The ashes in the fire in my sitting room are grey. I was shovelling some of them out this morning in eager anticipation of daubing our current guests with them as we celebrate the beginning of Lent. I must say I was disappointed with the quality of my ash! Grey and crumbling with all sorts of bits in it; I’d need to be especially creative to get them to stick on people’s foreheads and make them visible and dramatic. A few lumps of crushed charcoal should do the trick…! Once again, the weather is grey too. It’s very cold and a deep fog is hanging over the valley; altogether uninspiring just like my ashes. Is this a vision of what Lent is going to be like for me, dull, grey and uninspiring? Probably, it usually is.
Hopefully, you won’t be reaching for the gas oven just yet – my intention is not to depress you at the start of Lent, I promise! No, hopefully, you’ll be recognising yourself in these thoughts as I do. I want to start Lent in a real optimistic and upbeat mode because this is the season, this is the Lent, which is going to change my life, make me a better Christian and a more faithful and effective priest. (And if it makes me a little slimmer and a tad healthier, then hey! it was worth it!) The prayers at Mass convey some of that same optimism : Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed. (Roman Missal Preface of Lent I)
But the reality of our lives can find us struggling with such optimism. Sometimes we think it’d be better to focus on the seeming darker side of Lent (penance) rather than try to punch above our weight. If we do that then penance will become a real burden and create a darkness around us that is out of keeping with the spirit of Lent. The problem we create for ourselves is just that: it’s about us, when the focus of Lent, indeed the focus of the whole of life, is God. We are not incidental to God’s life. We are intrinsic to God’s expression of life because God has decreed it to be thus, otherwise, what’s the point of the Divine taking flesh in the person of Jesus? But Jesus recognises, and so must we, that being intrinsic doesn’t mean being central. He asks, Why do you call me good? No-one is good but God. (Luke 18:19)
We should be optimistic at the start of Lent and at the start of each new day but not because we’ll get it right, we’ll stay the course, we’ll engage well with the Lenten discipline, but because God is good and God will ensure that this will happen if it’s in accordance with the Divine Will. Lent, and life, is God’s work in which we participate. We cannot manipulate it, and that frustrates us. In a world which depends on competition, being better than others, being more morally correct, more courageous etc. then God’s ways are going to grate! We feel a bit neutered, maybe even a bit hopeless as we wait on God and as we try to pray seriously Thy will be done. For me, that’s the grey, dull and boring bit of Lent. Inevitably it will sometimes swing to terrifying points when we realise what doing God’s will might mean for us (e.g. Jesus’ agony in the Garden). Also inevitable are the times when it will swing to overwhelming joy when we realise the fruits of trusting God (e.g. resurrection). In the meantime, we have to wait. If you’re going to give up anything this Lent, give up your plans, give up being right all the time (especially at others’ expense). To do this you’ll need to REPENT (from the Greek work meta-nous, literally ‘change your mind’). Give up your normal way of thinking and wait for God’s mind/will to be revealed. Oh by the way, you’ll probably need to take on patience too…Happy Lent!
Simon Lodge, 17ii10