, or that we want too much. Not so. “For know,” Milton’s Raphael reminds us, “whatever was created needs to be sustained and fed.” To need, to want, to love is essential to our nature. We are creatures, not the Creator, and creatures are needy—they necessarily want things—by virtue of their dependence. God alone is self-sufficient. It is not a sin for a hungry man to want bread, nor is it wrong for a lonely man to want a companion. God made us the kinds of creatures who need food and fellowship, and in his generosity, he gave our first parents a garden of delights and each other to satisfy such desires. That is at the core of the divine–human relationship: people desire, God provides. If the aim of Lent were to desire nothing, as if humans were self-sufficient beings, then the season ought to be dispensed with as an invitation to blasphemy.
Thus, the problem that Lent addresses is not that we desire but what we desire. And contrary to what so many suppose, Lent actually invites us to desire more. Lent invites us to set our eyes on the One who is himself supremely beautiful, supremely true, supremely good, supremely happy, supremely powerful, supremely glorious—and because of all that (and more), supremely satisfying. Indeed, not only are we invited to gaze upon him, we are also invited to be “in him,” that is, to be united with him through the resurrected Christ by the Holy Spirit so that we might participate in his own happiness and contentment. Hence, C.S. Lewis observes that far from asking us to desire less, the New Testament actually invites us to desire more:
Indeed, if we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
Christ offers us infinite joy (John 15:11). Yet, how often we set our desires on inordinate things, settling for mud pies. Why does that happen? It happens because we love inordinately.
When we think of love we tend to think of it as essentially and necessarily inclining toward the good. But actually, because of our fallen and corrupted state, it is entirely possible to love wicked things, things that dehumanize and destroy us—and others. Hence, Augustine says of his stealing of pears from a neighbor’s orchard that “my sin was foul, and I loved it.” At the root of everything we think, say, and do, whether for good or evil, is some love that has taken root in our hearts. Whatever we do, whether pure or wicked, it is the fruit of what we love.
As Dante and Virgil make their journey through the afterlife in the Divine Comedy, they have a moment, fittingly in the cornice of the slothful, in which they cannot make forward progress. Not wanting to waste time, Virgil seizes the opportunity to instruct Dante on the importance of thinking carefully about the nature of love. He says insightfully that love can err, and it can do so in three ways: (1) by striving to bad ends (that is, by loving the wrong things); (2) by loving things less than one ought to; or (3) by loving things more than one ought to. Virgil continues:
While [love] desires the Eternal Good and measures
Its wish for secondary goods in reason,
This love cannot give rise to sinful pleasures.
But when it turns to evil, or shows more
Or less zeal than it ought for what is good,
Then the creature turns on its Creator.
Thus you may understand that love alone
Is the true seed of every merit in you,
And of all acts for which you must atone.
Lent is a season specially set aside for taking stock of what we love. Are our loves well-reasoned? Are they properly ordered? Or are we, to use Milton’s language again, “enthralled by sin to foul exorbitant desires”? If the answer to the latter question is yes—and for all of us the answer in one way or another is yes—then we must repent. And repenting involves pressing all the way down to the bottom of those sins, just as Dante did, to determine what misguided and false loves gave birth to them.
The disciplines of Lent, then, are means toward the end of examining our loves and putting them in better order. We lay aside things we love too much in order to create space for things we ought to love more. We fast, we confess our sins, we spend more time in prayer, we give ourselves to acts of service, we give away our money. All of which is important and good. But in the end, as the Ash Wednesday reading from Isaiah 58 makes plain, what matters to God is not so much what we do externally as the condition of our hearts internally. Our fasting does not please God unless it leads to purer hearts and better loves. Do we love God and the things that God loves—righteousness, holiness, our churches, our families, the poor? The Lenten disciplines are for training us to love such things ordinately and well.
Thus, the question that hovers over Lent is simply this: What do you want? Or slightly reformulated: What do you want to love? Indeed, it seems to me that this is the question that hangs over the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Consider Jesus’ invitation to discipleship as just one example. “If anyone would (ei tis thelei) come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24; also Mark 8:24; Luke 9:23). The invitation is a conditional sentence, and at its heart is the question of what we want. If we want (thelō, “to will, want”) to be in fellowship with Jesus, then self-denial and cross-bearing are the necessary disciplines toward that outcome. But the disciplines are not the end, Jesus is; the disciplines are only the means to that end. The verse that follows reinforces the same idea: “For whoever would (thelē) save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). The verb thelō indicates again that the question is about desire. Do we want life forever? If so, then Christ is our only hope; and if we want Christ, then we must relinquish our life by cross-bearing.
When we understand that the Lenten disciplines are the means to the end and not the end itself, then the sense of dread and fear that one detects around the season of Lent will be abated. It would indeed be difficult to welcome a season of fasting for fasting’s sake. And it would be dreadful to bring sins to light merely for the purpose of labeling them, without the purpose of finding grace for them that not only pardons but also redeems and sanctifies. But if it is understood that such disciplines as fasting and confession are the means by which we arrive at sweeter loves—loves that restore and humanize us—then the disciplines are not only easier to bear but even embraced with joy and gratitude. Our Lord summons us to wear his yoke (Matthew 11:28–30). But his yoke is easy and light because it attaches us to him and he helps us carry the load. And attached to him we have abundance of life and peace.
Given what has been said thus far, it is fitting that the Liturgy for Ash Wednesday in the 2019 Book of Common Prayer ends with this lovely prayer for holy affections by Anselm of Canterbury:
O Lord our God, grant us grace to desire you with our whole heart:
that desiring you, we may seek you;
and that seeking you, we may find you;
and that finding you, we may love you;
and that loving you, we may hate those sins from which you have delivered us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Having suggested that the telic end of Lent is holier loves, one may think that the focus of Lent is primarily on us, craven but repentant sinners with the desire for something better. But in fact, it would be wrong to think that the focus of Lent is primarily on us. It is not. The focus of Lent is on the deep and wide mercy of God which is ours through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. All of Lent is a preparation for our celebration of the great Easter Feast. And that means that there is a second sense in which the end of Lent is love, the chronological sense. Lent ends in the Paschal Triduum, which recalls and celebrates the greatest act of love the world has ever witnessed. For “God showed his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, the inexhaustible love of God for sinners is constantly in view. Thus, the psalm for Ash Wednesday is Psalm 103, proclaiming in jubilant song that “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (v. 8). Along the journey through Lent, depending on the lectionary year, the Church hears John 3:1–16, “For God so loved the world…” (Lent 2A); Romans 8:31–39, “Who shall separate us from the love of God?” (Lent 2B); Ephesians 2:1–10, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us” (Lent 4B); and Luke 15:11–32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lent 4C). To be sure, the lectionary touches on other important themes too, but the merciful love of God is pervasive.
When we finally come to Maundy Thursday, the drama of Easter Weekend begins like this: “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). That is, to the end of his life—all the way to the cross. Good Friday, then, with all its otherwise discombobulating solemnity, is the day on which the Church, rapt in the vision of Christ crucified, seeing him bloodied and bruised, beholds most vividly the boundless love of God for sinners. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son.”
And that is the hinge on which everything turns. For as we journey through the Lenten wilderness, we do so with Good Friday and Easter Sunday not merely as a prospect that we look forward to, but also (and far more importantly) as a historical reality in which divine Love has put on human flesh, entered into our broken world, vanquished the devil, and redeemed us from his grip. And because Christ is resurrected and ascended, “the love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). This love of God poured into our hearts recalls us to life. When the love of God touches stone-dead human hearts they beat again, now to love the right things in the right ways (Ezekiel 11:19–20). “Throw away thy rod, throw away thy wrath,” prays Herbert, continuing: “Love will do the deed: For with love stony hearts bleed.”
Viewed in relation to the telic end of Lent, this divine love poured into our hearts makes all the difference in the world for the simple reason that it makes it possible for us to put our loves in order. The chronological end of Lent enables the telic end. We are too “lost and ruined by the fall” to put our loves in holy order by ourselves. It is only by divine love—manifested so sacrificially and so splendidly on Easter Weekend—that we may be cleansed and set aright. We can love the right things because he first loved us, freeing us from our love of lesser things so that we might love holy things, and above all the Holy One.
Far from being a gloomy season that deprives us of things that make us happy, Lent is actually an intrinsically humanizing and restorative season that invites us to find wholeness, happiness, and rest in the only One who can give such things. If sin disintegrates, fracturing our hearts and pushing our affections in a thousand different directions, Lent invites us to return to God, to be re-integrated and re-humanized by renewing our love for the One who loved us, and then to love all else in relation to him. Having been so deeply loved, Lent summons us (to use Augustinian language) to love God and then to love all else in God and for God’s sake. For the end of Lent is love.
Heavenly Father, you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you: Look with compassion upon the heartfelt desires of your servants, and purify our disordered affections, that we may behold your eternal glory in the face of Christ Jesus; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
—Collect for the 3rd Sunday in Lent
- To cite just one example, in 2022, Bible teacher Beth Moore (a recent convert to Anglicanism) tweeted the following on the day before Ash Wednesday: “I’d simply like to state this morning that this will be my first Lenten season in a liturgical church and I’m terrified” (see here). ↑
- Confessions VIII.17. This and subsequent quotations from the Confessions are the translations of Henry Chadwick in the Oxford World’s Classics edition (2009). ↑
- Confessions II.1. ↑
- Paradise Lost V.414–15 (Penguin Classics edition, 2003). ↑
- As James K. A. Smith has helped us see, this is at the core of what human beings are; we are essentially things that love. See You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2016). ↑
- On participation in divine happiness, see Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, Book III. ↑
- C. S. Lewis, “Weight of Glory,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 26. ↑
- Confessions, Book II.4. ↑
- Purgatorio Canto 17.97–105, translation by John Ciardi (2003). ↑
- Paradise Lost III.175–177. ↑
- It is not clear to me that this is exactly Anselm’s version of the prayer. It seems to be a slightly shortened version of Anselm’s original (compare this version). The prayer quoted above also has similarities to the Collect for Desiring God by Francis Xavier (Collect #74 in the 2019 BCP). ↑
- Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969), 11–15. ↑
- The lectionary in view in this paragraph is that of the 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer. The lectionary also gives the choice of Isaiah 58:1–12 and Joel 2:1–2,12–17. The latter passage (prescribed for Ash Wednesday by the 1662 BCP) also emphasizes the mercy and steadfast love of God (Joel 2:13). The 1662 Prayerbook prescribes fewer and different lessons for Lent than the 2019, but it does still encourage the Church toward virtue via the love of God. For instance, on the third Sunday of Lent, the 1662 prescribes reading Ephesians 5:1–14. A few of the collects for Lent also emphasize the love of God, especially the collect for the Thursday before Easter. Throughout Lent, the 1662 suggests praying the Collect for Ash Wednesday: “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made….” This is not quite the same thing as underscoring divine love, but it does point in the direction of God’s love, especially given that the collect proceeds to call upon the “God of all mercy” who grants perfect remission and forgiveness. ↑
- George Herbert, “Discipline,” lines 1–2, 19–20. I also think in this context of Lady Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love. A major theme in her delightful book is that divine love, manifested above all in Christ’s passion and death, summons from us undivided love in return, which results in our rest and unity. See, for instance, her reflections on the hazelnut in Revelations ch. 5 (of the long form of the text). I recommend the eminently readable translation of Julian’s 14th century English by Barry Windeatt in the Oxford World’s Classics series. ↑
- See Confessions X.29: “He loves you less who together with you loves something which he does not love for your sake.” See also Augustine’s letter to Proba on prayer: “We love God, therefore, for what He is in Himself, and ourselves and our neighbours for His sake” (Letter 130.14; translation from Philip Schaff, ed. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1). ↑