Several years ago, HarperOne published Preparing for Easter, a collection of readings from C.S. Lewis. As we enter Lent this week and begin our journey toward Jerusalem, I commend this daily guide. During the next five weeks, I hope to provide some bits and pieces from this collection, but that’s only to set us into motion. Here’s the link for more information about acquiring the book. Like me, you might find yourself returning to this resource each year.
Though Lent is a 40-day journey, the actual math on the days makes it somewhat longer. We need to account Sundays being feast days, making the actual stretch between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday a total of 47 days, or just under seven weeks given the midweek start and the traditional end to the Lenten season on Maundy Thursday, the day we reflect on Jesus’ last supper with his disciples. I mention all this because Preparing for Easter presents selections from Lewis in a particular shape. Though not in the book itself, we can loosely assume the following headings:
Week 1: Our Position with God
Week 2: God Descends to Save
Week 3: Our Forgiveness in God
Week 4: Taking up the Cross
Week 5: The Hope of Glory
Week 6: The Way Means Suffering and Repentance
Week 7 (Holy Week): Follow Me
As you might know, each of the days has two selected readings from the Bible, one of which is a reading from Psalms. That said, the readings for Ash Wednesday are the assurances found in Matt. 11:27-30 and Psalm 90:1-6. In Matthew, Jesus invites all of us who weary and burdened down with the weight of all sorts of pressure to come to him and find rest. Likewise, the first few verses in Psalm 90 give us perspective. In God, we find a dwelling place, but we find more. We can’t dwell apart from him because we are dust and we only find our breath and being in Him alone.
The reading from Lewis is along the same lines of God meeting us no matter where we might be coming from or where we might be going. The selection that kicks off the book is from The Four Loves, where Lewis talks about our approach to God (and God’s approach to us). On our side of the equation, we are most always exhibiting need-love toward God. “This is obvious when we implore forgiveness for our sins or support in our tribulations,” he says. “But in the long run it is perhaps even more apparent in our growing—for it ought to be growing—awareness that our whole being by its very nature is one vast need; incomplete, preparatory, empty yet cluttered, crying out for Him who can untie things that are now knotted together and tie up things that are still dangling loose.” God wants us to come empty-handed and realize that only in him we are complete. And Lewis points out what a “very strange corollary” this really is. “Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God,” he says. “For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and a cry for help?”
I love that… we are in the least like God when we approach him. How true. Lewis says that it completely “wrecked” him when he realized it. We are, however, made in the image of God, more so than any other thing in all creation. Simply because we are human, we are nearest to God among his creatures. But Lewis reminds us that nearness in nature is far different than “nearness of approach.” Lewis paints for us a picture to help get his point across. “Let us suppose that we are doing a mountain walk to the village which is our home,” he says. “At mid-day we come to the top of a cliff where we are, in space, very near it because it is just below us. We could drop a stone into it. But as we are no cragsmen we can’t get down. We must go a long way round; five miles, maybe. At many points during that détour we shall, statically, be far further from the village than we were when we sat above the cliff. But only statically. In terms of progress we shall be far ‘nearer’ our baths and teas… At the cliff’s top we are near the village, but however long we sit there we shall never be any nearer to our bath and our tea.”
Our approach to God always starts with grace and sustained because of that grace. We do have a longing for something we can’t quite define (and Lewis talks about this elsewhere), but unless we journey toward being near to God, we will never be caught into the mystery of faith. I like how this selection from The Four Loves concludes, that when we imitate God in our nearness to him, it is following Jesus, “not only of Calvary, but of the workshop, the roads, the crowds, the clamorous demands and surly oppositions, the lack of all peace and privacy, the interruptions. For this, so strangely unlike anything we can attribute to the Divine life in itself, is apparently not only like, but is, the Divine life operating under human conditions.”
If your custom is to receive the imposition of ashes to start Lent, reminding us that we are from dust and will return the same, I hope we might also keep in mind that we are made in his image, yet fallen and must fully own our state, seeking only through grace to be near him. Let it be our prayer, as it was Lewis’s prayer, this Lenten season.