Lent is that season in the Church’s Year when Christians prepare themselves for the celebration of Easter by identifying themselves more closely with Christ’s sacrifice and Passion, and in earlier centuries it was the season of preparation for Baptism. Over the years, Lent has become mainly associated with fasting or giving up things. Originally, fasting was concerned with not eating until after Vespers in the evening and with abstaining from certain foods like meat, eggs or milk products. Gradually this fast was relaxed, but Lent is still primarily linked in the popular mind with giving up things. This can be in danger of seeming either trivial, negative or outdated, and yet it still carries a powerful message for us in today’s obsessively consumerist and materialistic society. We live in a world that has exalted work and meetings as well as wealth and material possessions to an almost divine status, so that many people are working all the hours God sends to maintain a decent standard of living or simply to keep up with the Jones’s. Work does confer dignity and self-respect but not at any price. Anyone out of work for even a few weeks or months is in danger of being branded as a welfare scrounger. The message that this gives to all those who are unable to work because of illness or disability through no fault of their own is absolutely unrelenting and mean-spirited and makes them feel that their lives are utterly worthless in the eyes of the rest of society. We need to bear this in mind as Christians when we come to cast our votes in the forthcoming General Election.
In this context, Lent urges us to step back, to stand and stare and even do nothing so that we can take stock of our lives and see whether our work really requires such a frenetic pace. We need to do less and perhaps achieve more. Above all, we must set aside time to reflect and time to spend with our families and our loved ones. This characteristic of excessive demand and consumption also extends to our leisure and social life. Do we need to watch so much TV, spend so much time on the computer or on social media or use the car for so many journeys? If we were to give up some of these things, we would free up more time for worship, prayer and study and we would also be saving energy and helping to preserve the natural environment. And then finally, we must cut back on excessive eating and drinking and smoking, which can only damage our long-term health. Perhaps we should think about giving up chocolate or one meal a week or drinking so much alcohol during Lent and donate what we have saved to charity. Almsgiving or just helping those in need is a characteristic feature of Lent and this actually springs from the time and money that we have saved by giving up things. This can either take the form of giving money to charity or of giving of ourselves in terms of practical help, for example, by offering our services to some voluntary organizarion or by simply helping our neighbour.
A final important aspect of our Lenten observance is a renewed focus on the time we devote to prayer, worship and Bible study. It is essential that we revitalise this side of our lives because this is what gives us the spiritual strength to deepen our Christian discipleship, to take on new challenges and to serve others more effectively. We ought to revisit our rule of life and see if we can set more time aside for worship if we are not already coming to church every Sunday. We must also think about the time we devote to prayer, whether it be every day or every week – we just need to be still in God’s presence, to hear what he is saying to us and to bring our hopes and desires before him. We should also want to learn more about our faith, and our Lent Course, based on the film ‘The King’s Speech’, provides us with a perfect opportunity to do just this and to share our faith with others. Later on, of course, we will be welcoming Fr. Dennis from the Community of the Resurrection at Mirfield, who will be joining us for Holy Week and Easter and sharing in our hospitality. He will be giving most of the addresses during this very sacred time in the Church’s Year, which represents the central mystery of our faith and offers us both the opportunity to learn more about our faith and to draw closer to God and to Christ in prayer and worship.