A Season of Giving … Up

A Season of Giving … Up

Thursday after Ash Wednesday. Br Augustine thinks Lent, like Christmas, is a season of giving. How do they differ and what does this mean for us?

Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

The following homily was preached during compline. You can listen here or read below:

The story is familiar. One night, a man had a dream. He dreamt he was walking by the sea with his Lord. So there were two sets of footprints. When they reached rocky ground, beaten relentlessly by waves (this stands for trials and tribulations in the man’s life), there was only one set of footprints, and next to it, a curious pair of parallel lines. The man prayed for understanding, and so the Lord said unto him, ‘Ah. That was where I dragged you. You were kicking and screaming.’

This dream is really a nightmare. This image of God is a deep-fake. God doesn’t constrain the will or tie our hands together. The man is free to turn aside. God has given us all these good things – the choice of what we want to give, to offer up, is in our hands. This freedom underlies the notion of any real choice, because choice is exclusionary. It reveals our preferences between one thing and another. But not all choices between things are straightforward or obvious, like between an egg fried rice or a bacon sandwich. Choices are between here-and-now and there-and-then – we weigh what we might give up in order to get what we think we want. The calculators are out, especially when the choices are existential. ‘See, I set before you life and death,’ says Moses. This is a choice that casts us forwards. We have to give up one to get the other. This giving up is a prelude. It sets the stage for something else to happen. It signals the death of a desire to make room for other desires. ‘Choose life, that you and your descendants may live in the love of the Lord your God.’ During Lent, we give things up in order to gain something greater, to grow in love, to become more truly Christian. This is the first of three senses of what giving up means.

But to be Christians at all, we can’t just talk about ourselves. Moses was addressing an assembly. It’s hard to imagine them not turning to each other as he uttered his momentous words. The act of giving is central to the idea of giving up. This is the second sense of what giving up is. We can only really give to someone if we give up something, because we can’t give what we don’t have. Let’s grant, for a moment, the way the modern world reduces religious observations – if Christmas is a season of giving, then Lent is a season of giving up. But if Christmas and Easter are two poles of the Church’s year, then there must be some link between the two. And that’s because they both involve a giving-to. We see this in the economy of salvation. The economy of salvation is not one in which an invisible hand moves chess-pieces according to how rational human agents act based on the pleasure or pain they think they’ll get. The core of the economy of salvation is that ‘God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our sins, made us alive together with Christ’ (Ephesians 2:4).

Now we can address the elephant in the room. Moses says, ‘Choose life’. So why did Christ choose death, apparently instead of life? Or why did God in Christ choose human life in order to choose death? There are many languages of love, but true love translates into sacrifice – to suffer in the stead of the ones you love, to bear their burdens, to give them yourself. The Cross is counter-position – its two poles are opposed. To take up the Cross is to make yourself a sign of contradiction. This is what God has done for us. Dying, he restores our life. Christ has thrown open the self-centred narrowness in the notion of choice that we began with. I must seek not my own good, but the good of all. This is the third sense of giving up: giving ourselves up.

Where do we sign up? To make the existential choice – life or death – we must know what we want. And to know what we want, we must know ourselves. A very famous sinner once said that everywhere we go, whatever we do, we carry about with us the witness of our mortality, the witness of our sin (St Augustine, Confessions I.1.1); in other words, our cravings and our crimes. But we’re not defined by these fleeting, temporal, economic desires. I am not my wanting an egg fried rice or a bacon sandwich. We are defined – and dignified – by God’s desire for us. ‘You have made us for yourself,’ says Augustine, ‘and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ To uncover that meaning about myself, I must respond to God’s desire; I must learn what it means to say, every day of Lent, ‘O God, you are my God, for you I long’ (Psalm 63:1). I must give myself up into the hands of the living, loving God. God does not need me. And I wouldn’t need him if I entered this church every morning and smirked and said, like the Pharisee, ‘Lord, I thank you that I am not like that tax-collector over there’ (cf Luke 18:11). God can only come where he is welcome. If I want to realise the meaning of all this giving-up, the meaning of what it means to be a Christian, then I must say, ‘O God, be merciful to me, a sinner’ (Luke 18:13). God cannot heal the saint I pretend to be. But he can heal the sinner I am.

Image: Rock of Ages, Augustine Chen OP

Br Augustine was born and raised in Kuching, Malaysian Borneo. He came to England to study Law at the University of Oxford, where he was acquainted with and attracted to the Dominican way of life. A desire to proclaim the Gospel and to acquire a wider experience of religious life led him to work with the Salesians among young people in Glasgow before entering the Order. He finds nourishment in the works of St Augustine and the poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, and is seeking a deeper familiarity with Eastern Christian spirituality and the Metaphysical poets. Among his favourite books are St Augustine's Confessions and Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory. He has an interest in the visual arts, and likes drawing and painting.

Comments (1)

  • Oscar Bagan Catalan

    Dear Brothers Years ago you used to recommend books for Lent, could you recommend some for this year?


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