On the last day before Lent, Shrove Tuesday, I spoke about the traditions of Lent and something of its history. Not every church marks this time of the year in any special way but Anglican, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and others do make a point of doing so. It’s a time that is valued by many as giving an opportunity for a period of reflection, spiritual spring cleaning or charitable acts.
The readings at the Tuesday service were Psalm 94:12-18, James 1:12-18, Mark 8:14-21. My reflection follows.
We are about to enter the season of Lent. Depending on your church tradition, this may be a season that passes you by virtually unnoticed or one which has a huge impact on your life.
Irenaeus around 180 AD mentioned that there were fasts of various lengths in different regions in the period before Easter. The Canons of Nicaea from 325AD are the first place to mention a fixed period of 40 days. This number forty is associated with fasts by Moses, Elijah and Jesus which may account for the choice. The fast was originally intended to be kept by those who were preparing for baptism. They spent the forty days in study and prayer and then were baptised at the Easter Vigil on the Saturday night before Easter Sunday and the celebration of the Resurrection of Jesus. Gradually the church community which the new believers were to join also prepared for Easter in the same way. Originally Lent began on a Monday and still does in many Orthodox Churches. Now it begins on Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 weekdays until the Saturday before Easter Day, not including Sundays.
Sunday services during Lent are usually simpler than usual with no use of the ‘Gloria’ or the saying of Alleluias, which are kept until Easter Sunday to be used again. There are often no flowers in church any more and the colour on the altar is violet or purple, a sign of penance but also of royalty as we think of Jesus risen as King of kings after his death.
Today is called Shrove Tuesday in England and some other parts of the world, a name which has been in use since around 1000 AD. Its name comes from the English verb ‘shrive’ which means obtaining absolution for sins by confessing and doing penance. The Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday are called Shrovetide and during this period Christians were supposed to make their confession in preparation for the beginning of Lent.
As well as being a time of preparation for Lent, Shrove Tuesday is also associated with celebration before the serious period of Lent begins. Pancakes are eaten in some countries, using up eggs, milk and sugar; other countries favour eating different rich foods. The tradition of carnival (meaning ‘removal of meat’) or Mardi Gras (‘Fat Tuesday’) is also associated with the Shrovetide celebrations. At times Mardi Gras has been an excuse for drunken excess in places but is also a time for church communities to come together for a meal and a party before Lent.
The word ‘Lent’ comes from a Teutonic word which ‘lengthen’ and so goes on to mean springtime when the days get longer. Just as we have a tradition of spring cleaning our houses, Lent is a time of spring cleaning our spiritual life. We may take a look in the dusty corners, throw out some rubbish and tidy up drawers with the intention of ridding ourselves of things that have gathered over the year. Lent is a time of discipline, fasting, denying self, growing as a Christian, perhaps living more simply. We are aiming to transform every aspect of ourselves – body, soul and spirit – as we try to become more like Jesus. This transformational process is called ‘theosis’ in the Orthodox tradition and is described by St Athanasius as “becoming by grace what God is by nature.”
Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness where he was tempted in various ways. Had he given in to any of the temptations his ministry would have been very different from what it was. If Jesus needed this time to think and pray, how much more do we need it.
Traditionally Lent is a time of fasting, prayer and giving alms as well as reading the Bible more and reading a devotional book.
In the earliest times Lent was a period of strict fasting with just one meal a day allowed which excluded meat, eggs and other rich foods. The Orthodox Churches still advocate a similar strictness, avoiding meat, wine, oil, dairy products and fish. In the Roman Catholic Churches, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are strict fast days when only one full meal is allowed, and Fridays are days to abstain from meat. In the lectionary of the Church of England, the weekdays of Lent are called ‘days of discipline and self-denial’ but the form that should take is not given. Once the fasting was a community activity but now it is left to individuals more to decide what they will do. Often people choose to give something up for Lent, such as chocolate, alcohol, coffee. It may not be foodstuffs that are avoided – turning away from anything which we particularly desire is still a form of spiritual discipline. We might try to avoid gossiping, or try to curb a bad temper, give up the internet, or tv. We might try to avoid waste and recycle more or buy fairly traded goods during Lent also. The object is to increase control over our lives which should lead to greater self-discipline even when Lent is over. In our very materialistic world there is a lot to be said for avoiding conspicuous consumption at least for some part of the year.
Strengthening our prayer lives is also a good spiritual discipline. Here at the Cathedral we have morning and evening prayer and compline on offer. Maybe your time zone doesn’t allow you to participate in all of those but you could choose to say prayer at certain times of the day, just as the monks pray the Liturgy of the Hours. It may be good to try to spend 5-10 minutes a day in silence just giving God a chance to talk to you in the busyness of life. Other people might find that praying the Rosary each day is helpful.
The other side to giving things up is giving to others. Lent is a good time to reassess how much you give charitably. Some churches have challenged members to give twice what they normally do during the season of Lent. It might be that giving money is simply not possible for you but perhaps you can give time to help others. It might be that some local charity needs extra help with their work. Volunteers are often needed in all sorts of places.
When Jesus was tempted in the desert he used his knowledge of Scripture to answer the devil. In order to do that he had to be very familiar with the words. Lent is a good time to choose to read more of the Bible, perhaps attempting to read right through the Gospels or another book. In addition there are spiritual classics that can be read, such as writings by the desert fathers. The Archbishop of Canterbury recommends a Lent book every year. I think it took me until Pentecost to read the one recommended for last year, but I got there. There are also books with a short reading for each day of Lent which can be helpful. Some people make a point of going to a Lent course of some kind. We will be running one here at the Cathedral on Sundays before the noon service.
Taking time to think how we each might enter the desert is worthwhile. What is right for one person will not be for another, but we can all benefit from a special time of spiritual discipline. Lent is then a journey as we walk with Jesus through his temptation; his determined heading to Jerusalem; his triumphal entry into the city hailed by all; the poignancy of the Last Supper as he washed his disciples’ feet; his final terrible journey through the streets of Jerusalem to his death on Good Friday; and then the celebration of his resurrection on Easter Day.
We have the opportunity to open our lives to God in a special way and invite him to work in us afresh to help us become all he intended us to be. Let’s make the most of this season of Lent.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor