Lent is upon us. For many of us, long hard weeks without chocolate, or biscuits, or alcohol are about to begin. I’m going vegan again – which I did last year and at first it felt hardcore-Lent-to-the-max!! But I quickly felt better and more alert & had more energy. But in a few days some of us will be biting our nails, looking forward to Easter Day and stuffing our face with our forbidden foods, or drinking the few celebratory pints that we may have denied ourselves for forty days.
Some of us will fail in our Lenten disciplines, but we should all try. All of us should think about the value of making some kind of special effort during Lent.
So what are we to do? Give up something? It would seem that giving things up, making a sacrifice, is an important part of the Christian message ‘Anyone who loves their life loses it; anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for the eternal life.’ (John 12.) The central image of Christianity is of a man being executed, giving up his life, making the ultimate sacrifice.
I think as we are all adults here I can tell my favourite story about giving things up for Lent (sensitive souls may want to cover your ears!).
Robert Runcie was, for a time the principal of Cuddesdon theological college, and one day at teas he asked a group of young men who were training for the priesthood what they were giving up for Lent. I’m not sure if the young man was being serious or not, but one of the ordinand said he was going to give up “masturbation.”
Runcie was not at all phased by this, he just shrugged his shoulders and said “what a delicious way to spend Easter morning.”
The suspicion of sex (even sex when alone) is a real problem in the psyche of the Christian religion. I have spoken before about the religious tradition in which I was brought up, which stressed sacrifice above all else (especially sacrifice from women, but that is, as they say, another sermon). It was very puritanical, and taught that if you didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, didn’t use foul language, didn’t sleep around, and ‘gave your heart to Jesus’ you would go to heaven. The options seemed stark – a miserable life on earth in return for eternal life in a kind of cosmic Centre Parcs with harp music; or have fun on earth and spend eternity in the flames of Hell (where the company would be more interesting, but your really good conversations with Oscar Wilde or John Lennon would be constantly interrupted by sessions of torture with Satan and all his minions).
Of course this is not really sacrifice at all, it is just an investment with high returns. I give God my misery for four score years and ten, and God gives me joy for all eternity. My problem is that I firmly believe that God wants us to be happy here and now on Earth. Even in Lent God wants us to be whole and happy.
So what then does our Lenten discipline mean? Why is it good to do something special in the run up to Easter, to either give something up, or take something on?
In Matthew Gospel we hear Jesus say the following:
“…whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.
But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
We are not to make ourselves miserable, and certainly not to show everyone how miserable we are. Fasting (and out Lenten disciplines are a sort of fasting) is not about punishing ourselves. We are not denying ourselves something we like, just so that we can miss it. Nor are we giving things up just so that we can feel self-righteous like the hypocrites Jesus talks about, at how much we are able to give up for God. We make a Lenten discipline in order to grow in faith, to learn to increase our love for God, for our neighbours and ourselves.
If we give up something we are fond of we are not punishing ourselves. We may do it for the good of our health, out of respect for the bodies God has given us. We may do it to help change our outlook. The things we love in life and base our lives around are not necessarily the things that lead to fulfilment. Sometimes we need help to detach ourselves from unhelpful or unhealthy obsessions.
A few years ago I spent a week working with people who were addicted to drugs and alcohol. The people I met were not bad people, but they had an obsession. For those on hard drugs, their life revolves around their drug. All their time is spent either taking drugs, or looking for money to buy them. The drug becomes their life. If they are to be fulfilled as human beings they must give up the drug that is their reason for living. They must give up their reason for living. They must loose their life in order to find it. And so it is with all of us. We all have obsessions, and concerns that stop us from being fulfilled.
Those of us gathered here today may be obsessed with status, money, security, feeling needed. None of these are wrong in themselves, just as even heroin is not wrong of itself (it can be used to relieve the pain of the very ill). It is when they become obsessions that they are no longer healthy.
Self-sacrifice is not the beginning and end of Christianity. God has created a good world for us to enjoy. And while we do honour God by denying ourselves, we also honour God by enjoying the good gifts God has given us.
I must stress, at this point, that I am not trying to persuade you to stop whatever you are planning to do for Lent, I just want us all to think about why we are doing it. We may need to take time out this Lent to make a sacrifice to help us get our life and loves into a better perspective.
God asks us to give up only the things that stop us from being fulfilled, the things that stop us from loving. Because it is in loving, loving God, loving our neighbour, and loving ourselves, that we reach our full potential.
All our possessions and money and position, do not bring fulfilment, only love, given and received, can do that.
We may want to give something up, or we may want to take something on. Like five minutes of prayer, or meditation, or Bible reading every day. Our weekly email has gone daily again for Lent. Not with challenges like last year, but with a prayer and a reading for every day. This is in itself a sacrifice – a sacrifice of some of our time and energy.
Come along to one of our midweek services in Lent – Morning Prayer if you are free or our new midweek Eucharist at 8.00 on Thursdays (in Lent it will be followed by an episode of Rev and some discussion…
The gaining of life is the goal of Christianity. The sacrifices that we make are not things we give up in this life, so we can have a wild time in the next life; nor are they a way to punish ourselves; nor are they a way to show off. We sacrifice (our time, or something we enjoy) to grow as human beings, to grow right here and now. Jesus came to give us life and life more abundantly. Even in Lent God wants us to be happy.
On Ash Wednesday we measure our lives with some sobering words:
“Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return, turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.”
These ancient words are gloomy and difficult. Difficult to say as a priest, difficult to hear… But this reminder of our mortality is necessary if we want to gain perspective on our lives.
This Lent,and always, may we grow in our love of God, our neighbours and ourselves, and in our detachment from the false treasures of this world.