But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to their playmates, “‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn. – Matthew 11:16-17
Lenten hymns tend not to be the most popular. I remember a few years ago being asked “Who is responsible for selecting these dirges?” when a family was visiting during Lent. Christianity, however, is a religion that embraces all aspects of life in this world. If at Christmas we play the flute, sing and dance—Lent we dedicate to the more somber side of life, the recognition that life is not all rainbows and unicorns.
The victory of Christ is hidden in the crosses we bear as Christians following Him to our own personal Golgothas. It’s a sobering reality. But we are righteous in Christ and so the suffering we suffer here on earth we suffer as the body of Christ, not for our sins but for Christ Who redeemed us, not with gold or silver, but with His holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death. It is the death of Christ that the Christian experiences in death, that they might be raised to new life in His resurrection.
It is then this hope, this understanding of suffering and death that allows the Christians to embrace the macabre in a way that far surpasses anything the purveyors of Goth could ever comprehend. It is in that spirit that I count the laments of Lent, songs like “O Sacred Head Now Wounded,” “Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted” and “Jesus Refuge of the Weary,” as my favorite hymns.
“Jesus Refuge of the Weary” is an absolute classic. It’s one of the few hymns I’ve ever tried to teach myself to play more than the melody line on the piano. I think I like it as much for the history of the song as I do for the content and tune.
It was written by the proto reformer Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) and captures the nature of his reform movement. In actual fact, I doubt I would have enjoyed his company. When he “prophesied” the greatness of Florence, I have a feeling his vision just did not include Michelangelo’s “David” or any of the other cultural highlights that make that city one of my favorites to visit in Italy. It is not hard for those who have studied his cultish reform movement to identify him as the historical model for the “High Sparrow” in the Game of Thrones. He eschewed the decadence of the church in his day. He condemned secular art. I marvel at stories of his bonfires of the vanities which purportedly burned for weeks with nothing but private collections of pornography dispensed with by 15th century Florentines brought to repentance.
I doubt he would have been as big a fan of Cranach the Elder—also known as “King of the Nudes”—as Luther was. This was not a man who knew how to celebrate life. Nevertheless, Luther would learn from his reformation that it was not enough to attack morals and practice, which Luther could also be critical of, but that when you attacked the doctrine of the church, that is when you “grabbed the goose by the neck.”
“Do we pass that cross unheeding, breathing no repentant vow, though we see thee wounded bleeding, see your thorn encircled brow?” Repentant vows, are what Lent is about. These, of course, can be taken too far. Perhaps, this is why we limit them to forty days in Lent. We may not forget that life is a gift, and as cursed as this world is with the corruption of sin, God still created it for our enjoyment. A total refusal to enjoy the gifts of creation is an insult to God, one might even say it is a rejection of His redemption.
The victory of Christ is hidden in the crosses we bear as Christians following Him to our own personal Golgothas.
Still, when we see the Lord dying on the cross for our sins, we may remember that our Lord gave up the glories of heaven to redeem us, and we may not so let our love for the things of this world so overpower us that we forsake Him. Even so, the crosses we Christians bear will be much greater in nature than the sacrifice of chocolate, or coffee. Our repentant vows become almost comical in comparison. Even more so when I begin to comprehend that I’m probably only serving my sinful nature in a vain attempt to get ready for “bikini season.” There is nothing like a Lenten fast to expose the hypocrisy of my soul.
I think Girolamo must have understood that, too. At least the English translation of his hymn would lead one to believe so. His legalism led to his demise and the end of his reform movement in Florence. He claimed to be a prophet. He claimed to be able to do miracles. In the end it was this vanity that would become the victim of the bonfire along with so much pornography. A rival challenged him to a fire walk. When it went bad he was hung above a bonfire, and his ashes were then dispersed in the Arno to prevent any posthumous veneration by his followers.
It's easy for us to fall into an all-or-nothing error with men like that. The wake of Billy Graham’s death has brought with it praise and criticism. Critics who cannot tolerate his praise. And venerators who cannot understand the criticism. Yet, as I meditate on the memory of Girolamo I realize that God did use him for all his vanity, and in the midst of his legalism he was able to extend a finger that points to the cross for our salvation even to this day. He, too, knew that Christ was his only redemption.
It would be that legacy Luther would pick up, even as he learned to avoid the pitfalls of Giralamo and fall into others completely his own.
“Yet your sinless death has brought us life eternal peace and rest; only what your grace has taught us calms the sinner’s deep distress.”