Choral Eucharist 1st March 2017
What sort of Lent?
Ash Wednesday 1 March 2017 7:30 p.m. Joel 2: 1 – 2, 12 – 17; Psalm 51: 1 – 18; 2 Cor 5: 20b – 6: 10; Matthew 6: 1 – 6, 16 – 21
What sort of Lent?
I once had a friend who was a nun. Her name was Sister Benedicta. She was much older than me. Apart from finding her a wonderful friend and a wise guide the only thing I really knew about her was that before she became a nun she had been a literary agent. The motto for her convent was the phrase “having nothing and yet possessing everything” which comes from our reading from 2 Corinthians this evening. She told me that in her convent the nuns literally possessed nothing – and how hard this could be. She once told me a story about one particular stump of a pencil that she carried around in her pocket. How hard it was if she found she had to lend it to someone or give it up for some reason. After all, it was her pencil!
However hard we try, we humans tend to get unreasonably attached to things. Whether they are as small as the stub of a pencil or as large as something much bigger like a project that’s close to our heart or a career. Or even a person. These things aren’t bad in themselves – they may indeed be very good - but we have a habit of diverting our worship to them and forgetting that they are not God. As our Gospel this evening reminded us “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6: 21).
Lent then, which begins today, can be a time for re-orientation. We are invited to renew our relationship with God. At the beginning of the service we were called to observe a holy season of self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting and self-denial, reading and meditation on God’s word. Shortly we shall receive the sign of the cross in ash on our foreheads, a reminder of our own frailty and impermanence and of our tendency to sin. And an invitation to take seriously our need for repentance and forgiveness.
We do this every year. And yet not every Lent need be the same. I invite you this evening to think about what God’s particular call might be to you this Lent. Indeed, if you are usually very busy, Lent might need to begin with a time of reflection, of discernment. Of asking the question ‘What kind of fast does God want from me this year?’ It doesn’t have to be chocolate again! Just to give some examples, one year I decided to give up being impatient for Lent; another year I decided I must give up anxiety. I didn’t, of course, succeed in either – as many of you will know. But the trying was worthwhile, and in both cases reminded me that God is in charge, however much I might want to be myself.
So, what is the call this year? Our readings this evening give us plenty of options.
“Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart,…. Rend your hearts and not your clothing.” (Joel 2: 12).
There’s repentance – turning back to God, asking forgiveness for the ways in which we fail over and over again.
“when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret” (Matthew 6:2)
Not ‘if you give’, but ‘when you give’. Are we being challenged about our giving?
“whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matthew 6: 5)
Not ‘if you pray’, but ‘whenever you pray’. So is the call to spend more time in prayer?
If you look up the etymology of the word ‘Lent’ you will find that it comes from the Old English word for Spring. Spring can be a cold season, with winds and showers. It can feel quite bleak. But it is also a season when the light slowly returns and the days lengthen. When suddenly you notice all the dirt and dust in corners which has accumulated during the winter. A time for clearing out and cleaning. A time also to enjoy the light. A time of discovery and renewal as all sorts of bulbs and plants push their way out through inhospitable looking ground. They won’t be able to come up if we rush around digging and disturb the ground.
So another approach to Lent might be just to slow down, to wait and rest and pray for a spring of the Spirit in our hearts. It takes some courage to do this. But we may be surprised by what comes up.
Whatever we decide, I pray that Lent may be a fruitful and a deeply joyful time for us all as we re-orientate our hearts towards God.