LENT WITH THE FATHERS
For the Fathers, the ascetical discipline associated with Lent – fasting, almsgiving, prayer, self-denial – were an aid to enter more fully into the hope of the gospel. St. Paul proclaims, ‘There is one hope that belongs to your call’, there is ‘one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and father of us all, who is above all and through and in all‘(Ephes.4: 4-6 ).
It was to clarifying and expounding this new revealed hope for mankind and for all creation, that the Fathers of the Church gave themselves in a sacrificial and energetic way. Following the Lord himself and the New Testament writers they described it variously as ‘salvation’, ‘eternal life’, ’ the kingdom of God’, and a ’ new creation’. More fully, it is a new form and mode of life within the revelation of the Holy Trinity; life of reconciled unity in Christ who has become the Head of a new humanity, a communion of saints in the Holy Spirit, called to share in the Son’s own union with the Father, the Source and Goal of all that exists. In short, the Son of God has become Man, so that in him men and women may recover their unity as adopted sons and daughters of God and become partakers of the divine nature.
The Fathers were quite clear that they were proclaiming this hope, not just to individuals, but rather to mankind as a whole. To this end, they were servants of the Creator Spirit, to bring into being a universal language for expressing the gospel hope. We confess it in summary in the Nicene Creed. Moreover, they developed the liturgies of Baptism and Eucharist – with amazing similarity in different places – so that the local communities of the Church might be firmly grounded and constantly renewed in their common hope of eternal life in the Holy Trinity.
This surely should be the ongoing primary concern of the apostolic ministry, the bishops and priests of the Church. For when preaching and liturgy fail to present the full heights and depths and breadth of the mystery of Christ within the communities of the Church, they inevitably lose the power to maintain their integrity within this world. They are unable to gather the whole scope of their temporal lives into the reconciliation of Christ. Their dependence upon the promises of God and his supporting providence fails, and they begin to put their hopes on money and managerial styles of ministry. Finally, They abandon the direct rule and care of their Lord and Shepherd for the support of an institution modelled on that of the secular power.
All this has happened and continues to happen. Lent then needs to be for us a time for recovering renewed attention to the gospel promises and warnings of the Lord to his churches. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation is a good place to start. We need to prophetic word to convict us of our misplaced hopes and fears, communal as well as personal, and to lead us into true repentance and amendment.
We might ask, how can those who base their communal life on the Beatitudes change structures supported by the power of money, law and politics? yet the power of God, manifested in the cross and resurrection of Christ, is that which sustains the universe. It is he who is now shaking what is shakeable in the Church; and it is precisely our fidelity to his words and works which will open up the way to fundamental changes, and also open our eyes to what he is doing in our day.
Note again, our hope is a new creation in Christ, and our response must be communal as well as personal. It involves a radical simplification of life and a willingness to share resources. It requires a chastity of intention, that our whole prayer and energy be directed to accomplishing the will and purpose of God ‘to the praise of his glorious grace’. Moreover, this response is not to be abandoned when lent is over.
Fr. Gregory CSWG is Father Superior of the Community of the Servants of the Will of God.