One of the more famous essays written by C.S. Lewis is titled, “On Reading Old Books”, although it was originally penned as introduction to a new translation of the work “On the Incarnation” by the patristic theologian Athanasius. In this essay, as it’s title suggests, Lewis commends the reading of old books to his audience. Among the reasons he gives for his commendation is that reading old books gives us a different perspective than our own. It draws us outside of our own age and plunges into the strange world of the past. He doesn’t claim that those in the past were necessarily smarter than we are and certainly weren’t infallible in their views. He puts it this way:
“Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. ”
One of the characteristics of our present time is the flaunting or disregard of tradition. The most fashionable academic approach to history, be it Church history, American history or the history of Western Civilization, is study as a means of criticizing or pointing out the errors of the past. It is quite a modern conceit to imagine that by exposing the errors of the past that we are freeing ourselves from those errors. More often we are only reinforcing our own errors, which may be quite different than those which we see in the past. We harden ourselves in blindness to our own faults the more we sit in judgment on those who no longer live to defend themselves. It certainly does not pay to be blind to the errors of those who came before us, much less to defend attitudes and actions that are indefensible. But when we approach the past, not as a judge but as a student, we may find that there is much that we can learn there which would be much more difficult to learn from looking at our own time.
So what does this have to do with Lent? The observance of Lent is an ancient Church tradition that began as a means of preparing candidates for baptism through the forty days preceding Easter Sunday for baptism and reception into the Church on Easter. It is marked by solemnity, fasting, almsgiving, mortifying the flesh through self-denial and repentance for sin. For contemporary believers in the stream of evangelical and charismatic American Christianity, it seems to be a strange world apart from upbeat praise and worship music, sermons of practical biblical application to relevant life issues such as marriage, finances, parenting and health and the ethos of acceptance, outreach and seeker sensitivity. Which is exactly why we need it so much. Can Lenten observance degenerate into a morbid sense of self-criticism, works righteousness and empty ritual? Of course it can. But for most believers within the stream of Christianity described above, a bit of solemnity, self-examination and quiet reflection might provide a welcome shock to the system.
In 2nd Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul describes the difference between godly sorrow and the sorrow of the world. Godly sorrow, he states, “produces repentance leading to salvation” while the sorrow of the world produces death (2nd Corinthians 7:10). Godly sorrow only results when correction is taken seriously. It happens when we take an honest look at our faults and deeply consider what damage they have wrought. It is difficult and can be quite painful. In our affluence and addiction to pleasure, even the Christian pleasures of good feelings during worship and desire to appeal to outside of the Church as loving and reasonable, we tend to avoid pain at all costs. It shows in our discomfort with grief and inability to lament evil in the world without degenerating our discussions into political talking points. Lent involves a lot more silence than talking, and the talking that it does produce involves a lot more confession of sin than pointing out the faults of others. In other words, it embodies exactly the opposite spirit than that of our contentious times. I believe that what our time needs more than anything else is not a better set of arguments, not more positive self-affirmations or even better songs and sermons. I believe that it needs a better people, a Church that is genuinely full of God’s Spirit. But this cannot happen without serious reflection. It cannot happen without laying down our weapons of self-justification, defensiveness and self-righteousness. The ancient practice of Lenten preparation can help strip us of all of this and more. It’s a lot easier to hear God when we stop our incessant talking. It’s a lot easier to listen to others when we stop justifying ourselves at every turn. It’s a lot easier to be filled with the Spirit when we empty ourselves of human pride.
This Lenten season, I invite all of us to a time of embracing a bit more silence, of a lot more listening, both to God and to others and most of all a surrender of our own agendas and half-baked plans. The best news is that after Lent comes Easter. Resurrection power is the reward for those submit to God’s time of preparation and waiting. Sorrow and weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.