So we’re in Lent – the 40 day period running up to Easter.
We had an Ash Wednesday service last night at St Michael le Belfrey at which I shared four things about Lent. But first I told my best Lent joke, which goes like this:
An Irishman walks into a Dublin bar, orders three pints of Guinness and sits in the corner, taking a sip out of each glass in turn. When all three are empty, he returns to the bar and orders three more. The bartender advises him: ‘You know, a pint goes flat after it’s drawn. It would taste better if you bought one at a time.’ The Irishman replies ‘Well, I have two brothers – one in America & one in Australia, and I’m here in Dublin. When we all left home, we promised to always drink this way to remember the days when we drank together.’ The bartender admits this is a touching custom and leaves it at that. Over the next few weeks the Irishman becomes a regular in the bar, always drinking the same way: ordering three pints of Guinness at a time and drinking them in turn, & then returning for a second round. Then one day, he comes in and orders only two pints.The other regulars notice and fall silent. When he returns to the bar for the second round, the bartender says: ‘I don’t want to intrude on your grief, but I wanted to offer my condolences and those of our regulars, on your sad loss’. The Irishman looks confused for a moment, before the light dawns and he laughs. ‘Oh no’ he says, ‘everyone’s fine. It’s just that I’ve stopped drinking for Lent.’
So is Lent about stopping things? I think:
1) Lent is less about stopping and more about starting
Most people think Lent is about stopping things. So when I was interviewed on Radio York on Tuesday about Lent, the very first question asked of me was: ‘what am I giving up for Lent?’ Often people do stop things but more important is what you’re going to start, because in Lent you’re encouraged to start some serious disciplines. Three basic ones which Jesus taught all his followers to practice are: giving, praying and fasting (Mt 6:2,5,16). If you don’t do much in one or all of those areas, may I strongly advise that you make a start in at least one of them this Lent.
2) Lent is less about superficiality and more about honesty
Many people think Lent is about suddenly becoming un-naturally ‘holy’. They think it’s about spending a long time looking inside of yourself, becoming intense and perhaps self-obsessed and rather boring! I’ve met people like that, and they tend to put you off God and faith. It can all seem so serious. So deadly. So life-draining, rather than life-enhancing. However Lent is not about being superficial. It’s actually the opposite. It’s about being real and honest. Honest about what you find inside of yourself – even if you don’t like what you find! Honest about your lifestyle – about your priorities and values and about how you spend your time and your money. For example, if you’re trying to fast at times in Lent but realise you’re neglecting doing something basic things like caring for the poor, then you should be honest about these things, and make some changes. (That’s why one of the classic passages about fasting in Isaiah 58 talks about the priority of social justice above ritual fasting).
3) Lent is less about complexity and more about simplicity
Some people would love to practice Lent more fully but don’t, thinking: ‘oh no, it’s something else to do. It’s another thing to add on to my busy life.’ They think that Lent will make life more complex. And it will, unless you use Lent to deliberately slow down and intentionally choose to do less, for a season. So our Archbishop, John Sentamu, schedules no church meetings in Lent. For him, life becomes more simple in Lent. And he’s got it right. It’s not about complexity. It’s about simplicity. It’s about asking: ‘what important? Let’s do those things and nothing more.’
4) Lent is less about weakness and more about strength
Finally, some see Lent as awkward and embarrassing, as it’s a season that highlights our weaknesses. Let’s be honest: we find it hard to give, to pray and to fast. And so Lent exposes our frailty – and we don’t like that. But actually if Lent is supposed to be about honesty and it makes us realise that we’re weak then that can be good, as long as we then turn to the Spirit of Jesus for help and strength. It’s the Holy Spirit who, according to 2 Timothy 1:7 ‘gives us power, love and self-discipline’.
The whole point of Lent, in the end, is to prepare us for Easter, where we remember the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the amazing power released breaking the power of sin and death and hell and enabling us to know God’s forgiveness, a transformed life and eternal life beyond the grave. So don’t get bogged down in your weakness at Lent. We’re all weak. Every one of us. Rather, focus on God’s strength that we especially celebrate at the end of Lent, at Easter.
So Lent is a season where we particularly aim to ‘store up treasures not here on earth, but in heaven’ (Mt 6:20). So invest in heavenly things this Lent. Start to get disciplined. Be honest with yourself and God about what you find inside of yourself. Keep Lent simple, not complicated: enjoying the more of doing less. And look forward to Easter, receiving the strength that flows to you from the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.