Lent is something that belongs to the church and not to the world. For sure, some people talk of giving something up for Lent, of going to the gym more, or of going on a diet. Lent is a good time to do this, but that isn't what Lent is intended for, even if it is used for that nowadays.
And certainly the world observes the day before Lent. ‘Pig Out on Pancake day’, or in New Orleans, it’s ‘Bring Mardi Gras to a Drunken Conclusion’ day. But one wonders how many people there were this morning who understood why they stuffed their stomachs or soaked their livers yesterday! Not everyone who binged yesterday will have fasted today for sure. And without the denial to follow, does the binge at the beginning make any sense? Does anybody even think about it?
But for us, Lent is the church’s way of telling time. How much longer to Calvary? How many days to Easter? Now we have left Christmas truly behind we arrive at the church’s way of remembering the adult Jesus (and how everything ended), rather than the baby Jesus (and how everything began). And we spend forty days and nights doing it, just as the Christmas season lasted 40 days too, from Christmas Day to Candlemas.
Once upon a time, Lent was a preparatory period ... a time of instruction ... getting candidates ready for Easter baptism. Today, it’s much more than that. Or it can be. For some, Lent is a disciplined effort at self-improvement. More than ‘forty days to tone those thighs,’ Lent can involve a conscious decision to better the self in ways deemed necessary or spiritually beneficial. These might be:
Services rendered - Habits reformed - Chapters read - Letters written -
Worship joined - Kindness offered - Reconciliation extended.
While for others, Lent is the church’s permission to go inward, to investigate the inner life - the interior castle as St Teresa of Avila put it.
I bet we keep all kind of nasties locked up in there, guarded by our best soldiers.
Or Lent is an opportunity to be, rather than do.
To deepen, rather than widen
Or even to replicate the forty days our Lord spent in the wilderness ... staring down temptation ... stepping up to obligation ... Saying, ‘this I mustn’t do’, or countering with ‘this I ought to do’.
Lent is a time for ethics, untrendy as that may be.
Lent is for Listening for God, waiting upon God, meditating, praying, reading the Bible. It can be a time for merely making peace with silence. As for giving something up, or taking something on - you be the judge. And as for doing better, versus digging deeper, well, you be the judge of that, too. Ask yourself a question: ‘Which needs more work, my behaviour or my interior?’ Only you know, but God will help you.
What I can tell you is that a genuine Easter rarely comes to someone who has taken no steps to prepare for it. Put another way, the more you put in to Lent, the more you will get out of Easter.
And there’s another thing: Every journey begins with a first step. Which is what Ash Wednesday is: a first step, that’s all. Just a first step.
Ashes are a pretty potent symbol. On one hand, they remind us of our mortality ... and perhaps you have noticed that none of us are getting any younger! And with Les’ funeral the day after tomorrow, we don’t need much more reminding. Yet at the same time, those ashes remind us of our fallibility. And we might also notice that we are not not getting any better, either. Yet God seems to know that. And ... mercifully ... it doesn't seem to make a difference. May he give you grace, to keep a holy Lent.
Keep, O keep us, Saviour dear,
Ever constant by thy side;
That with thee we may appear
At the eternal Eastertide.
The Rev’d Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 10/2/16<.em>