It’s hard to believe we’re so far along in the advance of the Lent, already preparing for the third Sunday of the season. Time is flying by in some ways, and in others, it seems to be creeping along. That seems to be the way life goes. In some areas we just never seem to have enough time, while in others we wait and wait for events or seasons to pass. Anna and I have been in one of those strange seasons of not-enough-time and waiting-for-what-seems-like-eternity. The expectation we feel with the upcoming birth of our first child is hard to put into words (though many of you have experienced it yourselves). For so many reasons we’re ready for Eli’s birth–Anna especially at this point, being past the 8-month mark of the pregnancy–but at the same time, we find ourselves discovering more and more that needs to be taken care of. In many ways this waiting and this preparation is as involved a Lenten discipline as I’ve every experienced. And there’s a sense in which it serves as a reminder of exactly how little we control in our lives. We give ourselves over to the illusion of control, and lull ourselves into a sense of security with our plans, our schedules, our routines. But none of them are really set. Illness shows us that, tragedy shows us that, and the birth of a child can show us that, as they come when the time is right for them, not for our plans. So this Lenten season is one of preparation in a new way for me as I prepare to welcome my son, and prepare in all the ways necessary to do that well, and to make sure that things go as smoothly as possible at St. Joseph’s, even though there can be no script and no anticipation other than the twin realities that Lent is moving on toward Holy Week and Easter approaches on April 24 and that sometime during that same period Eli Joseph Howard will, by God’s grace, make Anna’s and my life stand still.
This is a good lesson for Lent. In the midst of all the penitence, the self-examination, it’s easy to get caught up in the negative ways that our scarce control is revealed–but it’s helpful to remember that Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word for spring, the time of rebirth. And like the rebirth of spring, when we give ourselves over to God and his grace, we can discover that being out of control can be a means of blessing by revealing to us where we should focus our efforts: in prayer rather than planning, in thanksgiving rather than frustration and in blessing rather than cursing.
As we go about our lenten disciplines of prayer, introspection and self-control, we should be drawn to the words of scripture, especially as found in the Daily Office, as well as to the words of Christians who have come before. Reflecting on such wisdom is one thing that we can control, and, strangely enough, this is a sort of control that can prepare us for those things that we cannot control.
Below is the full text of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet IV, a portion of which was included on the cover of our Ash Wednesday and Lent I bulletins. I encourage you to consider his words this week, and to reflect upon the love of Christ, whose red blood dyes our souls white.
Holy Sonnet IV
By John Donne
O, my black soul, now thou art summoned
By sickness, Death’s herald and champion;
Thou’rt like a pilgrim, which abroad hath done
Treason, and durst not turn to whence he’s fled;
Or like a thief, which till death’s doom be read,
Wisheth himself deliver’d from prison,
But damn’d and haled to execution,
Wisheth that still he might be imprisoned.
Yet grace, if thou repent, thou canst not lack;
But who shall give thee that grace to begin?
O, make thyself with holy mourning black,
And red with blushing, as thou art with sin;
Or wash thee in Christ’s blood, which hath this might,
That being red, it dyes red souls to white.