We are now in the season of Lent. That word ‘Lent’ probably brings to mind the idea of giving something up. Chocolate or wine perhaps? Or cake? I once knew someone who gave up cake during Lent, but not scones. She was quite clear that scones didn’t come under the heading of cake, and so she could eat them with a clear conscience!
Why give something up though? What’s the point of it?
Well, Lent is a solemn time of year. It is set in the run-up to Easter and reminds us of the 40 days Christ spent fasting in the wilderness being tempted by Satan. So, it’s a penitential time of year when we are particularly invited to reflect on what is not as it should be in our life and interactions and relationships with others. What we have done or said that our conscience tells us has caused harm rather than good. What we have done or said that is not in line with God’s will of love and goodness for our life.
Our church buildings reflect this sombre time of year. They tend to have no flowers, and the sombre colour of purple (which is also used for funerals) is seen at the altar and in what the priest wears.
In the early days of the Church Lent was the main time for those who wanted to be baptised to undertake a programme of teaching as they prepared for baptism on Easter Sunday. Violence and persecution were often the norm for those early followers of the ‘Way’ as the very first Christians called themselves, so it was a costly business being a Christian in those faraway times (as it is indeed in many parts of the world today).
Now Lent is a time to pay particular attention to prayer and reading our Bibles (Bible study courses are often run during Lent). It’s a time of self-denial (hence the common custom of giving something up), penitence and self-examination; a time to take a step back and reflect not only on our life, but also on our faith. Where are we in our journey of faith? Is God a living reality or are we just going through the motions?
Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent and those who attend services on that day have the opportunity to be marked on their forehead with a cross of ashes. The words: ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’, are said as this is done. They are very grave words indeed, reminding us of both our sin and our mortality.
Yet they are joy-filled words as well because they remind us that we are not defeated by our mortality. The possibility of turning to Jesus is open to us! Whether our days on this earth are many or few God has sent Jesus into the world, (the one who is the ‘image of the invisible God’, Colossians 1: 15), and Jesus holds out his hand to us and offers to lead us through this life – and beyond. ‘Remember I am with you always to the end of the age’, he said to his followers (Matthew 28: 20). When we put our faith in Jesus life is transformed. We realise we are not solely defined as human beings by the material things of life: what we earn, what we own or what we achieve. We are instead defined by our relationship with Jesus Christ who shows us the best way to live, promises us fullness of life; tells us he will never leave us and that we are not to be afraid. Having faith in Jesus gives us confidence, not so much in ourselves and our own successes, but rather in Jesus Christ.
I’m going to suggest that Lent this year might be a time not only for giving something up but also for asking for something too; and that something is faith in Jesus Christ. Whatever faith you already have, even if it’s as small as a mustard seed, ask God for more. Make it a part of your daily prayers, and wait patiently to accept what He longs to give you. After all (to quote John Calvin) when we have even an atom of faith in our hearts then we can see (in Jesus Christ) God’s face which is ‘gentle, serene and approving’.
And what could be better than that?!