It’s only a couple of times a year that you and I are reminded of the existential weight of our own inadequacy. For me, I’d say such occasions fall roughly three times a year. On the first of the year, every year, I’m reminded that I weigh too much, or didn’t accomplish all that I’d planned, or have let things slide that I pledged to take care of. The New Year is not only an opportunity to briefly wallow in the past year’s failures, but it’s also an opportunity (against all reason) to make new promises and pledges that I’m likely to fail in for the following year. Another occasion for me is my birthday. This seems to bring with it increasing significance as I grow older. On my 30th birthday I ran 13 miles just to prove that I still could, no matter the slight fracture in my foot that laid me up for three weeks because I wasn’t prepared to run the distance. There is one final day (or rather season) that typically forces reflection and dissatisfaction: that is the Season of Lent.
Lent, a penitential season dedicated to reflection and repentance, has long been held in the church. But it has found appeal outside the church as well; I’m always surprised and often amused by secular people who “keep Lent.” The appeal of doing so (at least to me) seems obvious. As Giles Fraser recently noted, it gives us a chance to “have a second go at the new year resolutions that ran into the sand somewhere in mid-January.” But Lent has something going for it that New Years doesn’t. Lent is a spiritual observance, which means the resolution has the added weight of God-given imprimatur and approval.
Lent affords us the chance to do something like a spiritual detox. We have the chance to look at our lives and see all the things we don’t want to carry with us through to the other side. For a society obsessed with body image, it’s no surprise that many give up chocolates, sodas, or (gasp!) white sugars. But of course, such practice is not fleshy or vain, not just because Spring is around the corner and you want to look good in that bathing suit. No sir- it’s spiritual….cause you know….we did it during Lent.
No matter how you look at it, the 40 days of Lent are often seen as a cleansing, purification, or even a purging. In the old days, purging wasn’t done during a season but it was done in a place. That place was purgatory. Purgatory, in the classic medieval context, wasn’t a place of punishment as much as it was a spiritual detox center. Over a period of thousands of years, saints destined for glory would go through the spiritual detox of purgatory. The process of purging was joyous, as made clear in Dante’s Purgatorio. Purgatory is a place where human spirits are purged and “train to leap unto joy celestial” (I.v-vi).
In the later part of the medieval period, the view of purgation changed radically. Rather than being seen as a difficult yet necessary preparation for “joy celestial,” it came to be seen as extended punishment/payment for sins committed on earth. As J. Walls has noted, rather than a sure preparation for heaven, purgatory came to be seen as closer to hell- where tortures were “administered by demons with the apparent motive of frightening sinners into reforming their lives while here in this world.” The dominant view of purgatory, from the 13th century on was an “infernalized version that played more on fear than hope” (J. L. Walls. Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation pg 24). Because purgatory came to be seen as punishment rather purification, it began to be thought that one could lessen punishment through good works. The wealthy often did so through endowing masses to be said on their behalf after their death.
Now, whether or not one believes in purgatory is, for the time being, irrelevant. The point to be made is that before this 13th century development, the work of purgation was a work accomplished by God in the spiritual detox center of purgatory. After the 13th century, the work of purgation became the work of man. All of a sudden you were responsible for purging yourself. Fail to do so and you could expect punishment (not purging) from demons in a halfway house just north of hell.
Which brings me back to Lent, and the work of spiritual detox. If Lent is a viewed as a season of spiritual detox, it is kind of a purgatory in miniature scale. And if viewed through this lens, we must ask a very important question: is becoming clean a work of man or a work of God? Are we purged from our sins on the road to salvation, or must we purge ourselves from our sins in order to gain salvation? The secular practice of keeping Lent is, I fear, very much the latter. “It’s only 40 days! You can do it!” But you can’t. And even if you do manage to stay off chocolate until Easter Sunday, this has very little to do with the deep cleaning and soul scrubbing that you really need. You may be chocolate free for 40 days, but you’re still a chocolate free sinner. It takes more than 40 days and willpower to turn that barge. So what do we do?
One of the main issues that the English Reformers had in their crosshairs was purgatory. Mind you, they were not against purification but were against the notion that purification was a work done by us, through the strength and determination of our own wills and disciplines. Rather, the Reformers viewed cleansing, purification, and purgation as a work of God, Soli Deo Gloria. Purification was a gift from God given freely to man. And this brings me to John Jewel, to whom credit is given for writing a Homily Concerning Prayer in the Second Book of Homilies. On purgatory, he wrote the following:
The only purgatory wherein we must trust to be saved is the death and blood of Christ; which if we apprehend with a true and steadfast faith, it purgeth and cleanseth us from all our sins, even as well as if he were now hanging upon the cross. The blood of Christ, saith St. John hath cleansed us from all sin. The blood of Christ, saith St. Paul, hath purged our consciences from dead works to serve the living God….This then is the purgatory wherein all Christian men must put their whole trust and confidence, nothing doubting.
For the Anglican Reformers, purification was a gift of God, a work of God, and a responsibility of God accomplished in, through, and by Jesus Christ. Christ on the cross is our purgatory, our cleansing, our purification. This is of course good news to those who tried to give up a grudge for Lent instead of a candy bar. Only Christ, through the power of the Spirit, can purge the spiritual toxins of sin from the human soul. And this is something he’s glad to do. Something he does as a gift, for free, gratis.
Returning to Lent, how then might we keep it? However we might, it cannot be as a purgatory in miniature. We’re not cleansed by seasons or disciplines but by the “only purgatory wherein we must trust to be saved…the death and blood of Christ.” A good way to be reminded of this simple truth is the words by which we entered into a “Holy Lent.” “You are but dust and to dust you shall return.” We are not spiritual superheroes, nor giants of self-discipline. We are dust. We come weak and frail before the deep, indwelling sin that stands over and against us. For the sake of our frailty, we don’t trust in ourselves to muster up the will power for a 40 day fast from sin. Rather, we trust in Christ our spiritual detox, our purgatory and say “Wash away my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51.2). As sure as he reigns at the right hand of God, he will purify us in this life to prepare us for the life to come. He has promised it.
This post was written by Rob Sturdy