Tuesday, 12 February 2013

White Lent

This is an unusual thing: a cheerful hymn for Lent. It's by Percy Dearmer, and is sung to the tune of this French carol:

1. Now quit your care
And anxious fear and worry;
For schemes are vain
And fretting brings no gain.
To prayer, to prayer!
Bells call and clash and hurry,
In Lent the bells do cry
'Come buy, come buy,
Come buy with love the love most high!'

2. Lent comes in the spring,
And spring is pied with brightness;
The sweetest flowers,
Keen winds, and sun, and showers,
Their health do bring
To make Lent's chastened whiteness;
For life to men brings light
And might, and might,
And might to those whose hearts are right.

3. To bow the head
In sackcloth and in ashes,
Or rend the soul,
Such grief is not Lent's goal;
But to be led
To where God's glory flashes,
His beauty to come nigh,
To fly, to fly,
To fly where truth and light do lie.

4. For is not this
The fast that I have chosen? -
The prophet spoke -
To shatter every yoke,
Of wickedness
The grievous bands to loosen,
Oppression put to flight,
To fight, to fight,
To fight till every wrong's set right.

5. For righteousness
And peace will show their faces
To those who feed
The hungry in their need,
And wrongs redress,
Who build the old waste places,
And in the darkness shine.
Divine, divine,
Divine it is when all combine!

6. Then shall your light
Break forth as doth the morning;
Your health shall spring,
The friends you make shall bring
God's glory bright,
Your way through life adorning
And love shall be the prize.
Arise, arise,
Arise! and make a paradise!

Verses 3 and 4 draw, of course, on Isaiah 58, which is read on Ash Wednesday.  I very much like the reminder in verse 2 that 'Lent comes in the spring'; this is even more true than it sounds, since, as you may know, the English word 'Lent' comes from Old English lencten, 'spring', a word which may be related to the lengthening of the days. Lent is apt to seem a dark season, at least in my imagination, but when you think of it as synonymous with spring, it all looks brighter (or at least 'pied with brightness', in that insubstantial spring-like way); it seems meant to encompass not only self-denial but the happiness and hope which accompany the season, a time of fresh shoots and new beginnings in every way. I wonder if this was clearer to people in the days when 'Lent' simply meant 'spring'. This is how the fourteenth-century poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight describes the season, religious discipline and natural renewal closely entwined:

After Crystenmasse com þe crabbed lentoun,
Þat fraystez flesch wyth þe fysche and fode more symple;
Bot þenne þe weder of þe worlde wyth wynter hit þrepez,
Colde clengez adoun, cloudez vplyften,
Schyre schedez þe rayn in schowrez ful warme,
Fallez vpon fayre flat, flowrez þere schewen,
Boþe groundez and þe greuez grene ar her wedez,
Bryddez busken to bylde, and bremlych syngen
For solace of þe softe somer þat sues þerafter
bi bonk;
And blossumez bolne to blowe
Bi rawez rych and ronk,
Þen notez noble innoȝe
Ar herde in wod so wlonk.

After Christmas comes the crabbed Lent,
Which tests the flesh with fish and simpler food;
But then the weather of the world wages war against winter,
Cold clears away, clouds lift,
Brightly sheds the rain in warm showers
And falls upon fair fields, where flowers appear.
Both the ground and the groves put on green garments;
Birds begin to build, and brightly sing
For delight in the soft summer coming thereafter
To the banks;
And blossoms burgeon into bloom
In rows rich and abundant;
Then notes noble indeed
Are heard in the woods so wild.

The OED dates the first appearance of 'spring' in the sense of 'the first season of the year' to as late as 1530 (!); until then, spring was Lent and Lent was spring. One famous medieval poem about spring begins 'Lenten is come with love to town' - and after a 'white Lent', Dearmer says, 'love shall be the prize'.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The CSJB Sisters sang this at Clewer in the 1950s and 1960s. Is it the one that Sister Emma gave to the Oxford collection, or is that a different one?