“Let us, I say, consider who Christ is . . .”

These are words from Newman on Lent in one of his Parochial and Plain Sermons (VI, 5). He begins: “First, Christ is God: from eternity He was the Living and True God.” Newman is not here giving his “opinion.” He affirms what is handed down to us. The content was not invented by the Apostles or changed by their successors. It was received by them. They are reporters of what they heard. We are hearers of these words, about which, on reflection, we can make sense. If we are instructed to “do” anything about them, it is to pass them down, unchanged, to others.

In 1983, Walker Percy wrote The Message in a Bottle. Later, he gave a lecture entitled “Another Message in a Bottle.” We can imagine these bottles floating up on our curious shores. What is the second message? “In every part of the world where novels have been written and read, the presiding ethos. . .is that the salient truth of life is not the teaching of a great philosopher or the enlightenment of a great sage,” Percy remarked.

It was, rather, the belief that something bad happened, an actual Event in historic time. Certainly, no one disagrees that the one great difference of Christianity is its claim – outrageous claim, many would say – that God actually entered historic time, first through his covenant with the Jews and then through the Incarnation (Signposts in a Strange Land, 365).

At bottom, in Percy’s telling, the novel is how we deal with this Event as it works its way into our own particular lives.

Lent concerns this “something bad” that happened “in historic time.” Lent is a time during which we go back over the sequence of these historic events. They explain to us both that something bad happened in our midst, but also that some remedy is promised, anticipated, something that is gradually revealed at the end of Lent. Without the Incarnation, this remedy could not have happened in the way it did. The Incarnation and the Nativity of an actual Person point to the Cross and the Resurrection of the same Person.

Lent is not the season “to be jolly,” though it is not a time of sadness either. Rather, it makes us aware that we are involved in a mystery of disorder that passes through each of our souls. Many of us desperately seek to find a theory in philosophy, religion, or science to assure us that we are not in any way involved in this mess.

Thus, we hope, the spiritual remedies of repentance called to our attention during Lent are unnecessary to us. But this rationalization is just another way of repeating in our own souls the sin of our First Parents. We want to construct our salvation, not to follow the one proposed to us, the one that will work. Christianity suggests that we pray and fast even to see that we need something already given to us as a remedy for the sins we do not like to acknowledge.

Newman gives a second “point of doctrine” that we need to be “insist upon.” This is how Newman puts it, following the first point that Christ is the “Living and True God”: “While Our Lord is God, He is also the Son of God. We are apt . . . to say that He is God, though He is the Son of God, marveling at the mystery. But what to man is a mystery, to God is a cause. He is God, not though, but because He is the Son of God.” Christ is Son, Logos, Word.

Christ at no point “becomes” God as if He were not God from His very nature within the Trinity. The basic mystery of Christ is not located in His Incarnation but in His life within the Godhead. Who comes into the world in the time of Caesar Augustus is already the Son of God from eternity. And He comes in the way He comes in order that our sins may be forgiven. Again, Lent is a period in which, looking back on these “Events” we become aware of the “Event” we call the Fall. It is, if you will, the “big bang” of the fallen world.

But those who live Lent are not ignorant of the fact that this Son of God did succeed in the obedience that He showed to His Father. Christ was not a failure, even when the leaders of His time (and our time) failed to recognize Him as what He is, the Son of God. Lent is not a time that recalls the “failure” of God. It is a time in which men are to realize how they have failed to recognize what has been freely sent into the world for their salvation.

James V. Schall, S.J. (1928-2019), who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

  • On Hell - Monday, February 25, 2019