So here we are at the beginning of another Lent. We are having a rather traditional penitential liturgy, closing with the Imposition of Ashes, for those who want. A sign of penitence, of repentance.
So what is it all about? Is it all solemn and penitential? Should Lent be a joyless, miserable few weeks? It certainly has form for being just that. I can't find my copy to quote exactly, but back at the turn of the last century, children in a vicarage family dreaded Lent: it was assumed that nobody would want to eat cakes, sweets or jam, so these were not served, and for small children it seemed a dreadfully long time! And on the one, memorable, occasion they were allowed to accept an invitation to a party in Lent, they were reminded that they should only eat bread and butter – and were somewhat at a loss as to what to do when they found it was sprinkled with hundreds-and-thousands, as was often the custom at parties in those days! The sausage rolls and mini-pizzas that would have saved them at a party today were unknown then!
More recently, I had a cousin whose birthday normally falls in Lent, and I gather her father didn't really like her to have a party until Easter was safely over. And when Robert and I were married, also in Lent, my mother was not at all sure whether we should have flowers or not!
You'll see no flowers here today, nor will you until Easter Day. That's a legacy of our Anglican roots – no Anglican church will have flowers now, or at least not on Sundays, until Easter. It is, apparently, fine for weddings and funerals, but you don't keep them the way you normally would.
And in those churches where they change colours according to the seasons, the cloths and the clergy's stoles will be changed from the green of Ordinary Time to the purple of Lent and Advent.
Even today people still give things up for Lent; a friend of mine, who is not a Christian, nevertheless doesn't eat chocolate during Lent as a minor act of self-discipline. Actually, given that we are competing in France in a couple of weeks and both of us find chocolate one of the best ways to avoid a serious adrenaline crash, it will be a rather more serious deprivation this year, I suspect! Other people give up other things – booze, for instance, and some friends are giving up their social networking for Lent – Twitter, for instance, or Facebook.
But just giving things up is often not enough. When we were children, we were never allowed to give up anything for Lent unless we saved the money we would otherwise have spent and gave it to charity. And if you give up going on a social network, what do you do with the time? Do you really spend it practising the presence of God, or does it get frittered away playing Solitaire or something similar? I know which it would be if I tried doing that!
But should Lent be a dreary, solemn time, with an emphasis on the negative? I think not. Sometimes people take on something extra during Lent. The classic, of course, is the Lent Study Group, but there are other things. Some people make a point of reading a book about God, or about people's experiences and history with God, during Lent. Others might make a point of doing something for other people – going round and visiting people from church that perhaps they haven't visited for ages. If you are on bad terms with someone, Lent is a terrific time to put things right. Or you might make a point, as I do some years, of finding something to be thankful for each day.
But what, then, about all this solemn penitential stuff we're going to do in a minute? It's easy enough to think of it as miserable; as meaning we ought to be unhappy about being such dreadful people, and so on. But I don't think it's meant to mean that.
It is, I think, about making a fresh start, about preparing for Lent. Back in the day, people used to go to confession on Shrove Tuesday, to be shriven of their sins, so that they could start Lent right with God. What, after all, could be nicer, after all, than being right with God, than knowing you are right with God, that you are forgiven, that you are loved?
Confession isn't really about telling God the nasty things you've done, said or thought. It can involve that, of course, but I think it's deeper than that – it's about facing up to the fact that you are the sort of person who can say, do our think such things: I have to face up to the fact that I am the sort of person who will snap at her family, given the slightest excuse to do so, or that I tend to be very greedy and lazy, as you can doubtless tell just by looking! But without God's help I shall always be these things. God knows what I'm like – it's no surprise to Him. But I need to face up to the fact that I'm like that, and ask God to help me change.
And, of course, we need to let go of anything someone else has done that has hurt us, to forgive them. And that can be horrendously difficult, too, especially if you're still angry at them. Again, it's not really something you can do by yourself – you need God's help to do it. God can take the anger and the hurt and even the hatred, and transform it – but you have to be willing to give it to him, and sometimes you have to start by asking for help to make you willing to let go of it! That's all part of confession.
And sometimes, it's God himself who we need to forgive. Which sounds awful, but what about those times when something awful happens and we don't know why? Think of the people of Christchurch, New Zealand this Lent – I wonder how many are angry with God because of the earthquake that has destroyed their Cathedral and may well have destroyed their homes, or their loved ones. I know there have been times in my life when bad things have happened, and I've been very angry with God. Who, thankfully, doesn't mind – admitting our anger is, as always, part of confession.
And sometimes, of course, it's ourselves we need to forgive. We find it very hard to accept we are the kind of person who can snap at others, or who can waste a lot of money in the shops, or on on-line gambling sites, and when we catch ourselves doing something like that, we feel we've let ourselves down, and we find it very hard to put it behind us and allow God to help us carry on. Again, admitting that is part of confession.
The second part, the repentance, isn't just about saying “Sorry” to God, although that's where it starts. It's about turning right round, and going God's way rather than our own way. This may well involve changes in our behaviour, but mostly it involves changes in our deepest being, in who we are, in what's important to us. And that doesn't happen overnight, of course, and won't happen at all without God's help.
We're not just telling God how ghastly we are and promising to change in our own strength. We're asking God to help us grow and change. If we try to change in our own strength, we shall surely fail. Sometimes we get it twisted, and think we have to make ourselves perfect before we can come to God – er no. We must come to God exactly as we are, and allow Him to come into our deepest levels and help us to grow perfect. It won't happen overnight, but as long as we are open to God, it will happen.
And so we come to our penitential rite.
This isn't something we do publicly very often. In our Gospel reading, Jesus reminds his followers that mostly, you keep your religious practices to yourself. You don't make a parade of being holy, because that's not what being holy is about. You don't let everybody know when you're fasting – and I assume that, in this day and age, it means you don't moan on Facebook about missing chocolate or booze if you happen to have decided to give them up for Lent! You certainly don't make a parade about what you are giving, or giving up! What you give to the church or to charity is between you and the Treasurer of that organisation – oh, and the Inland Revenue if you are a tax-payer and gift aid it. Nobody else needs to know. If you are helping out someone who is in financial difficulty, nobody needs to know except you and that person.
You don't have to let people know how much – or how little – you pray, although it's only polite to say you've prayed for someone if they've asked you to. But if you found you lay awake in the night praying for them – and it can happen, if God really needs you to pray for that person – then you don't go saying so, and certainly not to anybody else!
Instead, says Jesus, you do all that privately, keeping it between you and God and anybody else who really needs to know, and you carry on as though nothing has happened.
And that's what we're going to do now. We're going to use the words on the sheet to help us get ourselves right with God, and if we wish, we're going to have the sign of the cross marked on our foreheads with ash as a sign of that happening. But we will wipe it off before we leave here – there are plenty of tissues if you haven't one – and we will go on our way rejoicing.
And I hope we will continue to rejoice throughout Lent; rejoice that we are loved; rejoice that we are saved; rejoice that we are, however slowly, becoming the people we were created to be. It's not our idea, it's not our doing. It's God's idea.
And then, come Easter Sunday, we will be able to realise all this for ourselves, to make the Resurrection real, to know the Risen Lord in our own hearts and lives, and for the joy and love to spill over on to those around us. Amen!
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