This week we begin the period of time known as Lent. The weekly readings for this year are;
Week one: Matthew 4v1-11 Wilderness and Temptation
Week two: Matthew 17v1-9 Transfiguration
Week three: John 4 v5-42 The Samaritan woman
Week four: John 9v1-41 Healing
Week five: John 11v1-45 Resurrection
Week six: Matthew 21v1-11 Palm Sunday
Lent is named after the Anglo Saxon word, Lenten meaning the lengthening of days. In the first three centuries of the church a few days were set aside for strict fasting. By the 4th century this preparation time had developed to 40 days, like the 40 years of the Exodus that the people of Israel spent lost in the desert, like the 40 days of fasting of Moses, Elijah and Jesus. 40 days is a long time to go without food and drink. It's really the maximum a body could stand.
Lent has traditionally been seen as a time of personal meditation, a cleansing of the soul and also a time of preparation for those receiving baptism on Easter Sunday. It begins with a time of penitence, of saying sorry , on Ash Wednesday, much like Yom Kippur.
In the Roman Catholic Church fasting is still practised on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. In the Eastern Orthodox Church not eating eggs, meat and fish is still common throughout Lent, which is why painted eggs are given out on Easter Sunday and eggs are eaten in pancakes on Shrove Tuesday.
The colour representing Lent is purple and unbleached fabric and in some churches there are no flowers during Lent and all the crosses are covered.
For the Israelites the Exodus meant moving from a situation of slavery,
where they had food and shelter into a situation of great risk, not
knowing where they were going, how they were going to be fed, where
they were going...into a desert! Lent discipline is a bit like voluntarily entering a desert or a time of wilderness.
There are spiritual disciplines that can help us. Silence, prayer,
reading the scriptures, fasting... these times set aside for meditation can be a time of creative breakthrough, a way forward.
The Christian journey requires that we take risks otherwise we stop
growing as people of faith. We may move away from being respectable
and risks are taken with no quarantee of success otherwise they would
not require faith, they wouldnt be risks. It is easy to trust God when
things are going well but when the going gets tough then many of us
look down and start to sink like Peter, before he walked on water.
Our Muslim friends celebrate Ramadan with a month of disciplined fasting from dawn to dusk. What about us?
What are we going to do this Lent to allow us to clear our minds and our lives and to allow the Spirit of God to work something new in us? The number 40 represents a change; we have 40 days to reflect and maybe to enact change, with God's help.
There are books that can help us on that journey. There are organised
times of prayer and reflection. The choice is ours.
We may choose to go into a desert or we may be driven there like the Israelites. We may already be in that desert, or on the edge of it. It may help us to be with others or to be alone. Whatever you do this Lent, do it consciously.
Servant Christ help us to follow you into that place of quiet retreat,
knowing that you will be with us, even in the deserts and the times of
sinking and drowning. Help us to cling to you. Amen.