Having the Pancake Supper on this day makes it really obvious that Ash Wednesday is an odd kind of day when we make a sudden transition from being happy to being gloomy, from going about our everyday business to suddenly engaging in some other agenda – like going around a familiar corner and suddenly finding yourself in France, or in 1953.
Lent was once a time to roll up one’s sleeves and wrestle manfully (or womanfully) against the world, the flesh and the devil, particularly in the form of the seven “deadly” sins – pride, wrath, envy, lust, gluttony, greed, and sloth (acedia).
As usual, we remind the faithful that Lent is not about some trivial, meaningless act of renunciation, such as giving up homework or obeying traffic lights, and yet every deviation from normal creates a certain change, changes the nature of the game somewhat (as the kid who gives up homework for Lent soon finds out).
The Book of Alternative Services invites us to engage Lent in the following words:
“Dear friends in Christ, every year at the time of the Christian Passover we celebrate our redemption through the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Lent is a time to prepare for this celebration and to renew our life in the paschal mystery. We begin this holy season by remembering our need for repentance, and for the mercy and forgiveness proclaimed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The emphasis right off the bat is Easter. It reminds us that Lent is a lead-up to Easter, a preparation for the celebration of our redemption, which is an already-accomplished fact. It’s good to keep that in mind, because sometimes people think we have to go into some dark netherworld in Lent where we forget all about the light and the joy, and never laugh (because Lent is such serious business), with the mistaken notion that we need to re-create ourselves. We need to be reminded from the beginning that death and sin do not completely define who we are.
The traditional version in the Book of Common Prayer included fasting and penitence in the customary practices of Lent, and added this interesting reason for observing Lent:
“It was a time when such persons as had, by reason of notorious sins, been separated from the body of the faithful, were reconciled and restored to the fellowship of the Church by penitence and forgiveness.”
It begs the question of who would be the one in charge of seeking and snooping to find out about those “notorious sins” and it would be quite another thing to bring in those persons to face the music. I took part in a cattle roundup one time, and it was hard work, but it would be a picnic compared to rounding up the notorious, the disreputable, the scandalous ones in our midst. But it does say something about the importance of reconciliation, and restoration and return to community.
The older version put more emphasis on sin – our separation from God – and the need to make that right, and being “pardoned and absolved” was the way to get back on the “good” side of God, and so Shrove Tuesday typically was a time to undergo confession, and Lent encouraged people to stay introspective.
In either case it’s important to see Lent as a prelude to Easter rather than the main event. Lent is meant to focus our sights on Easter. In Christ, we have already been made alive. In our Lenten movie series, which began yesterday, we saw The Gospel of John, and the contrast between the joy and freedom of Jesus and the gloominess and anxiety of the Jewish religious authorities was striking, and all too familiar. I think we know what side of the equation we want to be on, but if we are honest, we will also know where we often reside.
So Lent is not a time to cast away our sense of belonging to wallow in self-loathing or worthlessness or alienation, and it’s not a time to remove our multi-coloured coat of belovedness. It’s not a time to demonstrate to others what deeply spiritual people we are either, because bragging is a sure sign that we are prone to one of the most basic spiritual faults, which is pride.
I always tend to see Lent as opportunity and not just as obligation – an excuse for making a shift in intention and direction, for trying something different. It has much more effect on me than New Year’s resolutions.
Lent is perhaps first of all an opportunity to seek God, a time to renew our quest, our journey, to come closer to God and get to know God better. So, we might seek opportunities to learn how to meditate, or to read scripture more regularly or effectively, or to engage in prayers of intercession and blessing, or perhaps to attend one of the excellent Lenten study groups in our local church.
Lent is an opportunity to seek freedom – from bad habits, attitudes and behaviours, even addictions – and it can be a time for some serious self-reflection about the direction of your life and its purpose and whether you feel like you’re on track or drifting away. And let’s not dismiss the value of giving something up — giving up something (whether it’s giving up frowning or TV or dessert) can free us to potentially become something else. In this sense, Lent is something like a yearly experiment (“Now what would happen if I try this . . .?”) and the laboratory is anywhere you are.
Lent gives us permission to take some time to think – to reflect on who we are and perhaps to recognize that we might need to try being more positive or more grateful or more humble. The model of Jesus in the wilderness is a good one to keep in mind – the Ignatian retreat or spiritual exercises was based on that model – imagine 40 days to just sit there and think and contemplate.
Lent is an opportunity to re-connect in areas of our passion, and giving up some things can create time for other things we know to be priorities in our life (such as playing the piano or playing with our kids or painting or going for a walk). Lent can free us, so that we no longer allow ourselves to be completely ruled by the artificial demands of our obsessive/compulsive society, and once again operate from our true self.
Lent is an opportunity to become more other-conscious and to find new ways to serve, to make a conscious effort toward making the world a better place – the smallest intention can change the world. That could mean devoting money to some special cause, or volunteering at a food bank or homeless shelter, or it could just mean becoming better informed about the injustices and oppression in the world.
Lent is a deviation from normal, and it’s good to have an excuse to deviate from normal every now and again. It keeps us interesting. And if someone chooses to think we’re weird because all of a sudden we’re not criticizing others or we’re not complaining about everything or we’re going to church more, we can always think to ourselves that we’re doing it for God.
I’ve already blown one of my Lenten intentions with the meal tonight, so don’t feel too badly if you fall down in your intentions. The most important thing is that you get back up. If you’re struggling during Lent, here’s a little prayer that may help:
“So far today, God, I’ve done all right. I haven’t gossiped, I haven’t lost my temper. I haven’t been grumpy, nasty or selfish. I’m really grateful for that. But in a few minutes, God, I’m going to get out of bed; and from then on, I’m probably going to need a lot of help.”
So, in the name of the Church, I invite you to a holy and meaningful and maybe even transformational Lenten season. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t lose your sense of humour. Above all, ask God to be with you and guide you and give you strength, and, some days, you might even make it to lunchtime without falling back into your old habits.
The Rev. Grant Rodgers+