Christians have observed Lent – forty days, mirroring Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness since at least the fourth century. In the Orthodox church the forty days doesn’t include Holy Week making for a Lent longer than ours.
Lent is a paradox: in order to live life fully in the here and now, we embrace our have to come to terms with and embrace our mortality. Lenten practices like abstaining from alcohol or giving up chocolate don’t mean that Christians have to be miserable or partake the the habit of shaking their heads at people who are enjoying life. Rather, Lent is a time to lay aside things which are superficial in order to expose the things that really matter, separate them out from things that don’t. In so doing we seek the fullness of life promised by Jesus: a life that is greater than the materialism that confronts and swallows us in our Western culture
In a way, Lent is rather like preparing for death. Being a Christian makes a huge difference to our attitude to death. Many without faith live with an unacknowledged terror of death that shapes their behaviour, their values and their dealings with family and friends. The modern hospice movement grew out of a willingness to face death rather than sweeping under the carpet, and to enable people to die well. Part of the wonder of the hospice movement is that, great care is taken to involve family and friends in the life of the dying person, to encourage them to be there at the end. This is really important in an age where most people die in hospital, often alone: today we have to tendency steadfastly to ignore death. This makes for terrible, helpless grief.
Many people achieve remarkable things in the face of death. In 2014 a teenage boy, Stephen Sutton, faced terminal cancer, looked death squarely in the eye and spent the remainder of life doing things he’d always wanted to do and raising almost 5 million pounds for cancer charities. He died when he was only 19 – a remarkable young man. But you see what happens when all the irrelevant stuff we carry around with us is put firmly into perspective – remarkable things happen.
I think older people often shift their priorities and live life differently, with new priorities and fresh insight – again this is to do with death’s proximity – it makes us think again.
This is why Lent is important and, potentially, so powerful. It reminds us of something much of contemporary culture tried so hard to deny: that our days are numbered, and that we’ve made a mess of things. In that sense Lent becomes a blessing – it focuses our mind on what’s really important and by so doing it enables us to live life to its fullest.
On Ash Wednesday those who came to church were marked with a cross of ash, with the words said first by God to Adam “Remember you are but dust and to dust dust you will return.” Words that stand in stark contrast to those spoken by Satan to Eve: “surely you will not die!” The wisdom of Lent is to remember death in order to affirm life: meditating on mortality helps us to live more fully in the present.
As we consider the temptations Jesus faced at the end of his time in wilderness, when he was at his physical weakest, we see the same pattern. Jesus laid aside his potential to use power for himself, and set at the centre of his life the things that would shape his ministry over the next 3 years; he would create food in a miraculous way, but it would be to feed others: he would exercise great power, but not for power’s sake, only for the sake of those in need; he had to opportunity to be rescued from pain, but he chose, instead, to carry our sins to the cross.
Lent offers us the chance to be free of tired and harmful thoughts and behaviour. We can change, we can be renewed. We can start again, look with new eyes, press the ‘from the beginning’ button and begin again. This Lent, each one of us is challenged to think about what’s really important for a good life.This is our work as Christians. Perhaps with the exception of those who are facing death, or who have had a close encounter with it, contemporary culture temps us with alluring but mostly unnecessary things every single day. Lent helps us to discover that it’s quality, nut quantity that matters.
So, what are you going to do this Lent that will help you to live more happily, more fully? I always admire our children who give up chocolate,or other such delights, so determinedly and faithfully. We should imitate them in all their determination, perhaps first spending some time pondering what it is that holds us prisoner. Not necessarily chocolate. Maybe we’re addicted to power, soaps, gossip or money. What’s your vice? We all have at least one!
My great grandfather, Thomas Bell, was a miner. For 6 months of the year he saw daylight only on Sundays, going down the pit before sunrise, and coming home after dark. On Sundays he used to play football with his friends – and who can blame him. A visiting preacher came to his village and talked about why it was more important to go to church on Sunday than to play football. Thomas Bell must have taken this to heart because he burned his football boots on the village green as an act of penance. From then on you would always know where to find him on a Sunday – in the local Methodist Chapel.
This might seem extreme to us now, but maybe he was right. Maybe it is more important to be here, faithfully, each week, than to be busy elsewhere. This Lent, take time to rethink what’s important and what isn’t and begin to life to the full. Amen