For Dominic Walker OGS it means fasting and self-denial with acceptance and hope
The introduction to the Ash Wednesday service in Common Worship reminds us that at first the season of Lent was observed by those preparing for Baptism at Easter and by those being restored to the Church’s fellowship (that is, those who had been excommunicated). It goes on to say, ‘In course of time the Church came to recognise that, by a careful keeping of these days, all Christians might take to heart the call to repentance and the assurance of forgiveness proclaimed in the gospel, and so grow in faith and devotion to the Lord’.
The introduction then tells us (although not quite so directly) that if we are serious about repentance and growing in faith and wanting to be closer to Jesus then we need to observe a holy Lent, by prayer, fasting, self- denial and by reading and meditating on God’s holy word. Christianity is not just about theory but about action. I have often noticed a certain discomfort in the pews when I speak about fasting and alms-giving. Jesus didn’t say, ‘If you fast’, but ‘When you fast’ because he expected his followers to fast. The purpose of fasting is to remind us that we do not live by bread alone. It is a physical prayer offered to God. It makes us mindful of the starving and we tend to be more attentive when we are slightly hungry.
There are, of course, other fasts apart from giving up our favourite food and drink. In Isaiah, we see that fasting is not just for our own sanctification. The Lord said, ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice…to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house?’ (Isaiah 58.6-7). If we forgo food or drink during Lent we would do well to give the money we have saved to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless.
Fasting is not only about what we put into our mouths but also about what comes out of them. St Benedict taught that what destroys a monastic community is ‘murmuring’ or grumbling which he distinguishes from making a formal complaint. He sees murmuring as creating discontent, tapping into one another’s negativity and destroying a Eucharistic community. Murmuring also destroys church and parish communities and creates discontent rather than praise and thanksgiving. Giving up murmuring is one of those Lenten practices that needs to continue beyond Easter!
We are not sure who first said, ‘Silence is the language of God; all else is poor translation’ but silence is essential to listen to God. Some people find silence difficult because their heads are full of painful thoughts but such thoughts offered to God in silence can help bring about healing. Others need to fast from speaking and learn restraint. It is not necessary to speak on every occasion and to give an opinion on every subject. Silence and restraint enable us to listen to God and one another.
Self-denial is linked with alms-giving and many churches, charities and missions will have Lent Appeals. As John Wesley said, ‘The last part of a man to be converted is his wallet’, so Lent as a time of repentance and self-examination is a good time to ask how we spend our money and how much we give away. It is curious that those who have a high doctrine of the Church are often not as good as others at supporting it financially!
Prayer, bible reading and meditation are the other important Lenten disciplines. Some churches will have extra services, Stations of the Cross and Lenten groups where people can pray, listen and learn together during Lent but the aim must be to develop a culture of prayer and discovery among us so that each one of us learns how, ‘to pray as we can and not as we can’t’ . It is always a joy to find churches that are excited and challenged by the gospel. This is where clergy and lay leaders can truly serve their people. Some people are not natural ‘groupies’ and fear that in a group they might only be sharing their ignorance with others but they might turn up for a series of thirty minute talks where they can hear a New Testament book being explained and related to their lives.
Lent, like life itself is a wilderness experience. The forty days of Lent recall the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness and by fasting, prayer, self-denial and scripture we join with him in a spiritual exercise. We live in a wilderness where our world is challenged by a pandemic, our country is facing many challenges and we belong to a Church which is far from perfect. This is all part of being in the wilderness. But don’t despair, because it is an okay place to be; and through self-examination and repentance we shall come to learn to forgive earth for not being heaven.
The Rt Revd Dominic Walker OGS DL was the Bishop of Reading from 1997 to 2002 and Bishop of Monmouth from 2003 to 2013.