Here we are again, almost in Lent, the Lenten season, our harbinger of Spring, a time of new beginnings.
It is almost a year since we entered lockdown, what some might see as a virtually permanent state of Lent – locked down, restricted, deprived of human company. But perhaps that is only true if you think of Lent as an entirely negative experience. And certainly, during our altered, locked state of life, many people have found time and space to meditate on what is important to them. They have adjusted their values and found, if not new life in the biblical sense, a different kind of life. For them the value now placed on family, security and community has proved to be of far greater worth than merely ‘getting stuff, consuming stuff, being successful’.
All of this, of course, has been taking place against the backdrop of serious illness, loved ones dying alone in Covid wards, loved ones left in pain and sometimes dying because medical interventions could not be carried out, medical staff worked to near collapse, businesses failing and the eyes of not only the rich but also the merely comfortably off being opened to the poverty and deprivation that have gone unseen and barely recognised for so long whilst the country squanders billions on vanity projects. So, perhaps, as a nation, our sojourn in the desert – much bewailed by the majority whilst being everyday life for the minority – has given us new appetites for life – real life, not the plastic kind.
So what of Lent? In the Church’s calendar the 40-day period of Lent calls to mind the time of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, where, in isolation, he meets with the reality of the human situation, comes face to face with human weakness. Recognises his own humanity in tension with his divine nature.
In the synoptic gospels this event happens after the great epiphany of his baptism by John in the River Jordon, when God’s voice is heard (in some gospel versions) acclaiming Jesus as his Son. As Mark’s Gospel puts it, Jesus is then “driven into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit”, the same Holy Spirit that has descended upon him at his baptism. So this tsting in the wilderness is not by chance or through the will of Satan, rather it is the divine will of God. Mark is pointing out to us that being faithful to Christ, being faithful to the Gospel, will involve being tested and struggling against the powers of the world.
At the heart of Lent, the springtime of our Christian year, is pilgrimage to the new life of Easter. Everything in the Church’s year and especially in Lent leads us to Easter – Bethlehem, Candlemas and Simeon’s prophesy to Mary, John’s Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, they all lead us to the Cross.
Ash Wednesday is the door to Lent, but of course, Ash Wednesday is different for us this year. Usually Ash Wednesday is marked in our liturgy here at St Barnabas and many Churches thorough the world with the ceremonial imposition of the ashes. But this year is different. This year we will not be gathered together as a community on Ash Wednesday or on the first Sunday of Lent to receive the sign of the cross in ashes on our foreheads. And so Ian has invited us to receive a small parcel of ash with which to ‘ash’ ourselves at home on Wednesday 17th February, showing not only his care for his congregation but also the importance of this annual commemoration which we do communally, recognising together our humanity and our fallibility and our faithfulness to Christ.
On Ash Wednesday, when the priest marks us with ash, they say “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”. Simply put, what this means is that in Lent we make a renewed effort to turn away from an inward concern for ourselves to an outward concern for others, something we have been practising throughout our lockdown. It means that we turn away from selfishness which is the root of sin, to concern for others and to service, which is the root of true holiness. This is the central call, the invitation of Lent and it is all summed up in these few simple words, “Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ”.
So Lent is also about something positive – turning away, changing. Change is an indispensable part of the life of faith, and is one of the great themes of Lent. Change is the inevitable response to true repentance, turning around, changing ourselves, our life styles, changing what fills our lives and our concerns, to live anew with a deep understanding of how much we have missed the mark. Change is frightening – the natural changes in our own lives, growing up, having children, growing old, the changes that are forced upon us, redundancy, retirement, the death of loved ones, illness, pandemics, social upheaval. But without our own change and the growth it brings, we face the death of the spirit, the death of our true selves.
Lent is the time to examine our response to Christ, to deepen and redirect that response. If we listen closely to Him, read his Word, pray for the Holy Spirit and are ready for the growth of new faith, we will be accepting with new openness the gift of new life he freely offers us.
Wishing you all a peaceful, prayerful, fruitful Lent and longing to be with you all again in St Barnabas Church.