Welcome dear feast of Lent: who loves not thee,
He loves not temperance, or Authority,
But is composed of passion.
The Scriptures bid us fast; the Church says, now:
Give to thy Mother, what thou wouldst allow
To ev'ry corporation.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
It's true, we cannot reach Christ's forti'th day;
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest:
We cannot reach our Savior's purity;
Yet are we bid, Be holy, ev'n as he.
In both let's do our best.
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with him, than one
That travelleth byways:
Perhaps my God, though he be far before,
May turn, and take me by the hand, and more
May strengthen my decays.
Yet Lord instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin and taking such repast,
As may our faults control:
That ev'ry man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.
~opening and closing stanzas of "Lent," from George Herbert's The Temple
From the start, George Herbert's poem is apologetic. He assumes that there is a need to justify to the reader the benefit and appropriateness of this penitential season. It is a reasonable assumption, for who loves discipline, penitence, and soul-searching? Yet, we are reminded "the Scriptures bid us fast"--there are numerous and significant examples of fasting in the Bible, including the example of our Lord (Mt. 4:2, Lk. 4:2) as well as his specific injunction (Mt. 6:16-18). And since we do not dispute the general appropriateness of granting authority to those people or organizations to whom it is lawfully due, how much more willing should we be to honor, in the case of spiritual discipline, the authority of the Church, wherein we have been born to new life?
However, dutiful obedience is not the heart of the poem. Rather, Herbert sees the Lenten season as a gift, "an occasion" (he says in another stanza) of which "true Christians should be glad." Indeed, he begins rather provocatively by calling Lent, the Great Fast of the Church, a "dear feast." In what sense is Lent an opportunity and a feast? It is an opportunity to emulate Jesus, and in so doing to meet him. We do not travel the Lenten road of discipline for the purpose of self-improvement, but to identify with and meet Jesus; "Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone, is much more sure to meet with him." And Lent is a feast, not for the body, but for the soul. Herbert's final stanza alludes to Isaiah 58, in which the LORD describes a true fast:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
~ Isaiah 58:6-7
In thus "banqueting the poor" we banquet also our souls. Those who choose to enter into the wilderness for these forty days may be apprehensive, and that is understandable. But it is in the wilderness that we may expect to find our Lord. And choosing intentionally to starve our incessant preoccupation with ourselves and our desires, which is after all our natural inclination, frees us to turn our energies to bless others. And so we both fulfill God's desire that we care for one another, and find that it is in such care that we are truly made full.
"Welcome dear feast of Lent."
Peace of Christ.