By Rev’d Derwyn Williams
I remember as a child positively disliking Lent. After the fun of making pancakes I couldn’t see the point in forcing yourself to be mildly grumpy for six weeks by giving up chocolate or sweets. As a choirboy, the music seemed to me gloomy and sad: not much fun to sing. Lent was a season to be endured before Easter came and brightened everything up again.
And as a young Christian adult I recall a backlash against Lent among my friends at the time. ‘Giving things up’ was dismissed as self-righteous religiosity: an attempt to gain merit (with God, or in your own imagination) by being holier than other people. Some people took an equally questionable pride in deciding not to slavishly follow church tradition. Others focused their energy into ‘taking something up for Lent’ instead. It was through them that I discovered Lent groups, Lent books, special Lenten services and particular devotions for this season.There’s a lot to be said for doing something special in Lent, in the prayerful hope of growing in faith, love and service to God and others. Lent can be a ‘springtime for the soul’ when we reconnect with the Lord. We shall be having special services on Ash Wednesday 10 February to begin the season. There will be an Alpha course on Monday evenings, and ‘Seeing and Believing’ Lent Devotions on Tuesdays, followed by a charity soup lunch. Emily is leading a Lent Group on Friday mornings and Churches Together have Lent Groups at various times of the week. (see page 18) We’ll be holding an ‘Exploring Prayer’ morning on 12 March. If any of these Lent activities might help you grow as a Christian, do look for details and get involved.
But at the same time as learning to ‘take things up’, I’ve revised my childhood attitudes to fasting in Lent. It now seems one of the most powerful and transformative things a Christian can do. Our culture is increasingly one of impatient desire: the ‘good life’ is presented as a life in which our appetites are met as quickly and as completely as possible. Virtues such as patience, contentment and self-denial are seen as odd, redundant, or even dangerously undermining of the consumerist merry-go-round which claims to make us rich.
There are two problems with this. Firstly that we live on a finite planet. More and more people wanting more and more things just can’t go on forever. At some point we have to state the obvious: ‘enough is enough’, and find a stable, sustainable way of life for planet earth. Second, if life truly is mainly about satisfying material desire, then it becomes an infinite cycle of wanting and getting, from which there is no escape. That may be good for the economy, but not for the soul. For as soon as we get the thing we want we find that our satisfaction is short -lived. In a culture that encourages and educates us to constantly want, some new desire swiftly pops up to tantalize us, until it is, temporarily, satisfied. And then the imprisoning cycle begins again.
Fasting in Lent says ‘no’ to all this. It won’t make us better or holier than the next person. But it’s a way of saying ‘enough is enough’. I have no greater need than God. No material longing, be it for chocolate, alcohol, coffee or biscuits can satisfy me more than the presence and love of God. With God’s grace I will not be held captive by desire, except by my desire of God. For an inescapable desire of material things corrupts the soul, but an inexhaustible desire for God fills it with life. Lenten fasting is intended not to make us grumpy, but to educate our desires away from the stuff which cannot ultimately satisfy, towards the God who can. That now sounds to me like bold, life-giving good news.
So, how will you spend Lent? Is it a season you look forward to, or dread? Will you ’give up’, ‘take up’, or do both or neither? Nothing is compulsory, everything is a free gift. But if you do do anything, make it a positive, intentional choice, and I pray that it may bring you close to God.