It’s not what you think!
I really like the church calendar; it’s like the ecclesiastical equivalent of the seasons. And since we don’t feel the seasons so much in our Western culture (apart from getting SADS) in terms of their immediate impact on our lives, our food etc., the church calendar is one of the few frameworks available to us to map out our passing years. It still defines our holidays in the UK.
Lent is a special time of the year. Unfortunately for us Christians, it has morphed into a ‘try a new year’s resolution again’ thing from what used to be a real spiritual discipline. It’s easy to talk about ‘what you’re going to give up for lent’ but people view it as something you do for health reasons or for self-discipline. This couldn’t be further from the original point!
Apparently the season of lent developed from the fact that in the early church, new converts were usually baptised on Easter Sunday – the day of resurrection. Each new convert would have had a sponsor who would teach them about the faith (like a mini Alpha course) and pray and fast with the candidate in the run up to the big day. Before long, nearly everyone was finding themselves praying and fasting in preparation for the bonanza of baptisms on Easter Sunday! This then developed into a whole church discipline and there were plenty of ideas for the length of time to set from the scriptures: the number of days Noah’s ark floated on the water; the years the Israelites spent wandering before entering the promised land and the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness before commencing his ministry.
Choosing my Lenten observances for this year was quite a funny affair. I decided, as I have done for the last couple of years, to give up alcohol for lent. Then I had a chat with some friends and colleagues about it and lots of people said ‘how are you going to get through the next 6 weeks?’ (it’s financial year end so we’ve got loads to do and the company is downsizing in the middle of all this) and I started to think – ‘perhaps it’s not such a good idea’.
I then started to think, ‘why do we give things up for lent?’ Well it’s the act of fasting: a spiritual discipline which exists in most major world religions. The point of fasting is to draw you closer to God, to relying on Him and making space to hear His voice. So I then thought, ‘maybe it would be more productive to spend an hour every day in prayer?’ I think this might be true, in terms of what would bring me closer to God, the prayer surely wins, right? Those of you who are friends with me on Twitter and Facebook will have seen that I posed the question on Tuesday of which I should do (the prayer or the giving up alcohol). Most people replied ‘both’ and my heart sank! My husband pointed out to me that if the thought of going without alcohol for 6 weeks filled me with dread – then I really did need to give it up for lent!
So in the end, I realised that to have the true sense of ‘fasting’ (and sacrifice) that I needed to give up alcohol, and I knew deep down that that was what God wanted me to do too. But at the same time:
I want to make clear to people that I am not doing it primarily for health reasons, or the challenge, or to test my will power but to draw myself more deliberately towards God.
To help me a bit I’ve got a book which splits the famous spiritual classic ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ into 30 daily readings. Each day also has a ‘mantra’ to bear in mind through the day and the one I read for Ash Wednesday couldn’t be more illustrative of why I’ve given up alcohol for lent:
‘Bind me to You with a loving leash of longing’
This is my prayer. I hope your Lenten observances have a similar aim!