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"The Steps of a Good Man"
Following Christ through Lent
“The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord: and he delighteth in his way.” (Psalm 37:23)
Lent is about following Jesus. And Jesus was on his way to a cross. But the road to Golgotha is a long one. For forty days we journey with our Lord into the wilderness. There amid the wild beasts He is tempted for our sake. And all of our light afflictions crumble beneath the weight of such glory. While He suffers the pangs of gnawing hunger, He teaches us to lean hard upon the kindness of Providence and pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.” In this dry and barren land, where no water is, He teaches us to thirst after righteousness that we might be truly filled. When we are tempted by the weakness of our flesh, we—whose god is our belly—learn that man shall not live by bread alone, but “by every Word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God”. When the Adversary offers us a shortcut to glory, Christ calls to us from atop the mountain, reminding us to hallow in our hearts the God whose name is Jealous.
During Lent we join our Lord beneath the boughs of the olive trees where our souls are pressed together with His. We tremble with Him before the awful cup in dark Gethsemane. We watch from a safe distance as He kisses the Hand that offers it and presses His lips to taste the vinegar of our own making. “That bitter cup, love drank it up; / Now blessing’s draught for me.”1 By His agony and bloody sweat, He was anointed with the oil of gladness above His fellows. “Not my will, but Thine be done,” we hear as we doze beneath the ancient branches. He bids us to rouse our sluggish hearts and join our voices with Him for but an hour. “What meanest thou, O sleeper,” says our Lord, “Awake thou that sleepest, arise from the dead, and I will give thee light.”
At last, Lent brings us to the foot of Calvary’s mournful mountain. It is here that we must reckon with the gruesome eventualities of our sin. “That Gentle Christ, so kind and good, / We nailed Him to a cross of wood.” Yonder, between two thieves, hangs the end of mortal folly, even so, His arms are open to us still. We dare not dip our fingers into Pilate’s basin, for this is our doing. If we are to make a “right beginning”2 of repentance we must participate in Christ’s own baptism of blood. Yet, there is no place left for us on that middle cross—it is too full of God. And our hands have put Him there. Like Shakespeare’s Macbeth, we seek cleansing from the incarnadine stain. “Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand?”3 Unlike the Bard’s tragic couple, our Victim is both Judge and Advocate who speaks on our behalf. “Come,” says the God we’ve cursed, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” On that day a fountain was opened for sin and for our uncleanness. And we receive our cleansing from His wounded side.
From the sixth to the ninth hour we strain our eyes through thick darkness. Callous onlookers mock and jeer, but the sun hides its face in shame. The rocks prove softer than the hearts of men, rending their stony garments at the awful scene. We hear the anguished cry from the Man in the middle, and then, nothing. The wages of sin is death. This is what our sin has purchased. The earthly remains of the Immortal God slump upon the tree.
Lent is a journey to the cross, which is to say, a journey towards death. In the economy of grace this death becomes our life. Our participation in Christ’s own death reveals the inestimable riches our Lord has hidden away in dust and ashes. The excellency of the life of God lies buried beneath our own mortal clay. So says St. Paul,
We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us. We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body. For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus' sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh. (2 Corinthians 4:7-11)
“O Christ, What Burdens Bowed Thy Head”, Anne Ross Cousins
“Ash Wednesday Liturgy”, Book of Common Prayer
Macbeth, Act II, Scene II, William Shakespeare