Drop, Drop Slow Tears: An Exploration of the Meaning of Lent
For a Lent Quiet Day at St. Giles' Cambridge, 16th March 2019.
Focus texts: Genesis 1:26-28; Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13; John 2:18, 3:16-17, 6.
We've just come to the end of the first full week of Lent, with about another five weeks to go. We may all know or have a good idea as to what Lent is; especially if we're used to it, or if it's something we or our families have always observed. But what is it really all about? What is the meaning of Lent?
Lent is a time of commemoration. In most traditions, Lent lasts for forty days and forty nights. This is Biblically founded; Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the desert, when He was being tempted by the Devil. Accounts of Jesus's temptation can be found in the three Synoptic Gospels; Mark 1:12-13; Matthew 4:1-11, and Luke 4:1-13. Mark's account is relatively brief, but Matthew and Luke offer more detail the three temptations Jesus experienced. The Devil tempted Christ to turn stones into bread; to jump from the Temple to then be caught by angels; and to own all the Kingdom that is set before him. You might also observe that the order of these temptations differs between the accounts of Matthew and Luke; commentaries have all sorts of things to say about this. There isn't an account of Jesus's temptation in the Fourth Gospel; but some scholars, such as Whittaker, have identified parallels to these three temptations in John. I agree with Whittaker; his claim seems to be well-founded. John 6:26-31 makes reference to the temptation of turning stones into bread; Jesus is told to perform a Messianic sign inside the Temple in John 2:18; and there is mention of taking the Kingdom by force in John 6:15. Christ was, being fully human as well as fully divine, tempted just as we can be tempted today. He was like us in every way, although He did not sin. Especially in Lent, we commemorate Christ's resistance to these temptations; and we also aim to imitate Christ in His resistance of temptation as best we can.
Lent is a time of self-examination and contemplation. We are human beings, and while we are made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-28), we are not perfect. Only God - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - is perfect. By the life and example of Christ, by our God-given gift of reason, and with the guidance and assistance of the Church, we are also able to reflect on our own lives, our decisions, our thoughts, words and deeds, and to discern how we can love God and our neighbours more dearly. By doing this, and allowing God to form us in these ways, we can follow Christ more nearly.
In some traditions, and particularly in Anglican and Roman Catholicism, pilgrims pray the Stations of the Cross during Lent; this allows us to further contemplate and experience something of what Christ Himself experienced for us, because of His great love for us - further evoking a response of love and awe of Him. Additionally, some Christians find it helpful to go to Confession; a particularly personal way of saying sorry to God and being absolved by Him, as well as being a reminder of His infinite mercy and forgiveness, together with helpful advice from the priest as to how we can do better in the future.
In Lent, Passiontide, Holy Week and at the Easter Triduum (the latter being the sequence of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday), we contemplate the Paschal Mystery. This eventually culminates in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ; three distinct occasions in Jesus's final week of His Incarnate life on the Earth, and yet also each constituting an element of the one, united, perfect salvific event - Jesus's salvific work which opens the gate of life to all. Observing a holy Lent is perhaps one of many ways we can thank God for freely choosing to send His Son to us, to save us from our sins, and to open the gate of life to all.
Today, many people around the world - Christians and also non-Christians - observe Lent. This often involves giving something up - some traditional examples of things to give up for Lent include meat, fish, alcohol, and various other things. There are also lots of other things people today give up for Lent - like chocolate, social media, and more. What would be a good challenge for you? What might you find hard to give up? Whatever it is, that's probably what you could consider giving up for Lent. It shouldn't necessarily be too difficult a task; I think it is often the intention that matters the most. But it isn't supposed to be too easy either; Jesus, being fully human as well as fully divine, did not find His temptations easy. Doubtless, after the Devil had finished tempting the Messiah, Jesus will have taken much comfort from the angels who helped Him after the temptations, in Matthew 4:11. But remember - Jesus is the Son of God, and - while we are children of God - we are perhaps not expected to always respond as perfectly as He did, for only God is perfect. It is God who heals us, and God – being omniscient, or all-knowing – knows all that we can and do experience. In good times and in bad; in easy times and in difficult. And that's incredibly comforting!
For many, Lent can also involve taking something on. For example, by doing more exercise, or spending more time reading the Bible or other Christian literature. Today, more people are doing the Forty Acts of Kindness - a generosity challenge by Stewardship, a UK Christian charity. Many Christians spend more time in prayer, fostering their devotion and relationship with God. A Lenten calendar may be especially helpful for people who would like to draw themselves closer to God again in these ways, and I think such practices over time can help us to be formed more in the ways God wants us to be – and, being open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – allowing God to do that formation even if and when it can sometimes prove too much for us to take on.
So in Lent, some people give something up; others take something on; and some people do both. What about me? I've given up alcohol for Lent; so for instance when I go out with friends from university, instead of having a pint or two I have a fruit juice or one of those alcohol-free beers or ciders (yes, those are a thing – I don't know how they make them but they're delicious!). I've also taken on extra exercise, as I prepare for the athletics season with my sports team, the Croydon Harriers. What are you doing this Lent?
Why do we observe Lent today? It is because of our love of God - our response of love to God, who has infinite love for us. We read in John 3:16-17 (one of my favourite Bible passages!) that God so loved the world, that He gave us His Son, that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but have eternal life. God didn't send His Son into the world to condemn the world; but that through Him, we may be saved.
And, for me, this is the core meaning of Lent - a time to remember; a time to say sorry; a time to say thank you; and also a time to rejoice (but saving the word “a**e*uia” until Easter!) - that by His stripes, we are healed. It is a time in which we especially thank God for His great love of us; so, let us too thank God by and through love, as best we can.