Lent (the forty day period leading up to Good-Friday and Easter) probably evolved from training classes for people being baptized in the early church. At that time baptism often took place at Easter. Prior to baptism, and as preparation, candidates would have been encouraged to fast, pray, give money to those in need, and read the Bible – four activities still associated with Lent. But it was not long before many established Christians in the early church, by way of a “refresher” period, similarly had a period before Easter for fasting, praying, giving and reading the Bible.
At the start of his own ministry Jesus had a time of preparation in the wilderness; and it lasted forty days. So following his example, this “refresher” period by the time of the famous church Council of Nicea in 325 AD had also become a forty day period. Also, as this period led up to Easter, it was called in the Northern European world, “Lent”, from the Old English “lencten” which is associated with our modern English word “lengthen” and means “spring” – the time when the days “lengthen”.
C.S. Lewis was one of the great defenders of the Christian faith in the 20th century. Having being a brilliant student at University College, Oxford (where Richard Clayton, in whose memory Jesmond Parish Church was founded, had also studied), he then taught English at Magdalen College, Oxford.
At my senior school my own first form master had recently been Lewis’ pupil at Oxford. Not surprisingly we “entry formers” (as we were then called) were introduced to C.S.Lewis in scripture lessons long before he was a world famous author with books translated into 30 languages and millions of copies sold. However, I have to confess that it was only much later in life that I really came to appreciate the value of C.S.Lewis. So let me now give you some samples of his writing. They are in relation to, one, the past, two, the future and, three, the present. It is no bad thing to think about what Lewis is saying on these subjects at this season of Lent.
With regard to the past Lewis saw the value of reading books – books from the past. As he had studied the Greek and Roman classics at Oxford as an undergraduate and as his final job was that of Professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, you might think “he would say that, wouldn’t he?” The answer is “not necessarily”. Consider his reasoning:
“We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it. But … we cannot study the future and yet need something to set against the present to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods, and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village. The scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
What, then, is the particular problem with new books?
“Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we - but not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us.”
I have to admit to reading a new book recently. But it was John G.Stackhouse’s Making the Best of it – following Christ in the real world where one chapter contains these reminders of some of Lewis’ teaching. With regard to Heaven and the future Stackhouse pointed out that C.S.Lewis did not accept the (particularly) medieval concept of the Beatific Vision – the endless mystical contemplation of God – as the only goal of human life. Rather he had the following “vision”:
“The promises of Scripture may, very roughly, be reduced to five heads. It is promised, firstly, that we shall be with Christ; secondly, that we shall be like him; thirdly, with an enormous wealth of imagery, that we shall have ‘glory’; fourthly, that we shall, in some sense, be fed or feasted or entertained; and, finally, that we shall have some sort of official position in the universe – ruling cities, judging angels, being pillars of God’s temple.”
Of course, the full realization of this follows the Second Coming of Christ. But the Second Coming is a doctrine which…
“… is deeply uncongenial to the whole evolutionary or developmental character of modern thought. We have been taught to think of the world as something that grows slowly towards perfection, something that ‘progresses’ or ‘evolves’. Christian Apocalyptic offers us no such hope … It foretells a sudden, violent end imposed from without … a curtain rung down on the play.”
The Resurrection Body
But there will be continuity as well as discontinuity with life now:
“We must, indeed, believe the risen body to be extremely different from the mortal body; but the existence, in that new state, of anything that could in any sense be described as ‘body’ at all, involves some sort of spatial relations and in the long run a whole new universe. That is the picture – not of unmaking but of remaking.”
And the hope of heaven should thrill us all:
“If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
But isn’t there a danger in thinking too much of heaven (and hell)? Not really, if we are concerned for other people:
“It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter. It is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbour. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbour’s glory should be laid daily on my back … It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of those destinations.”
But we all also need to be concerned for the present. We must not be too caught up in the past or be wholly focusing on our plans and hopes for the future of this world. That is why Lewis makes Screwtape (the Devil and arch-tempter) say to Wormwood (the apprentice devil) in the Screwtape Letters:
“To be sure, the Enemy [God] wants men to think of the Future too – just so much as is necessary for now planning the acts of justice and charity which will probably be their duty tomorrow … He does not want men to give the Future their hearts, to place their treasure in it. We do! His ideal is a man who, having worked all day for the good of posterity (if that is his vocation), washes his mind of the whole subject, commits the issue to Heaven, and returns at once to the patience or gratitude demanded by the moment that is passing over him. But we want a man hag-ridden by the Future – haunted by visions of an imminent heaven or hell upon earth – ready to break the Enemy’s commands in the Present if by so doing we make him think he can attain the one or avert the other – dependent for his faith on the success or failure of schemes whose end he will not live to see. We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, not kind, nor happy now.”
What was said of Abel in Hebrews 11.4 is surely also true of C.S.Lewis: “by faith he still speaks, even though he is dead.”