Preached in King’s College Chapel, 1st March 2107
Allegri’s great setting of Psalm 51 with which this service began is known by the first word of its Latin translation: Miserere. But what does it mean in English? The translation of the Psalm that we use here on ordinary days begins with these words, ‘Have mercy upon me O God after thy great goodness’. On the other hand, a contemporary translation of the Hebrew offers a different opening. ‘Grant me grace, O God, as befits your kindness’.
These two different translations remind us that ‘miserere’ has nothing to do with misery, and that mercy has everything to do with grace. The same is true of Lent. The word ‘grace’ means gift. In Christian theology ‘grace’ is the word that signals not only that God is giving, but that God is the gift that God gives.
What this means is that whatever else might go on in terms of Christian religion and spirituality we can never, ever, earn the love of God or our own salvation, nor can we ever achieve our own righteousness. Anything of God comes to us as unearned, undeserved, as gift. And when I say ‘anything of God’ I also mean ‘everything of God’; for God is entirely simple and has complete integrity. God is always and only and fully God.
And just as God is always completely God, so God is always and completely first. God’s love for us is always a step ahead of our own love; God’s forgiveness is real before our repentance has taken shape; God’s guiding light for our lives is there ahead of any attempt of ours to look for it. God is always first, always prior, always ahead of us. As R.S. Thomas put it, ours is ‘such a fast God’. God is certainly faster than we are.
And it is because God is fast that we can afford to slow down. A few years ago I encouraged people to give up busyness for Lent. The call is still a serious one. We rush about so much that we are in danger of experiencing everything, but missing the meaning. Materialism is a spiritual danger for us all; we are so easily tempted to value the material or financial world as if they are all that matter; but our sins these days are just as often to do with time as with things or wealth.
We underestimate the richness and depth of the present moment as we rush on to the next thing or squeeze in another trivial task or passing pleasure. We routinely create demands for ourselves or our colleagues that are impossible to achieve without distorting the basic balance of life or making us scrimp on time that should be devoted to things that are intrinsically worthwhile – people, art, and contemplation. ‘What is this life if full of care we have no time to stand and stare?’
Lent is not a time to add things to our to-do lists in the vague hope that by trying harder or doing more we will earn God’s favour. It’s a time when we remember that God’s love is always ahead of us, that God is always ready to be merciful to us – often far more merciful than we are to ourselves. Lent is meant to teach us that mercy is more powerful than guilt or shame; that God’s forgiveness can, if we let it in to our hearts, overwhelm our lack of self-forgiveness.
All that is a lesson that takes time. You could even say it’s what time is for. To discover how deeply and eternally God loves you.