18 February 2015
19.00 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
2 Corinthians 5. 20b-6.10; Matthew 6. 1-6 & 16-21
‘What are you giving up for Lent?’ I suppose the fact that this question is still so frequently asked at this time of year, even in parts of our society not noted for their churchgoing, is a mildly heartening testament to the persistence of a certain religious sensibility in the wider culture. Like many clergy, I find that people are especially inclined to ask me the ‘what are you giving up’ question. I sometimes try to explain that Lent is not simply about giving things up; but it’s at this point that I realise the residual religious sensibility I mentioned a moment ago doesn’t extend to any real desire for theological engagement.
Yet for the record, I do really think it is a very superficial view of Lent which sees it as just about giving things up. A commitment to renounce, say, chocolate or alcohol or soap operas for Lent is fine; but very often such a commitment can become an all-consuming enterprise, or even a matter of pride – distracting us from all sorts of other matters which might need our attention: our prayer life, relationships which have gone sour, even the New Year’s resolutions which we have so miserably failed to keep. And giving things up can easily tip over from mere continence to outright negativity, reinforcing the notion that Lent is about gloom and figurative hair shirts, six weeks that must simply be endured.
There is a more positive way of looking at Lent. The word derives from an Old English word lencten which means the Spring. And just as Spring contains within it hope for the new life which will grow to maturity during Summer, so Lent contains within it hope for new life in the risen Christ. If there had been no Easter there would be no point in Lent.
This is not to deny that Lent is a solemn time: with Good Friday at the end how could it not be? But it should not be a cheerless time. Lent should be a journey of the soul, a way of looking forward, a means of preparing. Part of that preparation does involve looking at ourselves honestly; it means asking ourselves whether we are truly ready to receive the risen Christ into our hearts. There are few of us who could give an unequivocal ‘yes’ in response to such questioning. So Lent gives us an opportunity to sort ourselves out, to get ourselves ready. We don’t have to make a great show about this. Indeed in this evening’s Gospel reading Jesus specifically warns his disciples against doing so: making sure you are being seen to pray; being ostentatious about your fasting; seeking the praise of others for your piety – these are the ways of the hypocrites. Better, Jesus says, to be modest in your behaviour, for empty ritual is no substitute for real repentance. True religion has to do with content, not merely with form.
But form, or ritual, if used appropriately, does have its place in worship, whether it is the adopting of a particular posture for prayer, the making of the sign of the cross at various points in the liturgy or reverencing the altar. Used properly such acts provide us with a focus for prayerful reflection. In a moment those of you who so wish will come forward to receive, in ash, the sign of the cross on your forehead. In scripture ashes are a symbol of penitence: Job repents in dust and ashes as an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and power; the king of Nineveh covers himself with sackcloth and ashes in response to Jonah’s prophesy. Ashes are a sign, too, of our mortality as the words spoken at the imposition will remind us. And ashes are a symbol of purification, used in the Law of Moses to cleanse those who are in a state of sin. Penitence, purification, and an acknowledgment of our mortality: let us receive this sign with awareness in our hearts of our need for all three; but above all let us receive the sign with joy, as we give thanks for the eternal Eastertide of Jesus’s resurrection life that has for ever transformed our earthbound Lenten observance. Amen.