Contrary to what many think or feel, Lent is a time of joy. It is a time when we come back to life. It is a time when we shake off what is bad and dead in us in order to become able to live, to live with all the vastness, all the depth, and all the intensity to which we are called. Unless we understand this quality of joy in Lent, we will make of it a monstrous caricature, a time when in God’s own name we make our life a misery. This notion of joy connected with effort, with ascetical endeavour, with strenuous effort may indeed seem strange, and yet it runs through the whole of our spiritual life, through the life of the Church and the life of the Gospel.
The Kingdom of God is something to be conquered. It is not simply given to those who leisurely, lazily wait for it to come. To those who wait for it in that spirit, it will come indeed: it will come at midnight; it will come like the Judgement of God, like the thief who enters when he is not expected, like the bridegroom, who arrives while the foolish virgins are asleep. This is not the way in which we should await Judgement and the Kingdom. Here again we need to recapture an attitude of mind which usually we can’t manage to conjure up out of our depth, something which had become strangely alien to us: the joyful expectation of the Day of the Lord – in spite of the fact that we know this Day will be a Day of judgement. It may strike us as strange to hear that in Church we proclaim the Gospel – the ‘good news’ – of judgement, and yet we do. We proclaim that the Day of the Lord is not fear, but hope, and declare together with the spirit of the Church: ‘Come, Lord Jesus, and come soon’ (cf. Rev. 22.20).
So long as we are incapable of speaking in these terms, we lack something important in our Christian consciousness. We are still, whatever we may say, pagans dressed up in evangelical garments. We are still people for whom God is a God outside of us, for whom his coming is darkness and fear, and whose judgement is not our redemption but our condemnation, for whom to meet the Lord is a dread event and not the event we long and live for.
Unless we realise this, then Lent cannot be a joy, since Lent brings with it both judgement and responsibility: we must judge ourselves in order to change, in order to become able to meet the Day of the Lord, the Resurrection, with an open heart, with faith, ready to rejoice in the fact that he has come.
Every coming of the Lord is judgement. The Fathers draw a parallel between Christ and Noah. They say that the presence of Noah in his generation was at the same time condemnation and salvation. It was condemnation because the presence of one man who remained faithful, of just one man who was a saint of God, was evidence that holiness was possible and that those who were sinners, those who had rejected God and turned away from him, could have done otherwise. So the presence of a righteous man was judgement and condemnation upon his time. Yet it was also the salvation of his time, because it was only thanks to him that God looked with mercy on mankind. And the same is true of the coming of the Lord.
There is also another joy in judgement. Judgement is not something that falls upon us from outside. Yes, the day will come when we will stand before God and be judged; but while our pilgrimage still continues, while we still live in the process of becoming, while there still lies ahead of us the road that leads us towards the fullness of the stature of Christ, towards our vocation, then judgement must be pronounced by ourselves. There is a constant dialogue within us throughout our lives. You remember the parable in which Christ says: ‘Make your peace with your adversary while you are on the way’ (Mt. 5.25). Some of the spiritual writers have seen in the adversary not the devil (with whom we cannot make our peace, with whom we are not to come to terms), but our conscience, which throughout life walks apace with us and never leaves us in peace.
Our conscience is in continuous dialogue with us, gainsaying us at every moment, and we must come to terms with it because otherwise the moment will come when we finally reach the Judge, and then our adversary will become our accuser, and we will stand condemned. So while we are on the road, judgement is something which goes on constantly within ourselves, a dialogue, a dialectical tension between our thoughts and our emotions and our feelings and our actions which stand in judgement before us and before whom we stand in judgement.
But in this respect we very often walk in darkness, and this darkness is the result of our darkened mind, of our darkened heart, of the darkening of our eye, which should be clear. It is only if the Lord himself sheds his light into our soul and upon our life, that we can begin to see what is wrong and what is right in us. There is a remarkable passage in the writings of John of Kronstadt, a Russian priest of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, in which he says that God does not reveal to us the ugliness of our souls unless he can see in us sufficient faith and sufficient hope for us not to be broken by the vision of our own sins.
In other words, whenever we see ourselves with our dark side, whenever this knowledge of ourselves increases, we can then understand ourselves more clearly in the light of God, that is, in the light of the divine judgement. This means two things: it means that we are saddened to discover our own ugliness, indeed, but also that we can rejoice at the same time, since God has granted us his trust. He has entrusted to us a new knowledge of ourselves as we are, as he himself always saw us and as, at times, he did not allow us to see ourselves, because we could not bear the sight of truth.
Here again, judgement becomes joy, because although we discover what is wrong, yet the discovery is conditioned by the knowledge that God has seen enough faith, enough hope and enough fortitude in us to allow us to see these things, because he knows that now we are able to act. All this is important if we want to understand that joy and Lent can go together. Otherwise the constant, insistent effort of the Church – and of the word of God – to make us aware of what is wrong in us can lead us to despair and to darkness, until finally we have been brought so low that we are no longer capable of meeting the Resurrection of Christ with joy, because we realise – or imagine that we realise – that the Resurrection has nothing to do with us. We are in darkness, God is in light. We see nothing but our judgement and condemnation at the very moment when we should be emerging out of darkness into the saving act of God, which is both our judgement and our salvation.
* This talk was given by Metropolitan Anthony to the London Group of the Fellowship of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius and their friends on Saturday, 17 February 1968. It was taken down in shorthand, transcribed, corrected by Metropolitan Anthony and published at the time in booklet form by the Fellowship, but has long been out of print. The editor of the original booklet mentioned in his introduction that ‘because of the large crowds the meeting at Saint Basil’s House (the London centre of the Fellowship) had to be transferred to the Church of Saint John the Baptist, Notting Hill.’