Coming from a Midwestern Protestant tradition, Lent never meant much to me. That was something the Catholics observed. They apparently saw it as an occasion to abstain from certain foods or pleasures. Later I learned there was a deeper purpose, to repent from sin and consecrate oneself to God. The season is not observed as special in Quaker tradition, where turning from evil and doing God’s Will are asked of us daily. Nevertheless I am reminded of an historic parable beyond that found in the Gospels, one that continues to speak to me over the years.
The Sunday prior to Easter is called Palm Sunday. It is meant to celebrate when Jesus entered into Jerusalem prior to his crucifixion. It must have been a spectacular sight as people gathered and threw items of clothing and greenery on the path. No doubt the site of Jesus riding into the city on a donkey evoked a lot of strong feelings and was probably scandalous to some people, as he played out the prophecy of Zechariah (Zac. 9:9). The act certainly drew attention to himself and precipitated his death on a cross. At various times in Church history this event has been acted out in the form of a pageant. It has not always been universally appreciated or without scandal.
This parable features a prominent 17th Century English Quaker by the name of James Naylor (1616-1660). He was one of the first followers of George Fox, the founder of the Society of Friends, and part of a group of evangelists known as the “Valiant Sixty.” Naylor was known for his charisma and great speaking ability. He led much of the early Quaker movement when George Fox was in prison periodically for upsetting the religious and civil authorities of his day. James Naylor’s favored status however was not to last long.
At the height of the new movement, he got caught up with a number of adoring fans, mostly women. By 1656 George Fox was hardly on talking terms with James Naylor because he had become overly enthusiastic and erratic. In October that year Naylor and his friends staged a demonstration through the streets of Bristol that proved to be his downfall. They reenacted the arrival of Christ into Jerusalem. His followers may have been convinced that James Naylor was another messiah, which he denied claiming he was merely celebrating that of Christ within him.
This quickly became a public scandal. George Fox was horrified and Quakers denounced Naylor. By December James Naylor was convicted of blasphemy in a very public trial. He was sentenced to two years of imprisonment with hard labor. Prior to going to prison he was whipped through the streets of Bristol, branded with the letter B on his forehead, and his tongue was pierced with a hot iron.
By the time Naylor left prison in 1659 he was a broken man in ill health. He had long since repented and George Fox ostensibly forgave him, though their relationship was never warm after the incident. In October 1660, while travelling to join his family in Yorkshire, he was robbed and left for dead in a field. A day later, from his deathbed two hours before he passed away, he made one of the most moving statements in Christian history about forgiveness and redemption:
“There is a spirit which I feel that delights to do no evil, nor to revenge any wrong, but delights to endure all things, in hope to enjoy its own in the end. Its hope is to outlive all wrath and contention, and to weary out all exaltation and cruelty, or whatever is of a nature contrary to itself. It sees to the end of all temptations. As it bears no evil in itself, so it conceives none in thoughts to any other. If it be betrayed, it bears it, for its ground and spring is the mercies and forgiveness of God. Its crown is meekness, its life is everlasting love unfeigned; it takes its kingdom with entreaty and not with contention, and keeps it by lowliness of mind. In God alone it can rejoice, though none else regard it, or can own its life. It is conceived in sorrow, and brought forth without any to pity it, nor doth it murmur at grief and oppression. It never rejoiceth but through sufferings; for with the world’s joy it is murdered. I found it alone, being forsaken. I have fellowship therein with them who lived in dens and desolate places in the earth, who through death obtained this resurrection and eternal holy life.”
This Lenten season I can think of no better tribute than Naylor’s words at the end of his life. Christ has come into this world for each of us to experience his redemptive love. Never has the world so needed the Prince of Peace, the Holy One, who speaks to us inwardly across time.