The Lengthening Day Lent is a lovely word. It belongs to that distinguished family of old English church words. Some of them — Shrove Tuesday and Maundy Thursday, for example — are still familiar to us. Most other languages refer to Lent with a term derived from the Latin Quadragesima, signifying forty days, but we English-speaking Catholics hold to our Lent. It comes from the Old English lengten, meaning spring, and refers to the lengthening daylight hours.
Who among us is not yearning for longer sun-filled days? It is time for Lent, time for all that is dark and cold to shrink, time for a lengthening brightness. This is, I think, something of what Saint Paul was getting at: “Behold now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The same Paul, in his defense before King Agrippa, recounts his own conversion experience, his “day of salvation,” and says, “At midday, O king, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me and those who journeyed with me” (Ac 26:13). This was Paul’s “acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2); this was his “day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). A spiritual resurrection takes place.
From Darkness to Light Christ says to Paul, “Rise and stand upon your feet” (Ac 26:16). He then sends Paul to the Gentiles, saying, “Open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (Ac 26:17-18). The imagery evokes the mysteries of the Paschal Vigil: the turning from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God for the forgiveness of sins in baptism and a place among those sanctified by faith in the risen Christ, that is, in the Eucharistic assembly of those sealed with the Holy Ghost. The lengthening light of this “very acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2) will become, after forty days, the unfading light of Pascha, the “day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2).
A Quickening of the Spirit Jesus says, “Walk while you have the light, lest the darkness overtake you; he who walks in the darkness does not know where he goes. While you have the light, believe in the light, that you may become children of light” (Jn 12:35-36). We are to walk then — no, run — while we have this lengthening light. Holy Father Benedict says in the Prologue, “Let us then at last arouse ourselves, even as Scripture incites us in the words, ‘Now is the hour for us to rise from sleep.’ Let us then, open our eyes to the divine light, and hear with our ears the divine voice as it cries out to us daily. ‘Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, and again, ‘He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the Churches’” (RB Pro:8-11). “Run”, he says, “while you have the light of life lest the darkness of death overwhelm you” (RB Pro:5). Lent is a cheerful alacrity, a quickening of the spirit in response to the light.
The Light of Grace All of this is borne out in the hymn given us by the Church for weekday Lauds during these first weeks of Lent. Composed in the sixth century, it sings of the lengthening light, of Christ, the Sun of Justice. Allow me to quote just two stanzas in the fine old translation of the English Primer of 1706 and to offer a few words of commentary.
Now Christ, Thou Sun of righteousness, Let dawn our darkened spirits bless: The light of grace to us restore While day to earth returns once more.
The Face That Shines More Brightly Than the Sun The lengthening brightness comes from Christ himself. His Holy Face shines more brightly than the sun (Mt 17:2). Christ is the Sun of Justice rising “with healing in its rays” (Mal 4:2) over a world grown dark and cold. “Let your face shine on us and we shall be saved” (Ps 79:8). What is the effect of his rays on us? The prophet Malachi says, “You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall” (Mal 4:2). The next to the last stanza picks up on Saint Paul’s “day of salvation” in the second reading.
Soon will that day, Thy day, appear And all things with its brightness cheer: We will rejoice in it, as we Return thereby to grace and thee.
Out of Zion’s Perfect Beauty “That day, thy day.” The reference is to holy Pascha, the day of Christ by which all time becomes a “very acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2), the day by which every day becomes “the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2). The lengthening light gives us reason, already, to rejoice in the light of Christ’s holy resurrection. “We will rejoice in it, as we / Return thereby to grace and thee.” The Lenten journey is one of return; a return to God through Christ, in the Holy Ghost, yes — but also a return to grace, that is, to the beauty of holiness, to the loveliness of the image restored to likeness. “Out of Zion’s perfect beauty he shines” (Ps 49:2).
The Benedictine Lent There is nothing sullen about a Benedictine Lent, nothing heavy or depressing. Holy Father Benedict’s chapter on Lent is the most joyful of the whole Rule. The increased time devoted to prayer, the decreased time devoted to eating and drinking — all is to be offered, he says, “spontaneously in the joy of the Holy Spirit” (RB XLIX: 6), a joy guaranteed by the blessing and approval of the abbot (RB XLIX:8). The reduction of food and drink for the body, of sleep, or talkativeness or looseness in speech — all of this has but one end: to attune us inwardly to the outward lengthening brightness that “with the joy of spiritual desire, we may look forward to holy Pascha” (RB XLIX:7).
Lumen Christi! “Lest, unperceiving, we grope in the darkness” (Ps 81:5), all our faculties are polarized by the lengthening brightness, caught up in the movement of the exodus, the pasch, the transitus out of darkness into the marvelous light of God” (1 P 2:9). Eyes open to the divine light, ears open to the divine voice, running, as Saint Clare of Assisi so charmingly puts it, “with swift pace, light step, unswerving feet, so that even your steps stir up no dust” (Letter II to Agnes of Prague). “Behold, now is the very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor 6:2) because Christ has “lifted up the light of his face on us” (Ps 4;7). “Happy the people who walk, O Lord, in the light of your face” (Ps 88:16). “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). From lengthening light to unfading light. This is our Lenten journey. Lumen Christi! Deo gratias!