17th February 2021
Ash Wednesday 2021
Rev. Tom Mumford
I pray that I may speak to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One of the great challenges of the last year has been giving stuff up, and going without. Many of us have missed out on big occasions: weddings, Christenings, big birthdays. Others have missed out on funerals, on saying goodbye to the ones they love. Even more have missed out on seeing friends and family as often as they’d like. And millions have had to give up going to the pub, to restaurants, to the football or to the
theatre. At points over the last year, some of us have even had to give up going to church. And it’s all been hard, especially on occasions like today. So for this reason, some of us might have mixed emotions as Lent comes back around again. Lent being the time of year when we typically give something up for 40 days, a time where we go without.
Some of you may be thinking: Lent again?! I didn’t realise the last one ever ended! Others may be thinking: ‘well, I’ve done without so much the last year, a little more won’t hurt – I’ve actually gotten quite good at this’ But I suspect most people, if you’re anything like me anyway, will look at Lent, on the back of the last year, and find the idea of yet more fasting, yet more giving up, a little bit daunting. So perhaps now is the time, on this Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent, as the normal traditions and rituals are necessarily stripped back, to look at again at the season, and to askhat it really means to do Lent well.
Traditionally, Lent has a been a period of fasting. This is why last night I stuffed my face with pancakes. And it was great! But why? Well, I was piggy-backing on a centuries old custom that began as a way of using up all the nice things in the cupboard. It was a pre-fasting indulgence, that for years now been apopular cultural event. But it’s not only the feasting that has embedded itself in our national rhythm. The fasting of Lent has also been taken up into popular culture, as a time to lose a bit of weight, to give up cakes or biscuits or chocolate, or God forbid even alcohol. But the problem here is that fasting was never meant to be a self-help fad. In fact, quite the opposite. The purpose of fasting, other than to give us more time to be attentive to God, was actually a way of consuming only what was necessary. And to share the money or food that was saved, with the poorest and most in need.
Fasting, then, was a way of looking outward, of loving others. And this is what a good Lent is about.
The other main theme of Lent is repentance. Now repentance often gets a bad rep in the modern world. It conjures up gloomy images of people with a guilt complexes, beating themselves up. But at its root, it’s not that at all. Sure, it involves self-reflection, and a recognition that as human beings we’re always messing up and falling short. We are, after all, humans and not God. But the word in scripture, that we translate into English as repentance, actually means, quite literally, to turn around, to change direction. So for Christians, repentance means to change our ways, to redirect our lives in the way of God, to live lives more in step with his love. And what does this look like? Well it looks like the life we see lived by Jesus Christ, the life we read about in the gospels. This repentance then, this turning around, this changing direction, is about living more Christ-like lives. Living lives more full of love, in the service of others. This is what a good Lent is about.
So, if you’re thinking of giving up booze of chocolate for Lent, thinking of giving up your biscuit with the morning coffee, don’t bother. I mean, give it up if you want to, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that this is how you live a good Lent. Doing this alone isn’t going to form you into Christlike person you’re called to be. And, if you’re bummed out with the idea of repentance, don’t be. See this as a time of spiritual spring cleaning – a time to reassess things, a time to change the direction of our lives, to live better, to love better.
But how do we do all this? How do we live a good Lent? How might we live out the purpose of this period, be true to the traditions and the origin of this holy time? Well it’s quite simply really. We pray. In the 40 day period that Lent mirrors, the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness in preparation for his public ministry, this is what he did. He prayed, he took time to be attentive to the Father, to enjoin his will with his.
But short of a desert and forty days off from our busy routines, how do we pray more or pray better in this Lenten season? Well, in a way, praying itself is an act of repenting, it is a turning towards God, a recognition that there is something other, something bigger, something more important than ourselves. It may sound like a big ask, praying more, but it doesn’t have to be. Praying need not involve lots of quiet time or huge chunks set aside out of your day. It need not involve a dangerous numbers of candles, enough incense to choke a horse or driving your neighbour up the wall with Gregorian chant. In fact, prayer of this kind can often turn into the selfish piety we’re trying to avoid – we should beware of our search for the best place, for the ideal conditions, and for the perfect way to pray.
So some practical advice for prayer this Lent:
Each time you feel angry, express it to God, tell God why you’re angry and with whom. This is prayer. Each time you’re frustrated or discouraged, tell God how and why. This is prayer. Each time someone or something has hurt you, tell it to God. Just simply say it to God. And just in the same way, when something gives you great joy, perhaps a kiss from someone in your bubble, a FaceTime from a family member, or a phone call for a vaccine appointment, just take a few moments to say thank you to God. All of these may only take a few seconds, but are they not prayer? Start doing this and you may end up praying a hundred times a day. Suddenly, prayer becomes part of you, it moves with you, like your heartbeat or your breath.
When we do this, Lent ceases to be a season of self-centred misery, of giving things up, or beating ourselves up. Instead, it becomes a season of renewal, of excitement, of possibilities. Imagine living a life more full of prayer, more focussed on love, more open to God’s transformation and hope. Imagine the adventures. This is what a good Lent is about. And right here, right now, we’re starting the journey.