Looking Through the Cross: The Archbishop of
Canterbury's Lent Book 2014
Church Times Bookshop £9
Sackcloth and Ashes: Penance and penitence in a
Church Times Bookshop £9
Waymarkers: A route map through Lent to Easter
KM Publishing £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Just Love: Personal and social transformation in
Angus Ritchie and Paul Hackwood
Church Urban Fund £8.99
Jesus - His Home, His Journey, His Challenge: A
companion for Lent and Easter
David J. Bryan
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Lent with the Catholic Epistles
The Village Digital Press £8.95
Reflections for Lent
Ian Adams, John Pritchard,and Angela
Church House Publishing £3.99
Church Times Bookshop £3.60
Who Do You Say That I Am: A Lenten journey into the
world of Jesus
KM Publishing £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50
Welcoming the Way of the Cross: A journey from Ash
Wednesday to Easter Day
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
Barefoot Prayers: A meditation a day for Lent and
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
The Wilderness Within You: A Lenten journey with
Jesus, deep in conversation
Monarch Books £7.99
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
Church Shop Bookshop link (Use code
THE popular journalist and failed gold-miner Ambrose Bierce
defined "abstainer" as "a weak person who yields to the temptation
of denying himself a pleasure". For a less dyspeptic approach to
Lent, here are two Lent books, four publications suitable for
weekly use by groups or individuals, and five volumes for daily
Looking Through the Cross is the Archbishop of
Canterbury's Lent Book. It arises from Good Friday addresses by
Graham Tomlin at Holy Trinity, Brompton, and examines the cross of
Christ in relation to wisdom, evil, power, identity, suffering,
ambition, failure, and reconciliation, drawing both on the Gospels
and the epistles.
Tomlin has a gift for writing attractively for the
non-specialist, as he attends to scripture, theology, and
experience. He is not theologically radical, but throughout he
affirms that "the cross turns common sense on its head." He is
cautious of attaching theories of atonement to the mystery of the
cross, which he largely presents as the self-sacrifice of Christ
understood as our representative.
He is particularly good at conveying such complex issues as the
Patripassian controversy: "Why did they want to insist that Jesus
suffered in his human nature? Or that the Father cannot suffer?
Because it was important for them to say that while God knows what
it is to suffer in Christ, suffering cannot overcome God." He
elegantly characterises heresy: "an idea that is almost right, but
if taken further would end up unravelling Christian faith
His summary of the modern malaise can seem stereotyped:
"striving for trivial things like money, cars, political or
economic power". I wondered whether his emphasis on the newness of
our identity as Christians allowed for our continuity as people.
His chapter on the cross and failure is about the failure of Peter,
not the less manageable failure of Jesus. Nevertheless, these
intelligent meditations on the cross have much to offer. His final
chapter on the cross and life does not speculate on the
truth-claims of the resurrection, but presents death and
resurrection as the archetypal pattern for Christians both now and
I had been looking forward to Ann Widdecombe's book
Sackcloth and Ashes as a brave Christian contribution by a
prominent public figure, and as a robust critique of soft-focus
spirituality - perhaps a populist equivalent of Edward Norman a
Widdecombe is clear that her "slight volume" is "not a
theological guide so much as a curious layman's [sic]
exploration" of the meaning of penance; readers should still brace
themselves for paragraphs beginning or ending "Eh?", "Humph", or
But the inadequacy of this book is more serious than its
faux-demotic style. First, her insistent account of all
that is wrong is clichéd, tendentious, and set against an
idealisation of her post-war generation: "Thus is Britain now: full
of yearning for instant fame and wealth, chasing instant
gratification. . . . I doubt very much if the average 15-year-old
haunting the rails of Primark has a clue how to darn. . . Nor do
soap jars adorn many bathroom windowsills. . . Girls have children
by different men as if the babies were designer goods or meal
tickets within the benefit system. . ." Never has the publisher's
clause that "The moral rights of the author have been asserted"
seemed more true.
Second, her championing of an unfashionable theme such as
penance is undercut by an apparent lack of interest in being
forgiven. When absolution is mentioned at all, it is either as the
conclusion of confession or as something that might be withheld.
She discusses the forgiveness of others as a requirement, but not
the release of being forgiven oneself. Even the Prodigal Son is
about the son's readiness to do penance. There is very little grace
in this book.
Her treatment of penance in the justice system has interest in
relation to the author's service as Shadow Home Secretary and as
Prisons Minister. She strongly advocates educational opportunities
and real paid work for prisoners, and the value of restorative
justice, albeit with an insider's awareness of financial and
political constraints: "There are no votes in prisons."
Turning to weekly resources: John Saxbee's Waymarkers
invites us "to dig a little deeper" and "discover that there is
more to Mark than meets the eye". Passages from the Gospels are
followed by shrewd expositions with scholarship worn lightly, and
extra commentary that is optional but worth attention. The author
does not obtrude himself, but, rather than tell us what to think,
periodically provides space and prompting for users to engage in
the investigation themselves.
Saxbee offers a sharp and focused guide. Occasional outbursts of
expositor's alliteration, and falling for the weaselly phrase "the
things that really matter", are forgivable.
Just Love, written for the Church Urban Fund by Angus
Ritchie and Paul Hackwood, examines love and its paradoxes -
merciful and just, universal and personal, and so on. Bible
passages lead into extended reflection, amplified by stories from
Christian community projects. The focus is on community engagement
(the Living Wage campaign features prominently), but always
following the principle that "the place to start is not with action
but with listening," and with a good deal about prayer.
The material originated in addresses to ordinands. It is clear
and intelligent, with a stimulating range of reference to other
thinkers, though it represents quite a lot of reading.
Jesus - His Home, His Journey, His Challenge developed
out of two visits by the author to Tantur Ecumenical Institute in
Israel. David Bryan's background is in New Testament teaching, and
his emphasis on Jesus as wisdom teacher, and lack of reference to
the events of Holy Week and Easter, may reflect the apparent
perspective of the Jesus Seminar, of which he is a leading
The first part of the book is a closely argued survey of the
world of Jesus's home at Nazareth and the journey with his parents
to Jerusalem, and draws on geography, politics, and social customs
in an original and illuminating way, not least in citing Josephus
on mooning: "Thereupon, one of the soldiers, raising his robe,
stooped in an indecent attitude, so as to turn his backside to the
Jews, and made a noise in keeping with his posture."
The rest of the book is very different in tone. Having asserted
that the command to love one's enemies is the heart of Jesus's
teaching, Bryan looks at responses to this by Claude Montefiore,
the Dalai Lama, and others, and goes on to discuss Gospel stories
in which Jesus is challenged to cross thresholds of purity, gender,
Despite its subtitle, the book makes no reference to Lent or to
how its material might be used, and possibly was published under a
Lenten flag of convenience. It could, however, offer an unusual
option for a Bible-study group looking for a change.
Lent with the Catholic Epistles is not a title to get
the pulses racing. It originated during illness, when the author
"decided to make myself well again by studying the epistles . . .
as a way of rediscovering my faith".
Graham Sawyer's daily commentary is well-informed, attending to
the text and then drawing it out for our self-examination. As the
book progresses, however, two tendencies become apparent. The first
is an all-or-nothing spirituality that sets the bar a bit too high
for many of us: "through our fellowship comes complete joy. . .
being a Christian is a total transformation to a life of selfless
More worrying is his increasing preoccupation with bullying
within the Church: "over the years I have met many 'bullying'
bishops. These men . . . rather than be examples of humility and
love have chosen to bully and threaten. Gossip, slander and abuse
in all forms are not uncommon amongst bishops and often their abuse
of power goes unchecked." This contributes a distinctly unbalanced
tone to an otherwise creditable project by a priest whose somewhat
exotic career is outlined at length on the book's cover.
Reflections for Lent - the amplified Lent section of
the annual Reflections for Daily Prayer - is an excellent resource
as well as a bargain, and also available as an app and e-book.
Samuel Wells's introduction reframes the Lenten disciplines: "To
avoid the tyranny of having to make perpetual choices we develop
habits. . . . that's what Lent is about." John Pritchard offers a
sound guide to daily prayer, and Stephen Cottrell outlines
lectio divina, which sounds quite like an old-fashioned
Four respected writers provide daily reflections on one of the
lectionary readings. A discrepancy between the attributions of
authorship in the Contents and the one entry where an author refers
to himself by name is an incentive to look to the internal
evidence. A calm sharpness suggests Angela Tilby. Ian Adams seems
fond of the dangling question: "Do we?" The excitable final
exclamation mark signals the arrival of John Pritchard. Christopher
Cocksworth enjoys apposite quotes, and has a gift for mixed
metaphor: it apparently takes two to tango while entangled in the
briars of sin and sinking into the sand of corruption.
These daily notes are crisp, wise, and non-coercive. They
conclude with a short version of Common Worship Morning
Prayer - mercifully without proliferating canticles - and Compline,
making this an ideal vade-mecum for the season.
Who Do You Say That I Am? is a sustained exploration of
the identity of Jesus, largely based on daily passages from Mark.
It particularly draws on the social geography of the Bible, sets
Jesus in the context of contemporary Jewish teachers, and draws
attention to less prominent actors in the story, among them
The author's comments are attractive and challenging, and quite
often move away from the text into areas for wider reflection. Each
day, Annie Heppenstall also supplies a short monologue in the voice
of one of Jesus's followers. This offers an imaginative alternative
in a more Ignatian register, as with Jesus's mother to Peter: "I've
given up wishing he might build a home and get a job, so you
offering to make him a shelter and expecting him to be grateful -
don't you know him yet?"
With its optional extra Bible reading this would not be a
lightweight choice, but it would certainly reward those who follow
its journey - with periodic diversions - towards Jerusalem.
Barbara Mosse, in Welcoming the Way of the Cross,
groups passages from across the Bible around such weekly themes as
the desert experience, and openness to God in prayer. Her
commentary leads readily into wider teaching on the spiritual life,
and introduces figures from the tradition of prayer and beyond - on
one page, Thomas de Quincey and Delia Smith find themselves
unlikely bedfellows as commentators on Judas.
This is not a book for those who want to dig deeper in the
Bible, but would be useful as an anthology of passages arranged for
Lent, with thoughtful and personal homilies.
Stephen Cherry's daily poem-prayers in Barefoot Prayers
sprang from the gift of a notebook designated "for creativity".
They were not originally written for publication or for Lent, and
represent an excellent example of creative imagination in the
service of prayer. In a powerful introduction, he writes: "Prayer
is in part the project of letting our imagination be transformed by
God's Spirit," and these short prayers and meditations invite us to
open our eyes wider and recall ourselves to our proper Christian
vision. As an engaging journal of one man's spiritual weather,
their personal character may possibly restrict how available they
are to others who may be in a different climate zone.
He observes, in a poem prompted by black-and-white photographs:
"Colour tells too/ much, too easily misleads. It/ closes down too
soon./ Monochrome says 'colour me in,'" and sometimes his own poems
are a little too highly coloured in drawing the moral.
Occasionally he reveals a habit of half-appropriating the words
of others. "Although I long to understand . . . /Although I long to
know" is not quite the opening of Eliot's "Ash Wednesday"; "this
day was, in the end, okay" does not improve on "The Journey of the
Magi"; and, when the Psalmist said, "I am poured out like water,"
he was not commending the gentle approach of death; and Herbert was
not referring to Easter by "heaven in ordinarie".
Cherry has provided a refreshingly different Lent book - all the
more if it encourages readers to exercise their own creativity in
The Wilderness Within You is another exercise of the
devout imagination. Each day, Penelope Wilcock describes an
imaginary conversation with Jesus, whom she bumps into while trying
to cross the road outside the supermarket. He then keeps her
company around St Leonard's-on-Sea as she shares with him her
bewilderment - her wilderness - about many things.
Wilcock largely avoids sentimentality, and lets Jesus quietly
pull the rug from under our comfortable assumptions, echoing the
figure who doodled in the dust, not saying a lot. His gentleness
and penetrating brown eyes come up rather frequently.
These are humane and humorous meditations, borrowing much of
their tone from the classic Mister God This is Anna, with
occasional homage to Mills & Boon: "As my gaze travels
dumbfounded upward, adrenalin sparkles through my every cell." Now
and again she is down with the kids - "I mean, honestly - is that
cool or is it cool?" - but a reference to Belisha beacons gets her
The author succeeds in making you look forward to the next day's
conversation, and in providing the companionship of an enigmatic,
loving, unsettling Jesus.
Whether looking to this year's Lent publications for a
discipline of study, or prayer, or imagination, we might recall
Thomas Merton's searching criterion: "The function of penance and
self-denial is . . . the 'breaking-up' of that hardness of heart
which prevents us from understanding God's command to love".
The Revd Philip Welsh is a recently retired priest in the
diocese of London.