Fast & See
That the Lord
Anthony Esolen on Christian Hymns
When Lent arrives, Christians who follow the liturgical season will often sacrifice minor pleasures, like sweets, or, better still, will try to perform their devotions more regularly and seriously. Perhaps they will gather without distraction for solemn times of family prayer or will spend more time with the Scriptures. Perhaps they will examine their consciences more often and pray for the grace that will scour away the lingering grime of sin.
These are good and worthy things. But what we really need in Lent—not that I speak from any profound experience, I am ashamed to say—is to enter the desert with Jesus. It’s when we turn aside from the noise that we begin to hear, and when we shut our eyes to the glare of the bustling world that we begin to see. Jesus did not, in his divinity, need the desert, but in his humanity he sought it out and gave us an example to follow. He did not need its wholesome silence, but we do.
When Jesus approached the blind man Bartimaeus, he did not say, “Come here, I’ll cure you.” He asked the man if he wanted to see. So, too, he does for all of us. Obey my commandments, he says, and the Father will give you light. Follow me, he says, and look upon me, because he who sees me sees the Father. Jesus made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak. Those were the more ordinary and obvious miracles. The less obvious miracles occurred within the souls of people who didn’t need a tapping-cane or an interpreter. There, too, he made the blind to see, the deaf to hear, and the dumb to speak.
Lent, then, is an invitation to that infirmary and training ground, where we, singly or in communion with one another, can open ourselves more radically to the healing power of God. “What did you go out into the desert to see?” asks Jesus, shaking his head at his own people who were so slow to understand. Was it just a spectacle that had aroused their curiosity? A prophet? Yes, indeed, a prophet, for none born of woman had been greater than John the Baptist, and yet the least in the kingdom of God was greater than he. And yet there they stood, their eyes clouded over. Jesus fed thousands of them in the wilderness, and so, their bellies satisfied, they followed him, but still they could not see the truth when he said, “I am the bread of life.”
We go into the desert so that we may see. That is the message of the wise poem from the sixth century that has become one of our most beloved Lenten hymns:
The glory of these forty days
We celebrate with songs of praise;
For Christ, by whom all things were made,
Himself has fasted and has prayed.
We believe Jesus when he says, “I and the Father are one.” But we are also told by the evangelist that when Jesus was a boy, he “grew in wisdom and understanding.” Our Lord sought the will of the Father. That was the expression of his total and unconditional love. He did not say, “The Father sees what I do, and approves of it,” though no doubt that was so, but “The Son does only what he sees the Father do.” It is not that Jesus is blind and in need of healing, or ignorant and in need of instruction. He opens himself utterly to the Father in love, just as he sees the Father open himself utterly both in the creation of the world and in its more wondrous re-creation.
What may happen to us if we go and do likewise? The next two stanzas give us powerful evidence from the Scriptures, all of it pointing finally to Christ:
Alone and fasting Moses saw
The loving God who gave the law;
And to Elijah, fasting, came
The steeds and chariots of flame.
Anthony Esolen is a professor at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire, and the author of many books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (anthonyesolen.substack.com), on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
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