Lent has its roots in the account of Christ spending 40 days in the desert fasting, praying and resisting the devil’s temptations (Luke 4:1-13). He also appeared before his disciples for 40 days after his crucifixion before being raised to heaven (Acts 1:1-10). In 325 AD the Council of Nicea decided how the date of Easter should be worked out and urged people to observe Lent in the run up to Easter.
In the minds of many, Lent is predominantly associated with fasting. Fasting has always been a core part of the Lenten regime, but fasting for its own sake is pointless. It was, and remains, merely a means to an end. Too many people see Lent as being about giving up something we like – whether it be booze or chocolate or fried breakfasts – while all the time waiting for Easter when they can pig out. This approach, which means that after Lent the person has not changed in any way, is the opposite of the purpose of Lent.
Lent is concerned with us addressing our own sinfulness: our faults and failures. It is about finding ways of making permanent changes to our lives, changes that make us better people. We cannot make these changes without help, hence the importance of prayer and of renewing our baptismal vows. Fasting as a way of enabling us to look within ourselves is a common feature of most religious traditions, but fasting by itself achieves nothing.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. In the Gospel reading for that day Jesus tells us: “Be careful not to parade your good deeds before men to attract their notice” (Matthew 6:1) and, later, “When you fast do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they pull long faces to let men know they are fasting.” (Matthew 6:16). This chapter also contains the text to the Lord’s Prayer, which asks for God’s forgiveness while exhorting us to forgive all those who have done us wrong.
It is here we find the core of what the Lenten discipline means. The first thing we notice is that we should avoid boastfulness, which Christ equates with hypocrisy. It doesn’t matter if others do not know we are fasting, praying and doing good deeds. Indeed, to make a public display of these things without good reason negates what we would otherwise gain.
Secondly, we should demonstrate our commitment by doing good deeds (that is, doing things for others). What we do will depend on personal circumstances. For some, it may mean doing extra shifts at our local food bank; for others with the time and resources it may mean spending Lent on the streets with homeless people or crossing the English Channel to minister to the needs of refugees camped near Calais.
What about those celebrities who publicise their Lenten works? Are they being boastful? As always, it depends on context. If they are just saying: “Look at me, look at how much self control I have and look at how much I am raising for charity” then they have missed the point. If, on the other hand, they use their celebrity to encourage others to go on a sponsored fast to collect money for organisations such as SCIAF (Scottish Catholic International Aid Fund) or to raise concerns that could lead to a change in public policy, they demonstrate an understanding of the purpose of Lent.
Thirdly, Lent is about forgiveness. In the Lord’s Prayer we say “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.”
Ultimately Lent is about making us better people – physically, spiritually and emotionally – and making the world a better place. That may sound like an impossible task, but if we help just one person we have made the world better for that individual. Many years ago I was told a story emphasising this. A cynical old man was out walking one day when he saw a young woman on the beach throwing starfish into the water. He asked her what she was doing. She told him the starfish would die before the tide came back in, so she was saving their lives by putting them back in the sea. The cynical old man laughed and pointed out there were thousands of starfish on the beach, she couldn’t save even a tiny proportion of them, so what difference could she make. She pointed to the starfish in her hand and told the old man: “It makes a difference to this one”.
If the things we do help others, directly or indirectly, regardless of how small the help is, we are doing God’s work.
Finally, a few words about forgiveness. The former Episcopal Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, in “On Forgiveness” (2002, Canongate Books) argues that only by offering unconditional forgiveness can we free ourselves and break the vicious circle of mutual revenge. Revenge is never righteous and is always destructive. It can destroy both victim and perpetrator, as well as innocent bystanders, and many people have wasted their lives in the futile search for satisfaction through revenge. There are countless examples, both historical and contemporary, of the damage that can be done by revenge and the refusal to forgive, from the horrors the Crusades to the so-called “War on Terror” that has resulted in the devastation of Iraq and Afghanistan and contributed to the destabilisation of much of the Middle East and North Africa, which in turn has produced the conditions allowing for the growth of IS and similar organisations. Whether they call themselves Christians or Muslims or Jews or Hindus, those who use religious texts to justify and promote violence are not doing God”s work.
History also provides us with alternative approaches. Holloway is not the only commentator to have been impressed by the way South Africa moved on from apartheid. It would have been all too easy for Mandela and other ANC leaders to have called for the violent overthrow of the racist regime. After all, Mandela and others had spent the best part of their lives imprisoned on a windswept island, where they were routinely subjected to brutality. Equally, it would have been easy for those white leaders to have used all the force they could muster to protect their privileged positions. One only has to look north to Zimbabwe and the various incarnations of the Congo to see where this could lead.
Instead, Mandela and FW de Klerk decided it was in everyone’s best interests to find a peaceful way forward, one that respected all communities. In the main, the transition to multi-racial democracy was peaceful.
It didn’t stop there. It would have been understandable if the newly elected government and its judiciary had decided to seek out all those who committed atrocities. This would probably have led to the destruction of all that had been achieved. Instead, under the chairmanship of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Truth and Reconciliation Commissionw was established. Anyone who came forward and testified to their crimes was promised immunity from prosecution. We witnessed powerful and moving scenes where murderers sought forgiveness and found it granted by the loved ones of those they had killed.
We can all learn from the extraordinary courage of all those who took part in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It has provided a way forward for any society in conflict and continues to provide a lesson for all of us as individuals. Many of us will have experienced prejudice, discrimination, even violence because of our sexuality or gender identity. We should never forget this and we should continue to challenge bigotry wherever it appears. However, we could use Lent as the beginning of a process of forgiving those who have damaged us, thus freeing them and ourselves from the prisons of revenge and retaliation.