The Sunday of Forgiveness, March 6, 2011
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
“They say Aslan is on the move.” With these whispered words, the seventh chapter of the allegorically Christian novel by C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, introduces the character of Aslan. “Aslan is on the move.”
I happened to hear those words again this week when watching the film version of this story with my daughter. We began reading the book together, as well. Those of you who have read the book perhaps feel a bit of the excitement of those words: “Aslan is on the move.” But for those who haven’t, here is the next thing that Lewis writes:
And now a very curious thing happened. None of the children knew who Aslan was any more than you do; but the moment the Beaver had spoken these words everyone felt quite different. Perhaps it has sometimes happened to you in a dream that someone says something which you don’t understand but in the dream it feels as if it had some enormous meaning—either a terrifying one which turns the whole dream into a nightmare or else a lovely meaning too lovely to put into words, which makes the dream so beautiful that you remember it all your life and are always wishing you could get into that dream again. It was like that now. At the name of Aslan each one of the children felt something jump in his inside. Edmund felt a sensation of mysterious horror. Peter felt suddenly brave and adventurous. Susan felt as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by her. And Lucy got the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer.
I, too, felt something curious upon encountering those words, words I’ve been seeing again and again for many years since I first read them as a child. What occurred to me this time was this juxtaposition: “Lent begins next week. Aslan is on the move.”
In Lewis’s tale, Aslan is a great lion. He is not only a talking lion, but happens also to be the rightful king of Narnia, the fictional land into which Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy stumble. Narnia is at first dominated by the White Witch, who makes it always winter in Narnia, but never Christmas. Yet Aslan is more than a lion, for he is also a symbol of our Lord Jesus Christ. But when the four children first hear his name, they have no idea who he is. But they know that he is coming, and with him, comes the springtime.
In most languages, the holy season we are about to embark upon is called simply the Great Fast, but in English, we have inherited our terminology from Latin, and it is called Lent. The word Lent now is used almost exclusively to refer to this season in the Church’s calendar, but its older meaning has nothing to do with fasting or extra church services leading up to Pascha. Lent means “springtime.”
We have had a fairly heavy winter here in the Lehigh Valley this year, and if you are at all like me, the coming of spring is most welcome. Indeed, I feel a strong sense of anticipation for some sunshine, warmer air, and for signs of life to begin emerging. And here, precisely where we are balanced between winter and spring, weary of the heaviness and darkness of the past season, here we encounter Lent, the springtime of the Church.
I think many people greet Lent not with a sense of anticipation but, many times, with dread! Such people, if they are trying to be serious about their spiritual lives, may feel what Edmund does in the book, a sort of “mysterious horror” or perhaps drudgery, as they think about the fasting, the extra church services, the sermons about repentance, and so on. They may even think that this attitude of suffering is what God wants for them. And if they are not serious, Lent is probably all the more tedious, because here is yet another thing impinging upon their perfectly busy lives. They are probably hoping to stay insulated both from winter and springtime, kept in a perfect box of perfect weather with a thermostat to keep their spiritual life from being anything but utterly bland all the time.
But we do not have to be those people. For a great adventure is now beginning. We can, like Peter, feel “suddenly brave and adventurous,” that there is a great task set before us that will define us and fulfill us. Or like Susan, Lent can be “as if some delicious smell or some delightful strain of music had just floated by,” a time of intense and often heart-rending beauty. Or perhaps we greet Lent like Lucy, with “the feeling you have when you wake up in the morning and realise that it is the beginning of the holidays or the beginning of summer,” for freedom is at hand, and everything becomes possible.
Springtime is precisely about freedom. We are able to go outside again, to stretch our arms and legs, to reconnect with life. This is the time to stretch not only our limbs but also our spirits, to clean not only our homes but our hearts. Repentance, the theme for Great Lent, is not fundamentally something dark and negative, but rather beautiful and powerful, because, like springtime, it is the cleaning out of our hearts, the rededication of ourselves to what truly matters. In this spiritual springtime, we emerge again from the traps we’ve devised for ourselves so that we can be watered with the showers of divine energy, to turn our faces clearly toward the sunshine of the love and healing of God, to grow toward Him once again.
This Sunday is called the Sunday of Forgiveness, and this evening at Forgiveness Vespers we will give and receive from each other precisely that great gift. If we do not forgive, if we do not show up and make that forgiveness real, then we cannot expect that God will forgive us. Indeed, we essentially pray again and again that He will not, because we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven. And if you are at all like me, you need forgiveness.
Forgiveness is the restoration of relationship. It is when we come home by the path of repentance. In this Great Lent, most especially if you have never done it before, come with us on the journey. This journey cannot be taken only by coming to church on Sunday morning like you always do. Lent is almost invisible on Sunday morning, because Sunday is always a celebration of the Resurrection. But in the bright sadness, the secret glory of the Lenten services during the week, something else emerges, something that gives that resurrectional celebration its true meaning.
When I was watching the film, and it came to the part where Aslan was going willingly to be sacrificed on behalf of a traitor, to give his life in exchange, I became a little concerned that my four year old daughter was perhaps not quite ready to see that sort of thing on screen. But although the film makes it clear what happens, the act itself is essentially done off-screen. But all my concerns were wiped away by what happened a few moments later.
You see, after the grief of Susan and Lucy at seeing the great lion killed, they hear a great crack, for the stone table on which he had been sacrificed breaks in two. And then his body disappears. And suddenly, he’s back, standing on the crest of a hill in glory. At that moment, my little daughter’s face lit up in a way I’ve never seen before, and she immediately said, “Oh, I love him!”
When I asked her at the end of the movie how Aslan was like Jesus, she said right away, without any hesitation, “He rose again!” And he did.
So here we now stand, perched once again at the edge of the great adventure, the turn of the season from the dark entrapment of winter to the refreshing freedom of springtime. Will we follow the King the whole way? Will we enter into His time of glory? And when we see Him emerge from the tomb on that Great and Holy Day of Pascha, will we quite naturally say, “Oh, I love Him!”?
May it be so for you.
May the God of forgiveness and of resurrection, the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, be therefore glorified always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.