IN A non-vintage year for Lent books, it is striking that the two most attractive titles are assembled from recycled material — radio talks over the past ten years, and sermons from the 1980s and ’90s.
Lent Talks gathers together six short talks by well-known figures, originally broadcast on Radio 4. James Runcie, creator of The Grantchester Mysteries, looks at the Passion from the (occasionally forced) perspective of a crime-story writer, leading to the shocking conclusion that “God is the murderer of Jesus.” The playwright Bonnie Greer uses her own experience and the film Twelve Years a Slave to reflect on the experience of being named by others, and on the power of silence — as Jesus before Pilate — to name one’s own terms.
Alexander McCall Smith, against the background of his popular Botswana novels, is drawn towards “the lives of those who must feel abandoned because the world has somehow moved on and left them stranded”, and sees Lent as a time to reflect on our fundamental values.
In contrast with Lent thoughts arising obliquely from their authors’ personal projects, Ann Widdecombe writes entirely about the Passion of Christ, and forthrightly claims: “One of the great . . . lessons of Good Friday is that we must be prepared to let people down, to disappoint those whom we love, to refuse to live up to the expectations of others if by doing so we do what is right.”
Giles Fraser leads us thoughtfully from his experience of the army, as a visiting lecturer and a disappointed applicant to be a chaplain, via the ethics of Aristotle and Bonhoeffer, to the contention that “in extremis, we are the people we have practised to be” — and that is much of what going to church is for. Like Widdecombe, he approaches the Passion as moral force rather than atonement: “Holy Week is a searching audit of our moral courage.”
Nick Baines, in a powerful chapter that engages with the kind of society we live in, shifts the book’s general focus back from Holy Week to Lent itself: “Lent offers us the opportunity to question again the vision that fires us and measure it against the one we think we know — that of Jesus”; “What if God broke his own rules and came into the contaminated space and contaminated it with hope and generosity and goodness?”
Questions for reflection are supplied. The book’s origin as talks to a popular general audience ensures its approachability, and sets its limits.
Dust that Dreams of Glory brings together the exemplary sermons for Lent and Holy Week preached by the late Michael Mayne. They are marked by his characteristic economy of language, and an enviable ability to convey theological insight and pastoral wisdom with humanity, clarity, unshowy learning, and an utter lack of preacherly condescension. This is not theology incorporated into preaching, but theology that is formed in the act of preaching, and every word counts.
Rather more than half the sermons are for Good Friday, and, the more Mayne speaks about the Passion, the more he finds himself talking about the incarnation, as he blends together the biblical and the personal, demand and promise, depth and simplicity: “Good Friday is not about feeling guilty but about feeling penitent and overwhelmingly grateful”; “As I grow older I believe more and more that this world is above all a place for learning how to love and to trust.”
The editor pays tribute to the “timeless quality” of this preaching, though I wish we had been given the date and place for each sermon, as a reminder that good preaching is not a decontextualised script, but a communal event. This collection would make an excellent companion for Lent, particularly during Passiontide.
SAY IT TO GOD is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for this year, written by the Benedictine Luigi Gioia. His conviction is that praying begins not with learning techniques but with trust in God, and that we should bring the whole of ourselves to God, including the trivial or frustrating: “What if we could understand noise not as that despite which we pray, against which we pray, but that out of which we pray?” He illustrates this by reference particularly to the Psalms and to the prayers of Jesus, and, in fact, his writing is constantly interwoven with snatches of scripture, usually free of context.
His most helpful insight is that the foundation of prayer is not its content but its “posture”: “We have seen that what is essential about the Our Father is not the words but the attitude it allows us to adopt in the presence of our Father.”
Gioia’s style is not lively, and it is not helped by his addictive repetitiousness: “led by Jesus into the right space, into the right room, into the right posture — which is nothing else than the room, the space, the posture, the cloud, the relation”.
But the principal shortcoming of Say it to God is its constantly pietistic tone and bland sentiments: “thanks to me [i.e. Jesus] all this suffering has become a source of life, light, peace and joy. . . Only if I constantly tune in with the gentle movement of the Spirit of God in my heart do I acquire a freedom that comes from within. . . All the Father wants is to shelter me in his bosom. . . Try to stop just a second and say it, say it to God: ‘I don’t have time, but I love you’ — a smile will immediately lighten your face, joy and peace will fill your heart.”
Underlying this mushy, individualistic spirituality, there seems to be a quiet authoritarianism, as the author easily uses such phrases as “this means that” and “the truth is”. One longs to let some fresh air into the overheated, cloistered atmosphere of this book.
The Way of the Carmelites seeks “to explore the spiritual significance of Lent in the company of the Carmelite saints”, and pays particular attention to Elijah, Mary (“this incomparable woman of prayer”), Teresa of Ávila (who spoke engagingly of the Holy Spirit “whistling”), John of the Cross, Thérèse of Lisieux, and also two modern figures, Elizabeth of the Trinity and Edith Stein. But the saints are kept firmly on their pedestals, and once again we have a book that is prolix, over-riddled with citation, and keeps its feet off the ground and inside a pious bubble.
As a short book for popular use, it begins bizarrely with a three-page list of abbreviations used, notable for a magnificent final note: “Ellipses — seen here as ‘…’ — are used both for omissions and also where the author uses them for rhetorical purposes; in the latter case, the abbreviation ‘r.e.’ (for ‘rhetorical ellipsis’) will be given in brackets next to the reference for the quotation concerned. Where both types are in the same quotation, the ‘r.e.’ instance is indicated.”
LEIGH HATTS’s Keeping Lent and Easter is not a Lent book in any devotional sense, but a guide to the customs of the seasons, both liturgical and popular. Hatts gives us straightforward, conventional accounts of the origin of the various festivals in scripture, with an outline of the main church ceremonies, as reflected within Roman Catholic and Anglican Catholic practice. He is not shy of prescriptiveness — “Fasting and abstinence should be observed by adults in good health aged 18 to 60. Those aged 14 to 17 should follow the abstinence rule” — or of mildly coat-trailing traditionalism: “Today is the day when Christ not only gave the Church the gift of the Eucharist but also instituted the priesthood.”
Alongside this, he introduces us to such local observances as Spy Wednesday, the Happy Confraternity of the Burial of the Sardine, and Pius V’s refusal to ban chocolate in Lent on the grounds that a cup of hot chocolate was too disgusting to be enjoyable.
Underlying the book’s mixture of religious instruction and quaint folklore lie two important concerns: the importance of seasonality, especially at a time when ancient annual rhythms are becoming eroded; and the value of religious life that is popular, public and outdoors.
Keeping Lent and Easter is not a book for spiritual or liturgical advice. It is an attractive book for the Lenten bedside, or a discreet source of recherché sermon illustrations. It will also tell you about the Britannia Coconut Dancers of Bacup, known also as the Nutters.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London.
Lent Talks: Preparing for Easter with Radio 4: A collection of broadcasts
Nick Baines, Giles Fraser, Bonnie Greer, Alexander McCall Smith, James Runcie, and Ann Widdecombe
Church Times Bookshop £7.20
Dust That Dreams of Glory: Reflections on Lent and Holy Week
Joel Huffstetler, editor
Canterbury Press £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90
Say it to God (The Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book 2018)
Church Times Bookshop £9
The Way of the Carmelites: A prayer journey through Lent
Church Times Bookshop £8.10
Keeping Lent and Easter: Discovering the rhythms and riches of the Christian seasons
Church Times Bookshop £9