On Ash Wednesday we were delighted to welcome about ten university students from the TSCF new community flats. They had come as a shared discipline to worship together as Lent started. For several, Lent was not something they had encountered before, except as a season to give up chocolate! What is more the practise of Ashing, of remembering their mortality and thus in the seriousness of Life to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel of Christ was also new.
But they were further disoriented (and to be reoriented we often have to become disoriented) for we used the old service from the 1662 prayer book with its strange language. And from time to time I offered an explanation of the text, including the word ‘Comfortable’ (as in ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all that turn to him’). Words change their meanings and often if we are not careful we end up saying something opposite to what we thought we were saying.
Above you can see a part of the famous Bayeux tapestry, depicting the victory of William the Conqueror (a Viking!) over King Harold at the Battle of Hastings, 1066 and all that . . . In the scene you can see a solider wielding a large club – He is Bishop Odo, a cousin of William, and the wider inscription reads ‘Bishop Odo Comforts the troops’. “With a Club?” I hear you ask.
The word Comfort comes from the Latin Confortis – literally ‘with strength’, or strengthen, or we might say Encourage – (from the French en courage – ‘with heart’). The soldiers are being ‘con-forted’ – that is strengthened for the affray. The Bishop is not back in the field hospital ‘comforting the wounded’, he’s in the thick of it putting some steel (metaphorically) into his troops, with his club. Encouraging them, driving them forward.
This Strengthening, through struggle and testing is at the heart of Lent, for it is at the very heart of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness.
We read in Mark’s Gospel ‘In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.’
The dove mentioned is not the prettified white dove of our imaginations, but a wild rock pigeon – who comes tearing through the heavens and immediately drives ‘him [Jesus] out into the wilderness’ to be tested by the Satan.
‘Well’, we might say, ‘Jesus did that so we don’t have to!’ (This escape clause is what above all turned the German Philosopher Friederich Nietzsche against Christianity – for it reduced to nothing the demands laid on us by our faith, or to put it more completely, the challenge that Existence itself, GOD places before us). But in this respect, Nietzsche was correct; ‘Comfortable’ (in the modern sense), bourgeois Christianity was and is a fake, and he saw through it.
Lent offers us the opportunity to grow up in our faith, be strengthened for all that Life throws at us, so that at the last we are not lost. For the words of Jesus are plain and True. ‘Where I am going, you cannot now come, but you will come after’ We too must all face what Jesus faced. When we become his disciples this becomes conscious – we become aware of the seriousness of our existence and the urgent call of Jesus.
The Church in her Comforting mercy drives us into Lent as the Spirit drove Jesus into the Wilderness. It is a time for strengthening, for testing to see if we are really ready for what confronts us – then we follow Jesus through Holy Week to the Cross. Only those who have taken this journey will know Easter Joy.
Strengthen that which remains – it is WORTH IT as we follow the one
‘who for the joy set before him endured the Cross’