Ash Wednesday 2012
For a few years now we have had a fish and chip supper on Shrove Tuesday. We didn’t do it this year because he had that wonderful feast on Saturday night, down at the golf club. We reckoned that two binges in four days would be a bit much – even before Lent! We will in fact have fish and chips at the Quiz Night in March, and there, the fish won’t serve as pancake substitute in terms of its batter being made out of eggs, but as what it is: fish. Fish in Lent. Very good. Although I’m reminded of John Donne’s poem, which is not about fish, but about our own need of discipline:
Batter my heart, three-person'd God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
But what shall we say about Lent, as it comes round, once again - what shall we say about it this year? Or more significantly, what shall we do about Lent this year?
Perhaps you are going to read something – St Benedict insisted that his monks should read for Lent, and there is a great tradition of spiritual reading in the Church of England. As every year, we are reading a book for Lent here, and reading a book daily in Lent is a Good Thing, and can be a handy companion on the journey through to Easter.
Or perhaps you are going to give something up, like chocolate, alcohol or sunbathing. Or watching television, or moaning about the government, or criticising others. Some of the things that folk give up are very difficult indeed, and so represent a good spiritual, mental, even emotional discipline. Not that one should therefore spend Easter Day slumped in front of the TV with whisky in hand, slagging off politicians… Now that is a temptation…
Others like to take something on during Lent, like a discipline of daily prayer, or losing weight or keeping fit. If the Health Clubs wanted to make a few quid they would sell special Lenten memberships - 'buy forty days and get six free' - or something like that. I don't suppose they've thought of that - but as you know, everyone thinks there are forty days in Lent, but actually there are forty-six.
But however long you think Lent is – whether you think Sundays, or Holy Week counts, for example, doesn’t really matter – what matters is that we all observe and keep Lent in some meaningful way.
For you will know that Lent is widely kept, or at least attempted, even by those who haven’t a clue what it is really for, or who think of it as an opportunity to rein in the excesses of modern life, by giving up coffee or booze. Nowadays Lent is a secular fast almost as much as it is a religious one. And fasting, as you probably know, is generally very good for you, no matter what your motivation. Recent advice tells us that we should abstain from alcohol 2 days a week anyway. So what we find is that Lent, like a lot of Church traditions, has become something of a secular activity too. We have lost Christ from Christmas, Advent has become a shopping season, and Easter is all about chocolate. Even Lent, which might be more commonly observed loosely than strictly, even with Lent, we run a risk of losing our ecclesiastical grip on it, that is, of it being reinterpreted by those who think it’s a nice idea.
Lent is not a nice idea – far from it. It’s not meant to be comfortable, nor is it simply about abstinence. Nor is it an end in itself. The purpose of Lent is not just doing, or reading, or praying, or attending a course - none of these are ends in themselves - they are means - ways of building a greater faith. A secular Lent may have some notion of self-discipline, but no spiritual purpose to that self-discipline.
One way of deepening our perspective on Lent, is think of it as a God-given period for putting things right. Much is made of Lent as a time for repentance, confession, healing, and preparation. But there is more to penitence than saying sorry, there are also amends to be made. If we are preparing for Easter, we are getting ready for something. There are steps to be taken, changes to be made perhaps. A Lenten discipline may well have consequences. That is the delight, and the terror, of an authentic Lent. The question is not, therefore – ‘what are you going to do about Lent?’ - but – ‘what is Lent going to do to you?!’
At the end of the Lent fast comes a feast - the greatest feast of the church, when we commemorate the resurrection of Jesus. At Easter, we celebrate the putting right of humanity. If Easter is our goal, then we may wonder, as we set out, what it is, at the end of Lent, that we would like to see put right, in our own lives, and in the world at large, by Easter day. What shall we pray for? What is the point of whatever it is that we are taking on? Why are we reading a book, or attending a course - what do we hope to gain, and where do we hope our Lenten journey will have led us? And when we get there, what will we be turning and looking back on?
In the past, it was customary to wish people a ‘miserable Lent’! I will spare you that merry thought. But these questions you can ask yourselves. What are you going to do about Lent? And why? And what is Lent going to do to you?
I hope that during this period that our Lord gives, or rather lends us, that you get somewhere with asking this questions, and with answering them, and I hope that Lent is not miserable, but fruitful. So I wish you well, and pray that our Lord Jesus Christ will show you something of himself during the coming weeks.
The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, DD/MM/YY