You may well be thinking you’ve had enough deprivation and hardship during the past year without taking on any more for Lent. In fact, Lent and the pandemic have something in common with each other. The word “quarantine” comes from the medieval Latin word quarentina, which means a period of forty days, and was used to describe the forty-odd days of Lent, as well as Jesus’ period of forty days being tempted in the wilderness. Just as the extended quarantine/lockdown we’ve all been enduring is for our (and other people’s) physical health and well-being, so the “quarantine” of Lent is for our (and other people’s) spiritual health and well-being.
But if we’ve already been in a long period of quarantine or lockdown, why think of making it even worse by observing Lent? Because Lent is about more than just protection: it’s about preparation and, as the Rector said in his article in “Link” magazine last year, it’s about spring cleaning in preparation for Easter. It’s an opportunity to deepen our spiritual resources precisely so that we can cope with whatever future quarantines or lockdowns, or other challenges, we may have to face. In the early Christian church, Lent was the season when new Christians, all of whom would be baptized on Easter Day, prepared themselves for that by giving time and priority to three things in particular: prayer, almsgiving, and fasting.
Prayer is about opening ourselves to God, and giving God the chance to take the initiative, instead of being squeezed in at the margins of our lives. God wants to be in a relationship with us, and relationships take time. Here’s a suggestion: read Mark chapter 1, verses 9-13. Picture Jesus being baptized, then hearing God say to him “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Then keep silence for a few minutes, and let God say those same words to you (substituting “daughter” for “son” if necessary!). Lent is a chance to experience, deep down, the amazing truth that we are unconditionally loved - a truth that so many millions never discover, because no one ever tells them. Take a few minutes each day during Lent; read a passage from Scripture (perhaps the Gospel reading for the week), then listen in silence and see what God may want to say. And know that you are loved.
The other two Lenten practices flow from prayer. Almsgiving derives from a Greek word for mercy or compassion. Because we are ourselves loved, we are called and expected to show that same love to others. Almsgiving lifts you out of “you” – out of a narrow self-absorption. It opens your eyes to a wider world, see how many are in need, and think what you might do, however small, to help. Fasting – that’s the hard one! But don’t dodge it. Challenge yourself, stretch yourself a bit. Freely give up chocolate, or puddings, or gin, and do some physical exercise instead. Give away the money you save. You’ll feel tons better for it; and you won’t half enjoy celebrating Easter!