On Lent, Moral Rigorism, and True Penitence

I've been disturbed, this Lenten season, by what our practices of Lent say about our beliefs, and by contrast, what our beliefs ought to say instead about our practices.

It all started with "burying the alleluia" on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday—which, in contemporary style, we celebrate with the observance of the Transfiguration. And yet we retain enough of Septuagesima and the pre-Lenten observance to still sing an 11th c. Latin hymn that belongs to that occasion, called Alleluia dulce carmen. Stanza 3 is the crucial one:
Alleluia non meremur nunc perenne psallere;
Alleluia nos reatus cogit intermittere;
Tempus instat quo peracta lugeamus crimina.
Now, a century and a half after Neale's translation, we have turned this into "Alleluia cannot always be our song while here below / Alleluia our transgressions make us for a while forego / For the somber time is coming when our tears for sin must flow." But this is not precisely what the Latin says. Most particularly, it leaves out the clearly juridical language of the original, which goes more like this (albeit without the poetry):
We do not now deserve to continue to sing the alleluia;
The indictment compels us to suspend the alleluia;
The time in which we must mourn the judgment approaches.
Is this the nature of Lent? A span in which we refuse to praise God, and instead ponder our judgment as sinners? Are these things even commensurate as opposites? The hymn conceives of "alleluia" as an angelic song of joy, the song of the free and sinless redeemed, the song of the "new Jerusalem," rather than the song of the exiles. It, along with Easter, becomes a purely eschatological reality in which we do not deserve to participate, except by hope. Is this right? Does this idea have any legitimacy outside of Medieval piety? Is this, in fact, good theology?

First, it must be said that what the hymn portrays is not the nature of the Hallel, the song of praise to Yahweh. This is not how Israel uses the Hallel. The Hallel, both in Ps 113-118 and in the "Great Hallel" of Ps 136, is praise to God for being the God who delivers, who provides, who works good for the people and all creation. Who does these things actively and in the situations of everyday life and suffering. Now, there is an echo of our Lenten practice in the Bavli, in which the Talmudic discussion raises the point that it is unseemly to praise God for deliverance on days such as Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, in which the dominant image is of the judgment. And yet that voice is tempered by voices that declare that the survival of Israel in the land, and the survival of Israel at all in the Exile, is a miracle worthy of praise. In any event, even should praise be muted on days of judgment, the redemption that is the subject of praise is not eschatological; it is a present recollection of a past reality, which is itself the reminder of a constant expectation of God's faithfulness exercised in just this way.

Is it unseemly for us to praise the judge for clemency, as he sits in judgment of our offenses? Is it preferable to mourn our guilt without praising God? There is a presumption involved in this, in which the verdict and the sentence hang in the balance. The notion here is that the Hallel is premature in the moment of judgment. But while this works in the temporal situations presumed by the prophets, in which the very real stakes of life or death, freedom or imprisonment, hinged upon the enacting of the people's trust in Yahweh, it does not work in the context into which we have transposed it. It does not work with eternity. It does not work with eschatology. Do we not, in every instance, know both our guilt and God's forgiveness? Is this not the truth of our redemption in Christ?

The refusal to praise God while we stand under God's just indictment seems to lie halfway between Job and his "friends." It is not a self-righteous accusation of God, by any means, nor does it contend with God that the verdict is unjust. But it also refuses to trust in the promised redemption that shall indeed follow God's just judgment. And Job has a right to protest the injustice of arbitrary loss, which is not a just outcome of legitimate divine condemnation of his life before God. In Lent, we consider our legitimate offenses, the genuine injustices of our ways of life before God and neighbor. We have nothing here to contend, no right of our own to pursue in our defense. We do not possess anything like the justice of Job—but we have been given the justice of Christ, an alien righteousness, and with it the verdict of acquittal and the sentence of life in freedom. And, in the knowledge that we are not Christ, and that this is in fact an alien righteousness, God has granted to us, in our parole, the means of grace.

This must inform our penitence. Surely we must mourn the consequences of our actions, the truth of the effects of our sin upon ourselves and our neighbors, which the just judgment of God reveals to us. Surely we must die to sin in order to live. Surely we are not truly penitent if the weight of the reality of our sin does not concern and trouble us, and provoke us to change. But just as surely, in every moment of our penitence, must we praise God for the clemency eternally enacted upon us in Jesus Christ. Just as surely, in every moment of our penitence, is it perfectly and ideally appropriate that we sing the Hallel, that we praise God for redemption as we face the very fact from which we are redeemed. There is no moment of our lives in which these things are not simultaneously true, in which the dependency between them is ever unresolved, in which we are not redeemed sinners in the fullness of the facts of both matters at issue here.

And, in fact, what would be unseemly in any moment of our penitence is not the praise of God—not the hallelu-yah of the Hebrews—but praise of anyone else. It may be artificial and problematic to fail to acknowledge our redemption in the acts of our penitence, but it would be worse to place our hope of redemption anywhere else. And because of this, we must be very careful of the moral rigorism that so often accompanies our Lenten observances. There is justification for penitential abstinence in Lent, for practices aimed at the amendment of life toward closer reliance upon God. What there is not justification for is our popular culture of moral exertion, of absolute resolutions doomed to failure as though it were the new year, and of self-condemnation on the basis of the inevitable failure of these moral exertions.

Next Lent, let there be a humility about your observance. Permit yourself the praise of God, in the full knowledge of the verdict and sentence that enables you to continue to live in spite of your sin. And do just that: live in spite of your sin. Live conscious of your reliance upon grace. Live aware of the reality of that grace. Participate in it. And let that be the reality that determines your moral exertions. Resolve, if you resolve anything, to live as the person God's grace has made you, and as the person that grace is continually remaking in the Spirit. Use that grace for the purpose for which it is always given. Take realistic steps to fix real problems that affect your life and the lives of your neighbors, and know that you will fail, but that you have permission to fail, because your trust is in the God who redeems you and all creation from failure. Let this be your active and honest penitence.

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