Sermon preached by Emily Kempson
Today is the first Sunday of Lent, or as some would call it, Quadragesima Sunday. Quadragesima Sunday: a name like that tempts a scholar like me to dig into Latin word-origins and to reconstruct the history of Lent – especially with a Cambridge congregation like yourself who just might indulge me. But I will resist the temptation.
Sometimes it is better to be simple. It’s a gift to be simple when simplicity strips away the excess and opens the heart. It’s a gift that sets us free. The best description of Lent I’ve ever heard was simply put by a primary school chaplain. My friend, Eric, was only granted five-minutes to teach his year-group about Lent. He declined to open with Ash Wednesday’s phrase: ‘Dust thou arte and to dust thou shalt return’ since he ‘didn’t feel the need to invite existential dread on a Monday afternoon with 5 year-olds.’
Instead, Eric ‘started off with reminding them that the church has seasons of waiting – Advent helps us wait for Christmas, and Lent helps us wait for Easter.’ Then he told the children, “Easter is about Joy and Jesus, and Lent is about preparing ourselves for joy. That means doing some work. Who likes cleaning your room? No one does! But it’s still a good thing to do, and it helps you use that space.”
He continued, “Just like our rooms, sometimes our thoughts and feelings need some cleaning – we need to forgive each other when we have hurt each other, and we need to ask others to forgive us when we hurt them. This is like cleaning out our souls, just like we’d clean out our rooms. That’s what Lent is all about.”
And with that, in those few minutes, he conveyed the simple heart of Lent. Lenten practices are meant to simplify our lives, to gift us with freedom from worldly cares and insidious habits, and thereby to return us to the heart of Christian discipleship; it’s preparation for the joy revealed by Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Lenten disciplines are meant to ground us – freeing us to come down where we ought to be. They shouldn’t be self-imposed misery for sin’s sake, or competitively severe or pious practices, or yet another task we feel guilty for our failure to complete. On the contrary, Lent enables us to live more fully in the places we already inhabit. The same way cleaning up house makes the place just right – just right for us to live in.
Personally, I find the metaphor of a messy room or house very relateable.
A few years ago, a neighbor of mine sent her 7 year old over to pick up a book she’d lent me. When I opened my front door to give little Rachel the book, I said ‘Hello there!’ But she looked right past me, into the room beyond, and said,
‘Wow, Your room is messy.’ Out of the mouths of babes – she was perfectly right. You know how sometimes when you want to cross a stream, the only way is to hop from stone to stone to stone? That’s what getting across my room was like, picking your way from one small foot-sized landing of cleared space to another, all the way from the front door, across the living room, and around to the kitchen. If she had seen the kitchen, Rachel surely would have judged the layers of dishes stacked up in the sink and extending over the counter top. These had been gradually accumulating for some time. A few weeks back there had been a loss in my family, which was worsened by a sudden change in circumstances, and then some of my own poor choices had turned my world upside down (and apparently shaken the contents of my life onto the floor). If my room were a valley, it would have been a valley shadowed with death, not one of love and delight.
Rachel was right. It was a mess.
Now, maybe you know what it’s like to having your home in such a state, or at least you know what it’s like to feel parts of your life (be they relationships, work, moral standards, faith, or health) slipping out of your grasp, feeling like you’re just barely holding it together. That happens to most people at one time or another, when we are overburdened by suffering, sin, or death.
Or perhaps you’re more of the sort of person who believes in “A place for everything and everything in its place” and stick to it without fail. In times of stress you find yourself sliding towards greater tension, insisting on control, losing flexibility, constantly attentive to everything that might go wrong, staying on edge, until there is no space for joy. Then other pursuits have become our idols, outranking God’s loving goodness in our lives
Or perhaps your approach, day in day out, is to just get up, rain or shine, and do what you’ve got to get done, and then go home, maybe have a drink, but mostly just try not to dwell – not giving anything much care or attention, becoming a bit numb to both good and ill, ignoring anything more than the minimum to get by. Then, the loving impulse towards others and ourselves dwindles, along with hope for and faith in a better world.
Whatever the state of our rooms, or rather, whatever the state of our lives, there is almost always something that is drawing us away from loving God with all our heart, and loving our neighbours as ourselves. These aren’t necessarily bad things; more often its good things that have somehow gone awry, or good things that we’ve given more weight and attention than they deserve. Lent is about setting aside the excess in our lives, both the good and the bad, to get to the heart of our existence. To focus again on what really matters and is of great value. Lent is the time to turn, turn back towards God.
There are many ways that people to do this but any Lenten practice is likely to have one or more of the following five elements: fasting, prayer, charity, repentance, and learning.
- When fasting, as you may know, people reduce or avoid certain foods or drink for a period of time, especially indulgent or non-essential ones. This is text-book asceticism, which teaches appreciation for what we have and compassion for those who have no choice in going hungry. It also builds our strength for when we chose a hard road for the sake of a greater good or for when un-chosen suffering enters our own lives. Avoiding meat, desserts, alcohol or caffeine for certain days or weeks are traditional fasts, but one can also branch out and fast from other creature comforts. I know people who’ve temporarily given up driving their car, wearing cosmetics, using facebook, or even consumerism by not buying anything apart from groceries and paying bills.
- While fasting involve giving something up, prayer usually takes something on, such as a daily prayer time. Whether alone or with others, this could be silent contemplative walks, singing hymns, reciting the daily office, or spontaneous intercessions for family, friends, and the world. One of my favourites prayer like practices comes from a friend who, as she puts it, ‘In high millennial fashion, … “did” Lent by writing down something that she was grateful for [each] day. … which perhaps counts as giving up complacency [or] ingratitude?’ She told me she felt herself becoming ‘more attentive, and it was wonderful to unfold all the notes at the end.’
- After fasting and prayer, there is charity. Charity, essentially, is taking on acts of love for others. Clearly, loving acts include new volunteer work, donations of money or expertise, and there is also forgiving others who’ve wronged us or expressing gratitude. One friend of mine spent his Lent writing “thank-you notes daily to people for their roles in [his] life.” From primary school teachers to university professors and friends. He told me “it was both a chance to say thank you to people who I’d never had the chance to really, and a good reminder of how much life is the result of others and not myself”. People will often combine charity with fasting: for instance, giving money that would gone on posh food to a food bank.
- Repentance, our fourth Lenten element, means turning away from wrong doing in our own lives, things done and left undone. Identifying these aspects of ourselves is hard and important work, often involving honest self-introspection, confession, asking forgiveness, making amends, and so forth. One could tackle habitual minor sins by giving them up, such as lying, stinginess, or harshly judging others.
- Finally, learning or spiritual instruction, is popular, be it through a lent book, a Bible study, daily devotional, or regular writing. Originally, new Christians were baptized on Easter and prepared for baptism all through Lent; the broader church took on Lenten practices to support and repeat the learning process with newer Christians.
Which brings us to the final important element. Whether Lenten practices involve fasting, prayer, charity, repentance, or learning, there is always also an element of community too. This is obvious with group practices, and even when a solitary individual has secretly taken a discipline, adopting a Lenten practice joins one to a community of people who are trying to live with intentional goodness, who each in their own little way are adding to God’s kingdom, and who can support each other as they go – whether its holding each other accountable as we face our demons, or just commiserating over our withdrawal symptoms from sugar and caffeine. Lent is always done with other people, not alone.
If Lent is seen (only) as a time to de-clutter and re-focus our lives, then the value of a Lenten period is pretty obvious. And in fact, far from being an peculiar penitential preoccupation of the pious, many Lenten-style practices are now quite fashionable, even among the non-religious. Now that scientific studies have shown the benefits of intermittent fasting for mental acuity, weight loss, and other health issues it has become a popular health and fitness trend; Dry January, vegetarianism, and veganism, likewise, are generally accepted life-style choices with shades of asceticism; Prayer-like Mindfulness practices are so in vogue that multi-national corporations offer free mindfulness courses to employees; And minimalism in furnishings, clothing, and possessions has made the virtue of simplicity into yet another fashionable aesthetic. Principled self-denial or asceticism is no longer presumed to be a sign of backward religious self-hatred. Many unreligious individuals adopt these such practices with an eye to their spiritual side – one curate I know took up Lent long before he even entered a church building.
But listing possible practices and the growing popularity of asceticism, do raise the question: what distinguishes a Christian’s Lenten fast from just another fad diet? Any attempt to stave off alcoholism, to reduce consumerism, eat ethically, or simplify life is good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go as far as Easter. It treats the disciplines as good in and of themselves, but in a Christian context, Lent is not an end in itself, it is going somewhere – towards Easter.
What does the trick is turning towards God. In contemplative prayer, every time your focus wanders away from things divine, your are meant to bring whatever distracted you back to God, offer it up, and return to contemplation. The prayer is supposed to be a repeatedly turning back towards. The same is true in Lent. Consider your life: what is obstructing you from turning towards God’s love and from loving others as yourself? What might you do, today, to change direction? Don’t worry that it’s already Quadrigessima Sunday and Lent started last week – the whole season is a process of adjusting and returning as we go. One friend of mine gave up meat and then, forgetfully, ate some chicken soup before the sun had set on Ash Wednesday. On Thursday, she returned to her practice, and that’s part of the point, the habit of returning. On the other hand if your life already feels like an un-ending penitential deprivation, or you have a history of disordered eating, or others tend to bear the brunt of your withdrawal symptoms, then fasting may not be turing you towards God and neighbourly love. Perhaps consider adopting prayer, charity, repentance or learning instead.
If Lenten practices bestow simplicity, if they free us by turning from wrong-doing, if they cut life down to the heart of what really matters – then what that heart is makes all the difference. The heart of the Christian life is Easter: when the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is celebrated as the cosmic triumph of God in Christ over evil, suffering, and death.
During Lent one prepares for this celebration and a life lived into that reality: When we stand in God’s light and love, we don’t stand accused; We stand forgiven and loved. In America, there’s a famous Hymn, called Simple Gifts which puts it beautifully.
Tis a gift to be simple, tis a gift to be free
Tis a gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
Til by turning, turning, we come round right.