I argued in my last post here, that Lent is about God’s mercy for human misery. The season leading up to Easter is not, or at least not centrally, about human miserableness or even ways of devising humans solutions to that misery. It is about what God has done in Christ to unite us to himself so that we, in our spiritual misery and poverty, might become new individuals and a new people. Lent is centrally about participation in Christ and only secondarily about imitation of Christ.
What does this mean practically for the way that we mark the Lenten season?
Lenten disciplines, at their best, draw us back to the basics. Not to our vague sense of miseria but to the specific miserere, the mercy of God, which fully and radically—to the roots—understands and deals with our miserable condition. Lent is about God’s pity for our pitiable condition. Lenten disciplines should remind us of this reality.
In the spirit of placing God, and not us, at the centre of Lent, allow me to suggest very briefly a few practices that we might recover over the Lenten period.
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.