Welcome + Worship + Witness

The Rector: Keeping a true Lent

22 February 2015, Lent
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
1 Peter; Mark 1. 9-15

An old man was asked, ‘How can I find God?’ He replied, ‘In fasting, in watching, in labours, in devotion, and above all, in discernment. I tell you, many have injured their bodies without discernment and have gone away from us having achieved nothing. Our mouths smell bad through fasting, we know the Scriptures by heart, we can recite all the psalms of David, but we have not that which God seeks: love and humility.’

We are at the beginning of Lent, when self-denial and discipline are high on the agenda of Christians and indeed a surprising number of non-Christians. But as those words with which I began suggest, self-denial and discipline are only means to an end – the end being the love and humility that God seeks from us.  The old man’s words echo a number of Old Testament passages, as well as part of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, which condemn fasting for its own sake: there’s no point in fasting if all you do is look gloomy and give yourself a hard time; it’s of no use to you and is certainly of no use to anyone else. To paraphrase an old saying: fasting is as fasting does. The old man I began with was one of the fourth century Desert Fathers. We have met these Egyptian monks before in my sermons. They went in their thousands to the North African desert to emulate Jesus’ wilderness experience that Mark so briefly alludes to in our Gospel reading. In Luke and Matthew’s longer accounts of this time it is clear that the forty days Jesus spent alone in the desert brought our Lord closer to his heavenly Father. Thus we can see the whole experience as a necessary prelude to his ministry of loving and humble service, a refining of his mission and his purpose.

As we move into Lent the days are lengthening once again. Those of you who were here on Ash Wednesday will have heard me mention  the connection between the word lengthen and Lent and the Old English word for spring. Yet even as winter is hoarsely shouting its last and new life is about to explode all around us, the subtle rhythm of the Church’s year encourages us to stand back, to reflect, and to prepare with penitence and austerity for the momentous events that lie at the end of the next six weeks. These are events that will draw us into a brooding, lowering darkness; a darkness as yet unredeemed by an Easter that still lies below our spiritual horizon. This is indeed, as T. S. Eliot wrote, ‘the time of tension between dying and birth/The place of solitude where three dreams cross between blue rocks‘.

So how can we use the solitude of Lent? How can we most effectively inhabit this place of tension? How will God judge our fasting?  The Jesus who spent time in the wilderness was human, as we are human: as the letter to the Hebrews says, in every respect he has been tempted as we are. So Lent is, first of all, a chance for us to take seriously our call as Christians to be human; to rejoice that God has given us the freedom to refuse to assent to evil: the evil of which we know ourselves to be capable, as well as the collective evil of humankind that is so often at the root of disease and hunger, the desperation and squalor and terror of the lives so many in our world are condemned to live; we can reject the destructive temptation to grasp at equality with God, to impose our will by might on others, to accept casually the consequences of war as mere collateral damage; we can, if we will it, use the solitude of Lent to begin to glimpse within ourselves what we were truly created to be: people created in love by God in God’s own image and likeness. Yet if and when we fail to live up to this call, this responsibility to be human, we can be certain that God will not let us go. Time and again God will call us back to himself in the person of Jesus whose human arms stretch out from the cross to embrace the whole of humankind in an act of divine love. For although Jesus was tempted as we are, he was without sin. Truly human yet truly God, loving us back into our true shape.

I end with the poem by Robert Herrick written in the typically robust style of the seventeenth century. Like the words of the old man of the desert with which I began, Herrick’s words echo passages from the Old Testament prophets that reflect on the differences between surface fasting and true fasting. Indeed Herrick called his poem To keep a true Lent.  You might find it helpful to use the poem as a personal reflection during your Lenten journey.

To keep a true Lent.

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour?

No ;  ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin ;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Robert Herrick, 1591-1674