Offered by Father Matthew Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County, on Ash Wednesday, 2018.
We have entered into a new season, the season of Lent. This is a forty-day period that, with clear references to Sacred Scripture, invites us into a new spiritual context. “Forty” is a symbolic number of with which both the Old and the New Testaments represent the pregnant and holy moments in the experience of faith of the People of God (cf BXVI). And so, for our season of Lent to be forty days long is no accident, but rather a clear example of how the wisdom of the Church expresses itself, bringing together the Liturgy, our spirituality, and the Sacred Scriptures for an experience over these forty days that is holy and sacramental.
How is forty symbolic in the Sacred Scriptures? Many ways. Rain fell on earth for forty days and forty nights while Noah and his family and the animals were on the ark. Goliath challenged the Israelites for forty days before David defeated him with the rock. The journey of the Jewish people from Egypt to the Promised Land lasts for forty years, the span of time in which the children of Israel directly and intimately experienced God’s faithfulness. Moses spent three periods of forty days and forty nights on the holy mountain of Sinai. The prophet Elijah walked forty days and forty nights before arriving at the holy mountain of Horeb (where he heard the still, small voice of God through the wind, the earthquake, and the fire). These are major moments of the faith.
So what do we do with the fact that the period of time of Lent finds so many consonances with these moments in the history of salvation? Secular scholars, or even people who read the biblical narrative outside of the community of faith, as literature for example, might not see a great significance to all of this. But that is not the attitude of the Church, and it is not why Lent has come to be the way that it is.
The principle that drives the design of Lent is a principle called “recapitulation.” To recapitulate, or “recap,” often means to restate briefly, such as a local news program on television will have a recap of the day’s events on a variety of fronts, from local news to national news, to weather and to sports. It is a summary of information. In classical music, often the last section of a movement is called the recapitulation, in which the key themes from earlier are restated.
Both of those meanings inform the Christian sense. For Christians, recapitulation means to gather together what came before, repeat or retrieve the principal stages or phases, and make present and available those stages. In his First Letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul writes, “The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” Jesus, truly God and truly man, the New Adam, gathers together in Himself everything of Adam (and Eve), which are names that not only refer to specific individuals, but at the same time, all of humanity male and female, and in gathering into Himself everything of Adam and Eve, gathers into Himself all of the principal stages of human life, and in Himself as a gift to us, makes present and available the full spectrum of human experience, experience that reaches by His grace into the divine, into heaven. This is what it means for us to profess that God became man. God has taken the whole developmental spectrum into Himself and into His redemptive stream. We can gaze upon an image of Christ and see all humanity in His face.
In the same way, the forty days of Lent gathers together and retrieves into the Lenten experience Noah on the ark, Goliath’s torment of the Israelites, the Exodus of the Jewish people of Egypt to the promised land, Elijah’s pilgrimage to the mountain and Moses’s revelation upon the mountain. For those outside the faith, these are mere stories. For us within the grace and love of the Christian faith, these are our experiences. Lent makes actually present again, sacramentally through prayer. The spiritual context of Lent is made up of the major moments of salvation.
A key is the carry into Lent, and all through Lent, the Transfiguration of Jesus, which we celebrated and experienced this past Sunday. We must carry with us the Light of Christ shown to us, a light brighter than the sun, whiter than any clothes can be made. His light is His love, and God loves us more than we can imagine, love us more than any action might deserve.
And notice what light does to us the closer we approach it. Standing far away from the light, our shadows are diffuse. Yet the closer we are, the clearer our shadows become. Holy men and women, the more they advance in virtue, the more unworthy do we see themselves to be; for when we are near to the light they discover in ourselves all that was hidden. The more beautiful does that appear upon which our gaze is fixed, so much the more deformed do we appear to themselves. For everyone when illumined by the true light is shone to himself, and by learning what justice is, we are also taught what sin is.
Brothers and sisters, in this season of Lent, let us be emboldened again by God’s love for us, a love inestimable and incomprehensible. God loves us, and has watched us from our conception, watching us fall down, commit wrongs, and choose to act against His will. His eyes see all. And yet His patience matches His love. He is full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness. Emboldened by this truth, knowing that God will never give us more than He knows we can handle—let us uncover our sins knowing that we are protected by God’s grace, like a mother protects from harm her young child. And let us uncover our sins knowing that we are doing so not far from the Light of Christ, but close to it, and hence close and intimate with His loving arms and most sacred heart.