Each year as we enter the season of Lent I recall a wonderful conversation I once overheard.
I was waiting at a bus stop outside my old Catholic primary school and standing next to me were two young girls, pupils of the school. One of them was happily eating a bag of sweets and her friend said to her, “I thought you were giving up sweets for Lent?” “No,” she replied, “sweet things, like sugar: sweets are OK”! And she went on popping the ‘forbidden’ delights into her mouth.
It’s easy, I think, for us to get tied up in all kinds of knots during Lent. We may attempt to give something up and not succeed and then we might enter into all kinds of intellectual bargaining to justify our ‘failure’ and we may end up feeling quite miserable. And I’m pretty sure that God does not desire us to be miserable in Lent, or at least not unnecessarily so. Indeed Jesus is quite clear in Matthew Chapter 6: “When you fast do not put on a gloomy look.” I once had a conversation with a nun about fasting and she confided to me, “I’m just not very good at it!” She had a very senior role in her congregation and it was quite liberating for me to hear that, for I’m not very good at fasting either.
As I’ve written before, each Lent, so too at Advent, I try not to drink any alcohol, in an attempt to do a fast before the feast, but I usually fail almost before I’ve started. Just as Advent is filled with Christmas parties and concerts and the like, so too is Lent filled with potential ‘pitfalls’. Obviously if you’re Irish there is special dispensation on St Patrick’s Day for a glass of Guinness but Yim Soon’s birthday also falls within Lent; and if Lent is very early then it encompasses my birthday and maybe too the Chinese Lunar New Year. Lent includes as well International Women’s Day, which Yim Soon likes to mark with a glass of wine and it would be anti-social to let her drink alone, wouldn’t it! A few years ago we even had Ash Wednesday occurring on Valentine’s Day so Lent didn’t get off to a very dry start at all for me that year. I am just like that little girl at the bus stop: ‘sweets are OK’!
Another significant conversation for me was with the woman who runs my local green grocer. She and her husband are Muslims from Pakistan and they observe Ramadan, which means not eating or drinking during daylight hours for about four weeks. I was speaking to her one time in the first week of that holy month and she seemed quite joyful and serene (her husband slightly less so, and by Week 4 he was visibly feeling the strain!). She remarked to me, “It’s a time to be purified,” and I find that a lovely image for Lent: a time to be purified, from whatever it is we need to be purified from, whether that’s unhealthy food or unhealthy thoughts or images or habits or addictions. One of my favourite lines in the whole of the bible is one we hear read out in church on Ash Wednesday. It is found in Joel Chapter 2: ‘Come back to me with all your heart.’ What an invitation! However much we mess things up, God will be waiting for us with open arms. Come back to me with all your heart. And we’ll always be given another chance; if we don’t get it ‘right’ this Lent there will always be next Lent.
The woman at the green grocer gave me another valuable insight into Lent when she explained that Ramadan was also a time to do good deeds to those in the community in need. Again this has biblical echoes for me, in the book of Isaiah, Chapter 58: ‘Is not this the kind of fast that pleases me…to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and shelter the homeless poor.’
As well as being filled with numerous occasions for temptation, Lent also happens to coincide, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, with the magical season of Spring. Indeed the word ‘Lent’ is simply derived from the old English word ‘lencten’ which means Spring season. As we enter Lent the world is quite literally exploding with new life. The snowdrops begin the show, closely followed by the crocuses and daffodils, then a little later some very brave early tulips. Meanwhile the first specks of yellow appear on the forsythia, the trees and bushes begin to bud, the days lengthen and the birdsong starts earlier…and finishes later.
So let us not in this Lent season be too harsh on ourselves. Let us perhaps instead hear anew the invitation to come back with all our heart. Let us find ways of reaching out to ‘the poor’, whoever and wherever they may be. And let us rejoice in this incredible annual miracle of creation.