“What are you doing for Lent?”
It's a surprisingly common question – which could safely be translated as “What are you giving up for Lent?”.....but if I'm honest I'd rather start somewhere else.
“Don’t ask what you can do for Lent, but rather what Lent can do for you.”
A good line, which I owe to the former Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster...but one that rather goes against the current grain of the church – where we’re rightly encouraged not JUST to view Lent as a process of giving up, but rather of taking on.
The argument runs thus.
"Instead of pointless self denial, or a mini-detox process – another attempt at those failed New Year resolutions,an exercise in giving up chocolate loudly, just so that other people can see how seriously you take your faith – you'd much better embrace something positive, and use Lent as a time in which to work at making things better."
“BE the change you want to see” is the tag line for this year's “Love life, live Lent” programme...and there are others like it...myriad ways in which you can commit to a different generous task for each of the next 40 days.
And of course it is always good to spend more time in practically loving our neighbours....and there is so much to do...so many ways in which we can and should make a difference.
So - please don’t misunderstand me!
I’m delighted that these projects are running, and I’m looking forward to following some through myself,- but reflecting on our readings for today, I was struck with a sudden anxiety that, in our determination to see Lent make a huge difference to the world around us, we’re somehow missing the point.
This year in particular, as we’ve rushed headlong from Advent, through Christmas and Epiphany tide, to arrive breathless today with but one “green” Sunday in between, - it may be that more activism is not what is called for.
After all, frenetic displacement activity can often be an excellent strategy to avoid working on something we find painful – and part of the purpose of Lent surely remains the call to penitence…which is never easy, and frequently uncomfortable, even painful.
Much safer, after all, to get involved in a community litter picking expedition!
Sign me up now!
Of course, the original point of “giving things up” was to de-clutter heart, mind and soul to allow a clearer focus on the things that need attention, the inner concerns that we may prefer to evade.
“Rend your heart and not your garments” says Joel…
so we do need to spend time this Lent considering those parts of ourselves, our lives and beings that might need rending – tearing out – to enable us to become more fully the people God made us to be.
Those parts which need to go are the ones touched by that unfashionable reality, sin.
It’s amazing how hard it is to bring up the subject, even in a sermon to be preached in the safety of my own church on a day when it would surely be a strange priest who did not even mention sin!
But it seems that sin has become almost a taboo word…I know I tend to skirt round it, to talk about brokenness…failure…destructive habits…and perhaps that’s right when I’m trying to help someone else make sense of their own journey.
But when I come before God to consider the health of my own soul, then surely it’s time to be honest…to look hard at the reality of who I am, and the gulf between that and the person I long to be…and to name those habits of mind and behaviour that ensure that the gap continues to yawn wide.
And the name of those habits – those selfish choices, those failures to trust God with the people I hold most dear, those recurrent patterns of sheer nastiness –, well, that’s sin.
Today we enact the truth of this. We spend time like the psalmist acknowledging our faults, we lament that our sin is ever before us, within us, around us.
Perhaps this Lent might be the time to actually work a bit harder on changing things…on using the wonderful help that the Church offers us in both the general confession and in the sacrament of reconciliation to embark on a new start.
It's not easy – for few truly worthwhile things ever are...but if not easy, it is emphatically worth it...liberating, life-changing, life -giving, soul-transforming.
No matter what we bring before God – we can be confident of the outcome.
Because, wonderfully, once we have confronted the reality of our fallen humanity, we open ourselves to the God who is “ gracious and merciful,slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love”.
The people Joel talked of wept and lamented, but they wept and lamented in the presence of a God who was always ready to forgive and to heal. This is not the end for them but the beginning. Admitting to God that something is wrong with your
soul, or your attitudes, or your relationships, or whatever is the first
step to finding the real joy he means you to have, just as admitting to a doctor that something is wrong with your body is the first step to physical healing.
A dear friend, a priest in another place, told me once that he no longer uses the familiar words “you are dust and to dust you shall return” as he marks his people with the cross on Ash Wednesday.
“I do not call you servants, but friends” “God loves the world so much” “Abide in my love”
As you confront your own sinfulness, hear those words deep in your soul – and let them transform you there.
And in answering the church’s invitation to a holy Lent, don’t be too busy…Love life by all means, - and live Lent too, but do so as one conscious of sin, and open to forgiveness, so that you can truly rejoice in what Lent can, by God's grace, do for you.