Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam (Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercies). Psalm 51:1
Misery: noun. Brit. pronunciation/ˈmɪz(ə)ri/, U.S. pronunciation/ˈmɪz(ə)ri/ classical Latin miseria wretched or pitiful condition. Anglo-Norman and Old French miserie: unhappy state.
- a condition of external unhappiness, discomfort, or distress; wretchedness of outward circumstances; distress caused by privation or poverty.
- colloquial. A gloomy, peevish, or self-pitying person, esp. someone who is constantly disgruntled or depressed; a killjoy. Frequently used as a term of (mock) abuse.
Old Misery Guts
I remember well the first Ash Wednesday service I attended. It was February 2015 and I had dragged myself along to a Cambridge College service. I was miserable and determinedly so. I was in my dark night of the soul. But instead of turning outwards and towards God with my doubts, I had turned inwards and into myself. I received the imposition of the ashes. Then the choir sang Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere. The voices echoed from one side of the chapel to the other, notes piercing the air, though not my soul. I wouldn’t let them.
The second definition of misery given in the Oxford English dictionary fitted me perfectly. A gloomy, peevish, or self-pitying person, esp. someone who is constantly disgruntled or depressed; a killjoy.In my pitiable condition, I had turned to self-pity. In my misery, I had become miserable. Old Misery Guts, you might say.
There’s an oft-noted connection between misery and mercy. The Latin root of mercy, after all, contains the word miser- coupled with the word for heart (cordia), giving us misericordia. Heart-pity, we could call it.
This miser-root appears not once, not twice, but three times in the first verse of the Latin versions of Psalm 51, which Allegri memorably put to words in the Miserere:
“have mercy (miserere) on me O God, according to your great mercies (misericordiam). And according to the multitude of your mercies (miserationum) blot out my iniquities.
What might the connection between divine misericordia and human misery have to tell us about the meaning of Lent? I want to suggest that these two words highlight a central truth about this season: that animating Lent, with the cross at its centre, is the truth that God in his divine mercy decisively deals with the root of human misery through the death of Jesus Christ. Lent is emphatically not about our human, all-too-human “solutions” which, in our pitiable poverty, only contribute to our hopeless problem. The protagonist of Lent is not man, but God, who offers his infinitely rich mercies for our human misery. The central impulse of Lent is participation in Christ’s death and suffering so that we become new individuals and a new people.
It might be obvious to us that Lent is not about being miserably unhappy just for the sake of it (and certainly not for any reward from those around us, or even from God!).
Less obvious to us, perhaps, is the temptation to concoct various human ways of dealing with our miserable estate.
If we’re honest, we all too easily make Lent, and the life of discipleship more broadly, into a litany of human activities that serve as solutions for our misery. Thus Lent becomes the season of imitating Christ. Not, I hasten to add, that there is anything wrong with imitating Christ.
My misery should stop me in my tracks, however. And where those tracks bring us to is to the first definition of misery listed above:“wretchedness of outward circumstances; distress caused by privation or poverty”. We ought to gloss this definition in the following way: “wretchedness of inward condition; distress caused by spiritual privation”. The point here is not, or at least not in the first place, about physical or material wealth or lackthereof. After all, we know of many who face external circumstances of great privation who are nevertheless filled with an unrivalled spiritual joy. The point is that as human creatures, we each have finite spiritual resources. In fact, we can put this more starkly. We are, if we’re honest, at the end of our resources. We’re spiritually miserable, spiritually poor. And, in our attempts to fill this spiritual misery, we come to see that we are completely and utterly bereft of ideas. In fact, the “solutions” we fashion to alleviate our spiritual poverty tend to make things even worse. The Book of Common Prayer has us confess that we are “miserable offenders”. We could speak here of our addictions, or our constant desire to be distracted. We try to fill the emotional and spiritual hole in our hearts but it only gets bigger. The absurdity of our attempts often doesn’t strike us. How can I, in my spiritual poverty, fashion a way of dealing with my misery? We attempt to paper over the cracks of our broken hearts with human, all-too human efforts. But the plastering peels back, and the cracks only grow deeper.
The Psalmist in Psalm 51 had come to the end of his resources. This psalm is, after all, a deep meditation on King David’s catalogue of destructive behaviours, beginning with his lust for and seizing of Batsheba, Uriah’s wife, and ending with his order to place Uriah in the front of the battle line, once it becomes clear that there is no way of hiding that Bathsheba is pregnant with his, David’s, child. The psalmist takes responsibility for the cause of his misery—”against you and you only have I sinned”. He acknowledges that he was created in sin (v5), a reference not to some inherent sinfulness of sex, but an acknowledgement that he is, in so many words, a child of Adam because he participates in and enacts the sins of his ancestor. Crucially, there is no mention of a human solution to any of this. On the contrary, the psalmist eschews all human solutions. “Burnt sacrifices you do not desire”. He then recognises that God must act or he is doomed. A steady stream of verbs follow, all of which have God as the actor: “cleanse me”; “wash me”; “create in me”; “renew within me”; “restore in me”; “grant to me”. The Psalmist even goes so far as to say that he cannot speak to praise God, without God opening his mouth (v.15). These words open Morning and Evening Prayer in many liturgies and speak to our need for God even in the act of praising him: “O God open thou our lips and our mouths shall shew forth thy praise”.
Seen from the perspective of my spiritual poverty, my efforts to imitate Christ will fail. This is to say nothing of the propensity to make Lent centrally about the pursuit of social justice (eating less meat, for instance, or giving charitably or driving less). I won’t dwell on this point here, though I will return to it. There is absolutely nothing wrong, and often everything right, with the pursuit of social justice in its various forms. It is only that this worthy task flows from the more central truth of Lent. It is to outlining this that we now turn.
At the heart of Lent is not human miseria, but divine misericordia.
More accurately, the drama of Lent is one of God’s mercy for human misery. Like the Psalmist, each of us faces a variety of human circumstances that can only be described as pitiable. To these, God extends his misericordia, his heart pity. But it is the cordia, the heart of God, which is the starting point and it his heart which makes all the difference for the human situation.
Misericordia is recorded in those stories of the Exodus, taken from the Hebrew Bible, which form the all-important matrix for the events of Holy Week. This mercy is not vague and fluffy but takes the form of specific action on God’s part.
the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew (Exodus 2:23-25)
Was it not you who dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, who made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over? (Isaiah 51:10)
Lent is about God’s pity for his people. And this pity leads to his passion for his people. This passion refers not only to a strong emotional reaction (as seen in the Exodus passage above) but also to God’s suffering. In his passion, God voluntarily and scandalously has his heart wounded, so that our hearts might be healed. For at the centre of Lent is a Cross. On the Cross, God in Christ bears the bloody brunt of all wrongdoing, so that man, as both victim and perpetrator, might be freed from the enslavement to, and penalty of, that wrongdoing.
But why is misericordia shown on a cross? The cross is not simply, not even primarily, a way of God showing the extent of his love, as true as this is. If the Cross were only about “showing the extent of God’s love”, then very quickly we would have to ask, Why is a cross the necessary vehicle for showing this love?
The Cross takes its logic from at least two realities in the Hebrew Bible: first, that death on a tree is a cursed death (Deut 18); and second, that sacrifice requires blood (this in large part is what that otherwise incomprehensible book of Leviticus is about). The Cross is meaningless without the logic of curse and sacrifice. The message of the cross is that the curse of sin is borne in Christ’s body through his dying a cursed death. Christ offers himself as the sin offering and so frees us from the bloodguilt our sins incur. In both of these ways, the cross deals with and undoes the human misery of sin which separates man from God, others, and from self.
Imitation or Participation?
With the Cross at its centre, the focus of Lent shifts from man to God. In a marvellous paradox, we also find that in turning our focus to the Cross, our misery is dealt with in the process. If Lent is about our human, all-too human ways of dealing with human misery, then we will end up more miserable than ever, as we break our promises and fail to “turn things around”. But since Lent is marvelously about God’s action in Christ, we are freed from striving, and freed and empowered to work out our salvation.
How do we make sense of this paradox? How is it that our efforts to save ourselves will fail, but that God would still have us work out our salvation? This is an important question for Lent, since it forces us to think about how we now live as those who believe God has done for us what we were utterly incapable of doing for ourselves.
There are many ways of answering this question. We could say that we do not work for our salvation, for instance, but that instead we work out from a place of being saved. We are not saved because we are good, but we are saved to be good.
All of this is true. But I think the answer is even more profound than this. How do we now live as God’s saved people? The answer lies in God’s Spirit, that same Spirit that drove Jesus out into the Wilderness. But the Spirit offers the solution to this conundum in a way that we don’t usually think of. We are able to live as God’s people, not because the Spirit empowers us to “do better” (this would be a terribly misguided misapplication of Lenten disciplines). The Spirit is not a Duracell bunny that powers us up for more holy living, or to “imitate Christ”. Rather, the Spirit unites us to Christ’s death so that we die with him. Our wills, wants, desires, preferences all go through a process of dying with Christ. In the process, we are each made new individuals. Simply put, we are no longer our own. As St Paul writes, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me”. I am no longer Simeon Burke. I am and am called to live as God-in-Christ-in-Simeon Burke (more on this here).
Lent is not first and foremost about imitation but participation. In the Cross, in which early Christians believe that we as followers of Christ participate, we mysteriously experience a change of identity, a change of personality and a chance of personhood (what philosophers call an ontological change). We are changed in the deepest core of who we are as we are united to Christ’s sacrificial, curse-bearing death.
In the final analysis, Lent isn’t about me and my vague sense of miseriable-ness. Lent is about God and Godself fully comprehending the true poverty of the human condition and entering it in a very specific way—death on a cross—for a very specific reason: to save me, and indeed the whole cosmos, from our self-made misery.
The claim of the Christian faith is that we mysteriously participate in Christ’s death. In doing so, we hand over our wills to God and in return each receive a new identity. We each become who we were always meant to be. For where human misery abounded, God’s misericordia abounds all the more!