During my recent visit to Jerusalem I had a conversation with a young man on the desk of our guesthouse. We were talking about the diminishing numbers of Christians in the so-called ‘Holy’ Land when I referred to the ‘Church of the Holy Sepulchre’. He seemed puzzled until he realised I meant the ‘Church of the Resurrection’. The western churches focus on the cross/death and the eastern churches focus on the resurrection/new life.
Today is Ash Wednesday and there will be much focus on sin and misery and giving up and ‘death’ to things you enjoy. The fasting element of Lent has really given way in popular practice to trivia such as gaining added impetus to a narcissisticly-fed diet by giving up alcohol or foods that make you fat.
But all of this seems to miss the point. We focus on sin in order to move on to the forgiveness that can be received but never bought (unlike everything else in our society). Reminded of the sheer generosity of God’s freedom (‘Let there be’ – rather than ‘Close it down’), we re-engage with the world, free to live and love because we know we are all in it together.
I am reading Andrew Rumsey’s book Strangely Warmed and find myself challenged not to give up for the sake of giving up, but to give up for the sake of taking on. Rumsey makes the following observation:
The season of abstinence is … bookended by banquets, which is highly symbolic. For only the worldly can become godly. It is mortals who sport the ash-smudge of Lent and sinners that are summoned to repentance. Just as those who properly adore chocolate are the only ones who may truly, if grudgingly, let it go, you cannot die to the world when you have never really lived to it, for the simple reason that it is impossible to relinquish something you don’t possess.
He then goes on (provocatively) to observe:
Those who don’t love the world – and there are many Christians who appear not to – really needn’t worry about sacrificing it, for it is not theirs to give. They would do better to start at the beginning and receive the world on a plate.
It is here, surely, that Lent bites. Not in the trivial and self-regarding games we play with ourselves in the name of ‘fasting’, but in struggling between loving the world and all that is in it and not letting that love tear us from God and truth and light. World-haters can spend their Lent looking for extra reasons to hate the world (and themselves?) – after all, there’s plenty of resource material – and confirm themselves in their ‘bury my talent and await the return of the king’ passivism. God-lovers must be world-lovers who so love the world that giving up even a bit of it is painful.
World-hating is common. It is easier to condemn and moan (which is the cultural pool in which we swim) than to get stuck in and bring about change for the better. A quick scan of the front pages of our newspapers and magazines tells us that everything is bad, all people are suspect, no one can be trusted, everywhere is dangerous. There is little celebration of ‘resurrection’, but an overwhelming celebration of what is deadly and threatening.
Andrew Rumsey puts the self-denying call to Christian discipleship in its proper context, recognising that ‘giving up’ does not mean loving the world less:
…if we seek first the Kingdom of God, then, by their demotion, the other things added unto us gain their true status as gifts.
And there, it seems to me, lies the key to Lent. It gives us the space to be grasped again by the overwhelming generosity of world as gift, of life as gift, of time as gift, of gifts as gift. Lent should make us more generous in and to the world, gracious for the world and committed in and to the world.