PROMPTED by a young priest-friend’s cry of despair at the approach of Lent, I have been thinking about how I also dislike the way the Church of England now traditionally observes it. There are now four main elements in this: the singing of depressing hymns; an emphasis on temptation and remorse; the banishment of flowers from churches; and the invitation to attend Lent courses and intentionally unappetising lunches.
Dreary hymns and the withdrawal of flowers seem to be a wilful misuse of the God-given gifts of poetry, music, and springtime, while the addition of Lent courses and lunches adds to people’s burdens and distorts the point of fasting out of recognition.
The themes of temptation and remorse are the imposition of a spiritual and emotional agenda — the spiritual equivalent of a Lent lunch — which will cloud the real purpose and joy of Lent.
The time for inviting people to ponder their sins was before Shrove Tuesday. If then they took up the offer of absolution (individual or collectively) which Shrove Tuesday observes, then they could have joined the carnival with the best, and would have done the necessary warm-up for the adventure of Lent itself.
Lent is a re-enactment — an embodiment — of Jesus’s stay in the wilderness. There is nothing to suggest that Jesus went to the wilderness to bewail his sins, or to be miserable. He went, as so many others did, to clear the decks.
The wilderness represents solitude, rest, and a profound trust in God to meet every need: emotional, physical, spiritual, and mental. It involves the acceptance of risk — all the dangers of isolation (loneliness, self-deception, and hunger) — for the sake of a closer approach to God. The agenda is left entirely open to God.
It is not about being miserable,
or setting one’s own agenda for self-improvement (good resolutions, dieting, and self-flagellation). It is not about following an agenda for social improvement, however worthy that is in itself. It is about stopping all that, in fact, and waiting on God.
For this reason, I think that the people who say: “I am not giving up anything for Lent: I’m taking up something,” or “Lent should be positive: about doing something extra for God,” are equally mistaken. The wilderness invitation is definitely about refusing the temptation to do more, be more, or achieve more, and very much about accepting limitations and emptiness, and discovering joy.
There is nothing negative about the “giving up” involved in this invitation to let go of whatever it is that drives our own habitual aspirations, consolations, and thought-patterns: it requires a definite embrace of what is unusual and foreign to our communal life together, and is profoundly limiting of our habitual personal comforts.
And yet the wilderness is beautiful, revelatory, and rewarding exactly because it clears the decks for God — which is why God invites us into it. And the experience is embodied In Lenten fasting and prayer, like Christianity itself: in the incarnation, in the crucifixion, in the resurrection.
That Christianity is embodied — that our Christian faith is embodied — makes explicable the voluntary acceptance of limitations. Collectively, we tend to dislike and mistrust limitation, isolation, change, and anything that threatens our comfortable status quo.
Still, a Lenten experience may be thrust on us at any time through a period of illness, anxiety, injury, or distress. For this reason, it makes sense to practise finding purpose and joy in these experiences.
If we cannot literally withdraw into a wilderness, as Jesus did, yet we can embody this experience for the period of Lent to prepare ourselves to embody his Passion and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. This is where fasting comes in, as we use the time that might usually be spent shopping, cooking, and eating for rest and solitude.
This approach to Lent is perhaps more comprehensible to people who are in what has become known as “second-half-of-life spirituality”: that of over-50s who have begun to perceive the downward curve of withdrawal, limitation, and loss.
At the same time, many young people can and do experience failure, injury, illness, and loss, and can also experience solitude, fasting, withdrawal, silence, rest, and even bereavement as times of an unexpectedly rewarding consciousness
of God’s presence.
This is not punishment for sin, but a reward for desire. Practising the steps in Lent — making these movements in precise and careful ways for love — are a helpful rehearsal for times when the Lord of the Dance leads us through dark places.
This is not a final retreat from the world, but a temporary refocusing. St John the Baptist, Jesus, St Paul, and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who withdrew to the wilderness did so not to engage in a life so heavenly as to be of no earthly use. These adventures were the essential preparation for their work in the world — the essential receiving of orders from God for the work they were to do.
The Church can help to embody this understanding of Lent. As Sunday worship is always intended to be a joyful embodiment of the resurrection, and Sunday fasting is forbidden, the music and liturgy of Lent should reflect the love and joy of God’s presence, and celebrate the joy of Jesus, most particularly in spring flowers, albeit with the countdown to and focus on Holy Week.
Many people might value shorter sermons, briefer intercessions, and more times for shared silence and reflection. It might be helpful to clear the church diary of some events, and certainly of all but essential business meetings.
As shared silence is sometimes sharpened and given focus by an opportunity to share reflections on what has been learned, it might increase the joy to invite people to come together for silent reflection and then shared reflection after Lent on what they experienced during Lent — what they learned, what was liberating, what has changed, and what is new.