The first day of March saw the beginning of the holy season of Lent. It is a season which can be described in a number of ways. It might be defined as a time of spiritual retreat, a journey of faith, a period of time reminding us of the forty days Jesus spent facing temptation in the desert. Whichever, Lent marks a period of penitence and reflection, filled with opportunities for receiving special grace and blessing. ‘Lent’ means ‘spring’—reminding us that, above all, it is a season of growth, preparing for the joy of Easter. How do we prepare for joy during Lent? In the sixth chapter of St Matthew’s Gospel Jesus himself offers us advice concerning the keeping of Lent, through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
As spring comes we can really get to grips with our gardens once again—tidying away the remnants of winter and making way for the new growth. Lent—the spiritual spring—is about getting to grips with the promise of Easter, and is a time when we need to put ourselves in order and cultivate the love of God within us. In Matthew 6 Christ himself advises us to clear the ground as we pray, fast and give alms. He encourages us to tidy away all artifice and complexity, all vanity and show, and to pray in secret, so that we can be honest with ourselves and honest with God about our strengths and weaknesses. Christ tells us that prayer is an intimate, loving conversation with God and that fasting is an inward and individual discipline, designed to make us stronger and able to do battle with the fears and doubts which tempt us. The way in which he suggests we give alms reminds us that we are part of a human family—a human family that God himself is intricately connected with. We are called to live Lent in a way that both prompts us to look at ourselves, and out of ourselves, and to consider others.
Christ, who is perfect both in his divinity and humanity, teaches us how to prepare for the joy of heaven and that it is a process that begins on earth. Christ does not present us with abstract ideals or impossible tasks; rather he shows us both how to be human and how to attain the joy of heaven, because he himself was—to use George Herbert’s expression—‘heaven in ordinary’ and came amongst us, living a life of prayer and sacrifice. The prospect of Easter ignites within us a desire to attain that perfect joy of heaven, where we, ordinary as we are, may become heavenly, as he is.
The cross of ash we receive on Ash Wednesday reminds us of the times when, through fear, for the sake of artifice, for the lack of faith, we may have buried that desire for the joy which the Easter event promises. We may have lost the discipline of being attentive to God, or being honest with ourselves; we may have not made an effort to see Christ in others, or have lacked the patience to present Christ to others. The ash makes a dirty, gritty mark on our foreheads, but we must remember that it is in the sign of the cross, which is a sign of triumph, of joy and hope; a sign of victory over sin and death. As the cross is placed on our foreheads, the words spoken are: ‘From dust you came and unto dust you shall return’. Those words remind us of our mortality, and that we will return to dust. And yet in that very dust there is the hope of joy. It is in that return to dust that we will find new life, a life of joy because it is an eternal life which Christ has won for us through his victory over death on the cross. That victory can be ours too if we prepare for joy, because ‘Joy’, as Teilhard de Chardin once said, ‘… is the infallible sign of the presence of God’.
Christ tells us how to practise Lent and reach for joy: through Prayer which is a loving dialogue with God who knows the secrets of our hearts; through fasting, that we might cultivate a habit of discipline so that we may be better able to resist evil; and through giving, because we are called to love our neighbour as ourselves.
All this is about opening the door, allowing Jesus, the source of all joy, to serve us. One of the main events of the Church’s year is Maundy Thursday, when we once again are called to contemplate the God who came to wash our feet and feed us. As the Apostles show us, allowing Christ to serve us requires effort, honesty, patience and practice. Looking at Lent as a time of preparation for joy is not a soft option, and yet, in each one of us, there is a deep desire to grow in love, goodness, patience, honesty and kindness. And God is longing to fulfil our desire to be fit vessels for his joy, because he, the source of goodness and joy, has placed that desire within us.
May these first weeks of March be the start of a holy and grace-filled Lent for each one of us. As the new shoots emerge and grow this spring, so too may our desire to claim that joy which is ours, through Jesus Christ, our Lord, our Saviour and our Friend.