Spiritual spring-cleaning: sermon on the second Sunday of Lent

“This is the will of God, your sanctification”

In many European languages, the word for Lent comes from the Latin word for “forty”, because of the forty penitential days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. English is different: our word “Lent” has nothing to do with the number forty. Rather, it comes from an old word that means “Springtime”. This gives us a providential clue to the purpose of this liturgical season in our lives. Lent is spiritual springtime; we might say a time of spiritual spring-cleaning.

Spiritual spring-cleaning is perhaps what St Paul is urging on the people of Thessalonica in the epistle. The Thessalonians were recent converts. They would have been mostly from a pagan background. Despite their sincere conversion, St Paul is naturally concerned lest they slip back into their old ways. He warns them about two sins in particular: fornication and fraud, or shady business practices. He tells them that he wishes that “every one of you may know how to possess his vessel” — that is, his body — “in sanctification and honour, not like the gentiles who know not God, and that no man deceive his brother in business.” Why not? “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” God made us, and so He is entitled to say what the purpose of our lives is: our sanctification.

When God made us, He made us as beings of both body and soul. That might sound like an obvious thing to say, but in the early centuries of the Church, there was a heresy associated with a man called Origen, which said that God originally made just human souls, and that these souls were only sent into bodies as a punishment for some sin they had committed outside them. It sounds bizarre to us, but for a while it was a fashionable idea among the intellectual elites. But the Church firmly rejected the idea, saying, no: from the beginning it was God’s purpose that human beings should be soul and body, just as they are male and female. The image of God is primarily in our soul, since our soul is spiritual; but in a secondary way the image of God is in our body, precisely because it is a human body and not a bestial one.

Sin harms both soul and body. This is obvious in the case of our first parents. After their great sin, they lost the joy of God’s presence, and their own interior peace, and also their bodies became subject for the first time to the law of decay and death. But it is also true of us, their descendants. Sin darkens the mind: as the proverb says, “Sin makes you stupid.” Why is this? Because “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” — so if we turn our mind away from Him, how can it now get darker? But sin, especially habits of sin, also harm the body by making it more and more subject to concupiscences, that is to say, disordered desires.

This is why God in His goodness and the Church in her wisdom give us each year — each spring — a time of Lenten cleansing for both body and soul. How do we clean the soul? By making good resolutions, by prayer, by going to confession. How do we clean the body? By fasting and abstinence. These are the means God gives us to put our house in order. But poor children of Eve that we are, we often find these things hard. So the Church gives us a fine collect for the second Sunday of Lent: “O God, who seest that we of ourselves avail not at all,” — this Spring cleaning is not something we can manage by our own strength — “inwardly and outwardly hold us in Thy holy keeping, that we may neither be overcome in body by adversity, nor in mind by a prey to evil thoughts.” It would not be a bad thing to say that prayer at the start of every day of Lent.

And what will be the reward if we courageously persevere in this work? For the preface of Lent tells us that our Lenten fasts have a reward. I think it will be to have some sight of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. This week, we hear the gospel of the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John had to go through the hard work of climbing a high mountain. But they persevered, and when they reached the summit, they were rewarded. They saw the divinity of Jesus shining in His face and on His body, and streaming from His very garments. And if we persevere in our Lenten journey, then come Eastertide, we will catch some glimpse of His glory, as we wait for the consummation of that vision in heaven.