Of all the Christian seasons, Lent is the most stubbornly counter-cultural. Christmas, and even Easter, can be hijacked, their authentic elements of joy stolen to serve a secular festival. But Lent cannot be trivialised, for its essence is to ask hard questions. It can, however, can be quietly set aside; for Christians find it no more comfortable than anyone else to ask hard questions of themselves. But that is what we must do, if we are to be genuine seekers of truth.
The 40 days of Lent recall the time that Jesus spent in the wilderness at the very beginning of his ministry. He was there to prepare himself by prayer and fasting, and to clarify what he was about. He was there to face hard questions. These questions are dramatised by the gospel-writers as three satanic temptations: to break his fast by turning stones into bread, to claim the kingdoms of the world as his own, and to throw himself from the pinnacle of the Temple in order to be rescued by angels. As he refused each temptation in turn, Jesus rejected three false understandings of his purpose in life. He was here not to seek material comfort, not to win status and wealth, not selfishly to exploit the power of God. Rather, he was here to serve the Father and to live by His word, whatever this should cost him, even to the point of death on a cross.
Jesus faced the truth about his life in the wilderness, and we in Lent face the truths about our own lives. We do so first through repentance. Psalm 50 is read on Ash Wednesday to set the tone: "For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me." These verses contrast starkly with the numberless words of self-justification which contemporary political events like Lord Hutton's investigation prompt, those "easy speeches", as G.K. Chesterton put it, "that comfort cruel men". Yet, even as we think that we are playing the same game ourselves, we are not like the politicians; we are not like the journalists. But Lent forces us to acknowledge the simple fact that we are.
Secondly, by giving things up and by giving things away, we face the truth of our own weakness. In a society of non-stop entertainment and instant gratification, Lent asks us for patience and the postponement of pleasures. In a society where we eat before we think of being hungry, Lent invites us to share, even briefly, in the hunger that is the daily lot of so many millions. In a society obsessed with making money, Lent tells us to open our purses. We soon discover the facts about our needs.
The most basic of those needs is our need for God. And so we take time out in Lent from the frantic busyness of our lives simply to be with and to listen to God in prayer. Once again, we are looking for the truth. The truth that we find here, if we can but begin to displace our own relentless egos from the centre of our minds, is a simple one: God is love, and we ourselves were made to serve Him and to serve one another in love. Hence the truths of Lent are linked by the bond that is love, since humility and generosity are the foundations on which human love is laid.
Repentance, fasting, almsgiving and prayer. From a narrow perspective, Lent could hardly be more counter-cultural. Yet Lent unites us with the traditions of the other great religions of the world, reminding us of our solidarity with those who celebrate Yom Kippur and Ramadan, with those fellow believers whose own worship overflows naturally into generosity to the poor. Indeed, as the readings of Ash Wednesday remind us, Lent has deeply Jewish roots. We listen not only to Psalm 50, but also to the prophet Joel calling upon the whole people to proclaim a fast as a sign of their penitential return to the Lord. Moreover, the gospel reading is taken from Matthew, the most rabbinic of the evangelists, and he presents Jesus as simply taking for granted the three elements of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The question is not whether to do them, but how.
The shared nature of this religious heritage makes it all the sadder that since the Reformation fasting and abstinence have been a sign of separation between Protestants and Catholics. Fish on Fridays and "giving something up for Lent" became symbols of a Catholicism set against the Anglican and non-conformist traditions Thankfully, in recent generations we have begun to share once more the divided riches of our inheritance. The liturgy of Ash Wednesday makes explicit our vocation to the task of reconciliation, as "ambassadors" of Christ's message. If Christians were to rediscover a common celebration of Lent what a witness that would be.
The point is that we do not practise Lent for its own sake. It is there to prepare our minds and hearts for the feast that is the centre of our common religion. It is because our Easters too can so easily be submerged by the tides of trivialisation that we first need the honesty of Lent.
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