We might expect that the resurrection of Jesus Christ would have us escape the minor key, but Johann Sebastian Bach does not think it so. At the heart of the second half of his magisterial Mass in B Minor, Bach rings in the resurrection with all the happy triumph he can muster and that we can imagine. The haunting, driving “Crucifixus” fades into a mournful silence, as Christ is laid in the grave, and then “Et Resurrexit” punctuates the stillness with the full symphony and choir’s triumphal announcement of Christ’s resurrection. The moment conveys exultation and unmitigated joy. Yet even as he follows the creed’s progression to Christ’s ascension into heaven, Bach carries us back into the key of B minor, the key that has marked the sorrow and the grief of humanity within a world of sin.
The motif Bach uses to render the ascension here is a livelier, even happier iteration of the melancholic yearning that he evokes to characterize the ascension in the first half of the mass (“Qui Sedes ad Dextram Patris”), but both dwell in the same minor key. There is nothing of the schlocky joy of “Hail Thee Festival Day,” the English hymn often sung on Ascension Day, in Bach’s theology. For Bach, the ascension requires that we affirm Christ’s lordship over the world even within the ongoing reality of sin and sorrow. We might say that Bach understood what many of us have forgotten: Christ’s departure from the world frees the Christian to be sad.
It is perhaps unusual to reflect on Christ’s ascension in the final days of Lent. Yet the Mass in B Minor’s depiction of the ascension of Jesus Christ comes near to distilling the peculiar combination of mourning and joy that make Lent such a remarkable season. In his book on the Lenten journey, Alexander Schmemann described the “atmosphere” of Lent as a “bright sadness.” The experience is easier felt than described. Within the penitential mourning that the Lenten season evokes, the “state of anxiety which has virtually become our second nature . . . disappear[s] somewhere and we begin to feel free, light, and happy.” We confront in Lent the “sadness of my exile, of the waste I have made of my life; the brightness of God’s presence and forgiveness, the joy of the recovered desire for God, the peace of the recovered home.” The experience is forged within us liturgically for Schmemann, but its emergence is available to all who take the season with due seriousness.1
Another way to relate this combination of light and darkness is to say that Lent looks forward. If this were not the case, the contrition we learn through Lent would not be permeated by the gladness of knowing the finality of God’s victory over our sins. It is the knowledge that Christ is risen that empowers the joy of repentance. At the heart of Christian contrition lies the expectation of God’s coming in Christ Jesus, an expectation that simultaneously inculcates gladness for the forgiveness of our sins upon the cross and sorrow for our needing such forgiveness in the first place.
Paul stretches this juxtaposition further in 2 Corinthians, when he explains that there is a “godly grief [that] produces repentance . . . without regret” but also a “worldly grief [that] produces death” (7:10 ESV). The subtlety of Paul’s moral psychology within this one verse anticipates contemporary efforts to remain mindful of our attitudes and psychological states without subjecting them to moral judgment. But Paul’s words also push us beyond such efforts, enabling us to name our moral transgressions. Godly grief has nothing to do with either the repressive self-avoidance that masquerades as grace nor the self-indulgent acknowledgment of our flaws without confession for them.
Lent, in other words, is possible because the ascension of Jesus Christ is real. Christ sits at the right hand of the Father and sends the Spirit to empower us to walk as Christ walked. The means for rectitude in our relationship with God—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—thus show us the form contrition takes. Christ’s life reveals to us the shape of our sanctification, and that sanctification includes contrition: He submits himself to the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins that John preached, and then he submits himself to the temptations that arise from the self-denial of fasting. It is “as this man who is wholly sanctified,” Karl Barth writes, “and therefore not in the form of an individual and sporadic inspiration but in accordance with the comprehensive necessity of His holy humanity, that the Spirit drives Him into the wilderness (Mk. 1:12), i.e., to His victorious conflict against Satan, in fulfilment of the penitence which He has accepted.”2 Christ has been contrite for us, so that we may learn the godly grief that leads to repentance, willingly and freely undertaking our penitence with Christ.
In this way, Lent functions as something of a pressure valve for the spiritual life. It is almost as though Bach understood what we have forgotten: endless joy is an impossibility, a burden that in our fallen humanity we are not strong enough to carry. In his most Lentlike collection of poems, the Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot writes that “human kind / Cannot bear very much reality.”3 The endurance required to sustain joy can only be cultivated by discovering the deep gladness that is the pulsing heartbeat of true contrition. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” says Jesus (Matt. 5:4). “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth,” Hebrews reminds us (12:6 KJV). There is no emotion so pure as sadness, no astringent so refreshing as the grief that recognizes the forgiveness of our sins. Lent distills such energy, giving it an intensity that arises from its limited nature: it ensures that penitential sadness remains a minor theme within the broader scope of the church calendar and the Christian life.
Yet by bringing us face to face with our sins in such a concentrated way, Lent animates an unparalleled confidence in the grace of God. How do we know we have engaged in true repentance? This is a question that is near the center of the Christian life. The forgiveness of our sins by Jesus Christ is not conditioned by nor conditional upon our repentance—it is conditional only upon the grace of God. Yet being formed by and into Christ’s own life requires learning the shape and texture of grief for our sin. The wrongs and sins within are lives are rendered impotent by Christ’s forgiveness, yet their sting remains within us so long as we carry on in the form of life that those sins make possible. The work of grace in contrite repentance is real work, and like all the works of God in our lives, it both motivates and terminates in our action. Simply put, it is not enough to feel as though we repented, to experience the sorrow of contrition. The repentance such sorrow issues must grow into new, practical choices that are contrary to the choices we have made in the past. Those who have repented leave their sacrifice at the altar and go to their brothers and sisters and make peace. They restore what they have stolen, insofar as they can, and in so doing, they build within their own souls the character and confidence that arises in knowing that the grace of God is at work in us. If they know we are Christians by our love, we know that we have repented on the same terms.
The only place, in other words, to mortify ourselves is within our flesh. As Paul writes in Romans, “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (8:13 ESV) or “Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God” (6:13 KJV). Paul’s exhortations to us are to write the life of Christ in and through the very members of our bodies, the limbs and organs and skin that compose our visible presence in the world. The presence of death within our bodies is impossible to expunge until we walk with Christ out of the valley and through the shadow of death that keeps us from God. The ascension preserves sadness. But the endurance of death within our bodies is reversible, through our participation in Christ’s spirit—indeed, the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead “shall also quicken your mortal bodies,” Paul reminds us (8:11).
Through its practices of contrition, Lent thus inscribes penitence throughout our mortal flesh, allowing our faces and limbs to reveal the bright sadness of Christ’s triumphal victory over our own sin. The mortification of our sin within the practices and disciplines of Lent signals our participation in the Spirit’s work of sanctifying us, our willing complicity in the Spirit’s purifying grace. Such a willingness animates and deepens our confidence that the God who began the good work in us really is being faithful to his promises to accomplish it. We may feel nothing—we may, in fact, feel resentment and anger at the burden of walking within artificial limitations. But within the encounter of such hostility and animus stands the gracious kindness of God, which leads us to repentance.
It is something of a paradox, then, that the people these days who are most keen to emphasize our need for mortification within the Christian life are simultaneously so stridently averse to undertaking Lenten disciplines. The bright sadness of Lent folds mortification into our flesh; it ensures we do not merely honor God with our lips, but insofar as God has asked it of us, we lay down our lives in following Christ. Such practices are not a second sacrifice. There is only one Good Friday, but by living beneath the ascension of Jesus Christ to his throne, our own sorrows and pains and suffering take on the likeness and image of that one.
The bright sadness of Lent can persist because in Lent we know our lives are only a prologue to the great, joyful consummation of Christ’s kingdom, of which his resurrection is the first fruit. “What’s past is prologue,” we are wont to say with the characters in William Shakespeare’s Tempest.4 Only in Lent, we live knowingly within the past because the future act has already been secured: we know that our present is only prologue as well, and we conform our lives accordingly. At the beginning of Lent, we are reminded that we are but dust and that to dust we are fast returning. As the form of this world passes away, we cannot but be sad for losing the many pleasures and goods that so surround us. The future act of Christ’s return means that our today can be marked by sorrow for our own sins and for the sins of a hostile world. We are free to sing the songs of Christ’s redemption in a minor key—we are free to be sad. But the loss of this world and its pleasures is a happy one, for all things will finally be swept up into the tremendous, unsurpassable greatness of the consummation of our union with God in Christ Jesus.
- Schmemann, Great Lent: Journey to Pascha (New York, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1969), 31–32.
- Barth, Church Dogmatics, vol. 4.2, The Doctrine of Reconciliation, ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh, UK: T&T Clark, 1958), 324.
- Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” in Collected Poems: 1909–1962 (Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1963), 176.
- Shakespeare, The Tempest, act 2, scene 1, line 253.