Lent Was Made for Man, Not Man for Lent

Lent is often thought of as a time of voluntary suffering, but Scripture suggests that the involuntary sufferings may be just as important.

Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939), “By the Waters of Babylon”
Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939), “By the Waters of Babylon” (photo: Public Domain)

Last week, the Church reminded us of the story of the Babylonian captivity — the time when, because of the infidelities of the Israelites to his law, God allowed them to be removed forcibly from their land. The account read on the Fourth Sunday of Lent (from 2 Chronicles 36) describes this as a fulfillment of the prophecy God sent through Jeremiah: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths, during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest while seventy years are fulfilled.”

The particular amount of time that the Jews are in captivity is thus tied to a particular offense that they committed against God: not idolatry or the mistreatment of the poor (although the prophets certainly condemn those sins) but failure to observe the sabbath. It is as if, in a failing marriage, a counselor were to take the neglectful partner aside and say, “You know, Bob, the really significant problem is not that you honor your friends, family, coworkers more than your spouse, and it’s not that you neglect your kids; the problem is that you and Mary just aren’t spending enough time together.”

Bob might reasonably respond that it seems more important to treat his spouse and children decently than to go above and beyond by dedicated an evening or a morning — let alone a whole day — each week to the most important human relationship in his life; and in a sense he would be right. Sins of commission can be more glaring than sins of omission. But oftentimes sins of commission are in a sense included in a primary sin of omission.

If you are at a point in a relationship where you are treating the other person badly, there is a good chance that you got there only because you were not dealing with them much at all. Another person needs to be “un-personed” in our minds a bit before we can be really rotten to them. (As C.S. Lewis indicates in Screwtape Letter No. 3, even prayer for someone, provided that it is sufficiently detached from the reality of their presence, can coexist with mistreating them.)

In the same way as the gradual wasting of human relationships opens us up to sinning there, sins like idolatry and greed and failures of charity become possible (the prophecy of Jeremiah suggests) because of a failure to cultivate our primary relationship with God. If you know who God is, and you spend time with him regularly in prayer — which is what the concept of the sabbath is designed, first and foremost, to allow humans to do — you end up with a primary relationship that changes you in ways that make it more difficult to fall into the more glaring and obvious sort of sins to which ancient Israelite society and 21st-century American society are prone.

When, therefore, God lets his people know that they are going to suffer for 70 years until the land has recovered, there is both a literal and a figurative meaning involved. On the literal level, the failure to observe the law’s injunctions about periodic rests for the land, fallow periods when no crops would be planted or reaped by landowners (and the poor would be allowed to collect freely from volunteer plants), probably rendered the land of Judah agriculturally exhausted. Literally, the land could use a rest.

But figuratively, it is the people themselves — the busy, bustling ownership class, who probably saw themselves as upstanding and responsible citizens — who needed a rest. Not so much a physical rest, but a rest from their preoccupation with what more recently we call “the things of this world.”

The sabbaths were not just for the laborers and the land (though they were certainly for them) but also for the employers too. And the reason for everyone taking rest was not simply the fact that rest is necessary for health, but that rest gives us the time we need to think about our lives and the God who gave us them. The Israelites, both the saints and the sinners, the oppressors and the oppressed, needed a couple of generations away from their land and their lives, from their ordinary prudential concerns, to give them a chance to grow back toward God.

That process of growing back towards God is outlined in Psalm 137, in which the Israelites describe in the first-person plural part of their experience in exile. 

By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.
For there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs,
And our despoilers urged us to be joyous: “Sing for us the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten!
May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not,
If I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.

The pain of their exile is what awakens the Israelites to a renewed appreciation for their land; they simultaneously cannot experience the promised land — even in memory and son — but also cannot forget what they have lost. And the very tragedy of this tension becomes in itself a new song — set to music by many composers, but perhaps most memorably by Palestrina (sung here in a performance by the Marian Consort).

Palestrina uses only the first few lines of the Psalm, dealing ironically with the Israelites’ inability to sing. The sticky, tenuous lines of his polyphony perfectly express the paradox of a pain that must be expressed, but also forbids expression:

Super flumina Babylonis (By the streams of Babylon) illic sedimus et flevimus, (we sat and wept) dum recordaremur tui Sion (when we remembered thee, Zion); in salicibus in medio ejus (on the willow trees in their midst) suspendimus organa nostra (we hung up our harps).

Palestrina ends the motet in suspense, in a kind of musical pun: he concludes with a musical chord that leaves the listeners with a sense of the suspended harps, but also the suspended songs of Zion that they represent — and a very real sense that our joy is, for this time of exile — whether it be the exile of the Israelites, or of Lent, or of earthly life, suspended.

But there is a beauty in the music too, as well as pain; like the original Psalm, its very shadowiness proposes a loss that looks back to what we now recognize, because of our pain, as missing. As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Problem of Pain, millennia after the psalmist and centuries after Palestrina:

We can rest contentedly in our sins and in our stupidities; and anyone who has watched gluttons shoveling down the most exquisite foods as if they did not know what they were eating, will admit that we can ignore even pleasure. But pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.