Lent is upon us again, and we can sing ‘forty days and forty nights’ publically and lustily now, after the silence of last year. And we can be together again for a Lent course, or meet in other ways to discuss and deepen our faith. So here is a question to make us think, and perhaps stimulate discussion, at the beginning of Lent: What does it mean to be human?
We are living through a period in which there seems to be an extraordinary loss of confidence in our roles in relation to each other and God’s wider creation, and in which those who shout loudest seem to have control of every debate about the very question of what it means to be human. But we Anglo-Catholics are used to challenging the prevailing orthodoxy, and Lent seems to me to be an appropriate time for us to give these matters some thought, because many of the questions about what it means to be human can only be answered in the light of the Christian doctrine of creation and redemption. Not only did God regard his creation and find it ‘good’; he also took the very human nature he had given us in order to redeem it.
It might help us in our thinking about what it means to be human if we consider what we are not. As Eric Mascall said in a book called The Importance of Being Human (1958), ‘many men and women are not content to be the sort of beings that God has made them, but try to persuade themselves that they are really beings of some different kind.’ That may be ‘simply a superior grade of mammal’, explicable entirely in terms of biology, or it may be a belief that the body is nothing more than housing for the spirit. The second belief may manifest itself in a view that the body is ‘either a nuisance or a tool or a plaything but is in any case something that the human being has, not part of what he is’.
If God has himself become man in the Incarnation, human nature is worthy of the utmost respect, even if human reason has been weakened by sin. And the fact of Ascension Day reminds us that the body is not merely a temporary covering, since if the incarnate Lord has returned to life again with his body transformed but not discarded, it cannot be the case that the material element in human nature is either intrinsically evil or irrelevant.
And that’s why I am testing this train of thought at the beginning of Lent. The stuff of which we are created is tremendously important, and we are made conscious of that as we perform a powerful act of penance, the imposition of ash on our heads. It was one of many things which we either lost or had to modify last year, because of the ‘risky’ physicality of the gesture. As Christians, we should know the value of self-examination, contrition, and restitution. And perhaps our break from normal ashing has helped us avoid the danger that the ceremony, unique to the beginning of Lent, is something that we do on autopilot just because it’s Ash Wednesday. Ashes are not put on us in silence. The Church gives us words, spoken by the priest but applying just as much to him as to anyone else: ‘Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return! Repent and believe in the gospel!’ Do we really take that to heart, and do we live out what is represented by the liturgy of Ash Wednesday?
Lent helps us to have another go at getting our spiritual disposition right, so that we might live in a right relationship with God. And that relationship is one of dependence, a fact of which we should in no way be ashamed. We are dependent, and we are incomplete, however much the modern world wants to promote the idea of human self-sufficiency, for to be incomplete is to depend on God’s ‘incessant activation’ without which we would cease to be. ‘To be a finite being is to be essentially open, open to the activity of God, who, without annulling or withdrawing anything that he has given, can always give more.’
So to be in a state of grace ‘means not just to be living with our own life, though that itself is a pure gift from God, but to be living with God’s life’, so that we have as the principle of our life and energy not only ourselves but God. This finite being can be the subject of divine activity. ‘And that might well seem to be both inconceivable and impossible, were it not that we ordinary Christians enjoy an experience which we can only adequately describe in that way.’ There’s something for the beginning of Lent: we are living not just with our own life, but with God’s too. For we are made in the image of God, and ‘to be made in God’s image is to be capable of possessing God’s life’.
Remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. But remember too the ultimate and extraordinary end to which we aspire, not as dust, but as redeemed human beings, glorious in the humanity God has given us, because it has been given us by God.