17th February 2021
Parish Church of St James, Louth
Joel 2.1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10; Matthew 6.1-6, 16-21
+ May I speak in the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
It’s been said already to my hearing quite a bit that it feels a strange time to go into Lent. Aren’t we suffering enough already? Haven’t we given up enough already? Haven’t we been ‘in the wilderness’ for 40 weeks at least, let alone 40 days? Locked up, stressed, alone?
What more penance should we do than being deprived of another’s touch? Or in my case put up with non-optional phonics on a daily basis…
I wouldn’t want to minimise anyone’s pain, struggle or tedium. But I wonder. Is Lent an image of pandemic deprivation, this fast we certainly did not choose? Of course it is not. Lent is when we listen to God’s call to us to come close to him—‘Now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart’. We choose, we are not forced, to answer that call to return, not by any governmental decree but in freely willed faith.
Now I do think we must be gentle with ourselves this Lent. I think that of every Lent. It is not a time for merciless self-punishment, not in the slightest. It is a time to come closer to the wellsprings of full and real life. It’s a time recall the full depth and length and breadth of mercy and joy.
And anything we have the strength to give up, to simplify in our lives, or any way in which we are asked to deepen our attention to God—these should not be things that put us further away from happiness. Because the God we’re trying to draw close to is the source of all our joy—so it’s certainly not a time to put ourselves further away from happiness.
There are hard steps in this: doesn’t anything worth doing require some effort. That begins here, when we take real time to see ourselves as and where we really are in relation to God. When we find out where we are beginning from. And then we can go forward, fasting by turning away from anything that’s holding us back, finding time in to tap into the prayer that is the wellspring of our being, and growing, so importantly in our love and service to one another.
It’s these things that are the ‘treasures in heaven’ we are told to store up in our Gospel reading. They are things deeply characteristic of the Christian life. They make make us look strange sometimes in the eyes of a greedy world. But we know that to give of ourselves in this way, to love and serve and pray in this way, is to be fully alive: to be like those who ‘ have nothing and yet possess everything’.
And Lent is good news for us especially in a time when there is so much in our world that needs rebuilding. Because if we live it out properly —gently, joyfully, fully in the knowledge of God’s love and mercy— it will rebuild us to rebuild the world. In the culture from which our Lenten practises come, fasting and anointing—of which these ashes are a form—were seen as things that strengthened the athlete, prepared for a challenge.
This Lent is not more drudgery and deprivation. It is God’s gift to us. It is an intrepid journey into the wilderness, but it is God’s wilderness, and angels will minister to us there. We are promising to live for a while in God’s time—not in the thrall of the dates and numbers of the pandemic. We are promised renewal through it, with the lengthening of days to which its English name Lent refers. For we may be going with Christ into the shadow of the cross, but that shadow is cast by the light of a glorious Resurrection.