prayerhands

On Lent

Br Anthony, in a sermon given at Mucknell Abbey, reflects on the meaning of Lent.

Benedict in his Rule, Chapter 49, tells us that our whole lives should be Lenten in character. This is a daunting prospect but I wonder how much of this is to do with how we tend to see Lent in a negative way. We need to remember that penitence is not about self-inflicted suffering but about recognising the consequences of our choices in life.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ struggle with Satan, as in the other accounts in the Gospels, shows him struggling with the profound realisation of what it means to be Son of God. Jesus doesn’t engage with Satan but rebuts each temptation with a prophecy of scripture which he will fulfill. He will give himself, not stones, as bread. His life is poured out in prayer and in Gethsemane the angels hold him to his purpose. In Gethsemane that experience reveals to the disciples how God can be God in the very heart of human terror for, as Rowan Williams explains ‘God’s life is compatible with every bit of human life’ even though this only made sense to them in the light of their experience of the risen Christ. Jesus’ human life is sustained from the depths of God. Our response to this is to seek to live in such a way that Christ is formed in us, just as God the Son entered his creation to redeem it.

The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten character

– The Rule of St Benedict, Chapter 49

Metanoia is the Greek word used to translate the Hebrew word for a change of mind. We need to remember that it has a hopeful meaning which is not always apparent in the traditional English translation as repentance, which too easily becomes the way earn forgiveness instead of the result of having received it. The metanoia called for by Jesus is a change of mind-set so as to realise that all God’s promises are free gifts, not rewards for right behaviour. Lent is a time of reflection and preparation for the promise of Easter. It is not about beating ourselves up. Repentance is about turning to God.

God’s promises are free gifts not rewards. Prayer and fasting, fasting and prayer are linked to the desire for God. Fasting is not a diet any more than solitude is the same as living alone. Each time we say no to ourselves we fast. In this sense prayer is fasting. When we pray consciously or unconsciously we make room for the Spirit’s work. We are saying ‘no’ to ourselves in order to say ‘yes’ to God, so that mercy may indwell and transfigure us.

If we can see Lent as part of our Easter journey then we realise that faith in Jesus means that in the words of Rowan Williams ‘we have to live in the world with all its risks but with lives open to those depths from which Jesus lives.’ Benedict in Chapter 49 gives us some practical advice for our observance of Lent – a creative self-denial so that in our own experience we can mirror the self-emptying kenosis of Christ the Word of God.

Stephen Cherry in his book on forgiveness and reconciliation reminds us to look at the ‘give’ in the middle of the word ‘forgiveness’. When we spend time in silence and solitude we are brought face to face with all kinds of ‘stuff’ for want of a better word. Within each of us there are unacknowledged and unaccepted parts of ourselves which in the mercy of God can be welcomed and healed. We are the strangers invited to the feast in the reading from Deuteronomy in the first lesson today.

What do you seek?

The mercy of God.

– Benedictine Profession Rite

I was very moved recently by a clip on the BBC news which illustrates the power of mercy to bring us to new life in Christ. The item was given the title ‘Why I hugged my children’s killer’. A young man from a Rwandan village had just been released from prison after an amnesty given to conscripted soldiers forced to take part in ethnic cleansing. He returned to his village to attend a meeting of the local elders who were holding a truth and reconciliation meeting. The young man was shaking with shame and unable to speak. Suddenly one of the women got up and went to him and said ‘I forgive you’ and embraced him.

This is what the Ash Wednesday collect teaches. Sharing in his sufferings by our endeavour to live the Christ life, we can be ‘brought to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ – whose life is a life completely God’s gift for our healing and forgiveness, freely embraced by the God-made-human who is Jesus, and be held within the infinite depths of life. At a Solemn Profession the candidate is asked ‘What do you seek?’ and the candidate replies ‘The mercy of God’.

So as we begin our Lenten fast, which is really prayer – letting go of things to make space for God, and if we can see it as the start of our journey to Easter, let the fading echoes of the alleluias we stopped singing on Shrove Tuesday be the grace which strengthens us on our journey.

For reference:

Stephen Cherry. Healing Agony –re-imagining forgiveness (Continuum, 2012)
Norman Todd. Metanoia and Transformation (The Way, 2013), p.24
Rowan Williams. The Dwelling of Light (Canterbury Press, 2003)
Maggie Ross. Fire of your Life (Harper Collins, 1991) pp.26-32