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What makes a good Lent? Making space for the hope of Christ

Friday 20th February 2015

In this talk given at St Paul's Cathedral last night, the Archbishop of Canterbury reflected on what makes a good Lent for individuals, communities and society as a whole.

Some things stick in the memory. In 2004, when I was working at Coventry Cathedral, I was in a part of Africa which was in the midst of some very serious fighting. A group of black-clad militias was moving across the area, killing, looting, burning.

With a colleague I drove into the area where the fighting was going on to a small town that was under siege, or had been. On the way there, after a long period in the car on very bad roads, we stopped for a few moment break. There was a series of burnt huts to our right, and I walked a few metres towards them.

Around me rose ash. It was this time of year; in fact it was the Monday before Ash Wednesday. The ash rose in clouds, settling on me, from the burnt houses and, as I walked, I realised the ash from those who had been burned.

That was ash without hope, ash without change, ash rising in clouds to call all who saw it to acknowledge human evil but not to promise anything better.

Every Ash Wednesday when I’m at a service with the ashing, it’s that ash that comes back to my mind, and I see in my mind’s eye again, as I did yesterday, the small pumps in the ground of the people who’d been killed, the marks of blood upon the walls, the destroyed huts.

Ash Wednesday, this time of year, is a moment in which we are called afresh to look at the reality that that village represented – the reality that is the reality of human sinfulness and evil – and to reflect that that lies deeply within ourselves, all of us without exception. Not perhaps to that extent, but in one way or another.

A good Lent takes hold of that and, in an extraordinary way, makes space for the hope of Christ. It makes space for the hope of Christ not only in our own individual lives but also in the life of the household and family, in the life of the Church and of local communities and, I would suggest, in the life of society generally.

I want to speak to you about how this works through some words from an Old Testament prophet and the writings of a sixth-century monk: the prophecy of Isaiah and the Rule of St Benedict.

But also, because it happened this last week, like those burned huts all those years ago, let us remember this evening those 21 Egyptian Christians who made so much space in their lives for the hope of Christ that they witnessed to him to the point of their death.

Yesterday I was visiting Bishop Angaelos, the remarkable Coptic Bishop here in Britain, to condole with him on those losses, on those terrible killings, and he told me some of the details. I won’t tell you all of them, but there is one that is extraordinary.

They were given the opportunity to convert and chose not to, knowing the consequence, and then they were killed, most terribly. And the one who got away tells that each of them, as they were killed, was calling out, “Jesus is Lord.”

A good Lent makes space for the hope of Christ in a way that draws us into their fellowship and to walk with them.

Isaiah chapter 40, verse 3, says: ‘A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”’

The prophet Isaiah speaks to a people in exile and despair – much how many Christians across the Middle East and Africa must be feeling right now, and in other places too — offering them hope and return and a purpose.

The way in which that return will be experienced by the Jewish people, coming back from Babylon to Israel; the way that they are going to experience that covers every aspect of their life together – from the individual to the national – and draws in the decisions of their imperial masters, especially Cyrus, the Persian king.

Over the following 27 chapters of Isaiah, the exiled and those returning will find an extended justification by God of His judgement on the people – and a consequent call for holiness, and for place to be made in their lives and in their way of living that means the blessing of His presence is fully experienced.

A good Lent makes space for the presence of God in all.

But Lent is probably one of the most individualistic of the great Christian seasons, at least in our modern way of doing it. The question of “what are you doing for Lent?”, which I was asked on the train yesterday, is always one which is asked with an implicit singular ‘you’. In French it would be ‘tu’ rather than ‘vous’. I wish I had had a better answer! But actually we have to stop seeing Lent, if it is to be a good Lent, simply as something that is individual.

The House of Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, published on Shrove Tuesday, has at its heart that tension between the individual and the joint. It contrasts the solitary stranger and the community of communities. It calls for a moral vision of society in which every level is brought into forms of relationship that are healthy, energising and lead to human flourishing.

It is neither left-wing nor right-wing. It notes the absence of a capacity for moral debate in this country; it puts the way we live on a spectrum not of left and right, but of holiness and sin.

A good Lent makes space for hope by leading us afresh into encounter with the holiness of God.

The central point of the Pastoral Letter is that human beings are made to live in relationship, and communities of human beings are made to live in relationship with other communities.

In Lent, we are not to turn inwardly to ourselves, but to start with ourselves and to see a transformed life in community and relationship, not only with God but with each other. It’s not a ‘tu’, it’s a ‘vous’. It’s not what are ‘you’ doing [singular] but what are ‘you’ doing [plural] that Christ puts to us.

The key response in relation to God’s hope to the exiles come near the very end of Isaiah, chapter 65 verse 1, where the highway of God’s promised return is realised in God’s own words to the people. When God says to them, almost desperately: “Here I am, here I am”.

These are words that would echo loudly for Isaiah, because they are the very words he voiced to God at the very start of his ministry (6:8 – ‘Here I am, send me’).

The individuality of Isaiah’s Lenten call – “Here I am, send me” – is magnificently reversed, into a universality by which God is available, and longing to draw near, to his people.

God calls to us, and to each of us, continually. Our response must above all be to listen and to pay attention. In listening, the doors of hope are opened afresh. God says to the returned exiles of Israel: “When I called, no-one answered, when I spoke, they did not listen.”

In the Rule of St Benedict, Benedict says in his introduction: ‘Let us hear with all struck ears what the divine voice, crying out daily doth admonish us’; and also: “What, dearest brethren, can be sweeter to us than this voice of the Lord inviting us?”

So for each of us a good Lent begins with paying attention, with beginning to make straight the way of the Lord by listening.

Listening began with Ash Wednesday yesterday. We have to start by acknowledging our sin, and our humanity. We cannot listen while we fill our ears with our own self-confidence and our own self-worth.

What we are is what we are in Christ, and nothing more. And what that is is the summit of all God’s creation; flawed and fallen in sin, but with all the possibilities which our Saviour brings us.

Each of us, in Christ, is saved from slavery to sin and the condemnation that goes with it. We are saved for the delights of walking with Christ in relationship. Of being drawn into His global family. Into the great purpose of bringing in the Kingdom of God so that the world may see the glory of Christ and find itself the unmeasurable and surpassing joy of serving God and being embraced by His love.

And in Lent we open the way of hope, that the world may see.

We used to be a lot tougher about this. Today, Lent is a form of self-improvement, if it is observed at all. Someone said a few days that nowadays it tends to consist of giving up sugar in coffee or doing without your biscuit. I’m not sure what it achieves, but it is infinitely more than that. At the individual level it draws us to see what we have been saved from, and what we are being saved for.

With a slight sense of mischief, I have reintroduced the idea that we say the Commination from the Book of Common Prayer at Lambeth Palace on Ash Wednesday, as is prescribed in the Rubric…

It starts with an initial cursing of all kinds of interesting things like removing our neighbour’s landmark, as well as rather more serious modern sins like perverting the judgment of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and so on and so forth.

Towards the end it says this (I’m only telling you, not because I assume you don’t know the Commination by heart, but because the words have a certain resonance, even though you will have said them yesterday): “Although we have sinned, yet have we an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous… let us therefore return unto Him… and be ordered by the governance of his Holy Spirit; seeking always His glory and serving Him duly in our vocation with thanksgiving.”

This is a bit more serious than indicated by giving up a biscuit with one’s coffee.

So what do we do for a good Lent individually? We listen. We listen to the voice that echoes through creation, the voice cries to each of us: “Here I am, here I am.”

What does that mean in practice? One of the wonderful things about scripture is it is there that we listen, whether we are listening to it in a service in a liturgical setting, or reading a few words before we go to sleep.

And we need to remember that the words of scripture were not written by people in comfortable circumstances far from the distractions of life, but in the midst of all the terrors and horrors that we see still lived out today in the same areas of the Middle East.

Those who wrote it knew what is was to be a refugee and slave, they knew persecution and genocide. For that reason, as we turn to its pages and seek the Spirit of God, we will find comfort and hope.

But let us be practical. For those who have incredibly busy lives, with long hours, and many here who will work in offices where there is not a single moment of silence or space during the day, and I do remember that.

For those who leave early for work, who are not in control of their diary and the events with which they deal, and return late and tired. For those who are carers at home, isolated, often lonely, with many demands. For those who are housebound by illness.

For all the different categories. For those who amidst it all seem to maintain some kind of life in a household, time with partner and children or friends, developing some hinterland beyond the demands of daily life.

For all of them, listening is so difficult

So, how do we listen? Let me suggest one Lent discipline which you might like to add to giving up the biscuit.

Read Luke’s gospel, taking a small chunk each day, and ask yourself as you read it three simple questions: What does it say? What does it mean? What am I going to do about it? Very simple.

What does it say? This first question is simply an exercise in putting ourselves into the place of the listener or the observer. I was looking today at Caravaggio's picture of the call of Matthew where a rich group of tax collectors sits behind a table, and Jesus, in bare feet, comes in and points to him, and he's looking astonished, he's got his hand to his chest, he can't believe - "what, me? You want me?" Peter's behind him...not quite daring point himself.

Where are you in that picture? Fr Laurent Fabre, the founder of Chemin Neuf, says: "I'm Matthew, that's who I am. I'm the one who is far away, every time I look at him." Where are you in the story, first.

What does it say? What's going on? What does it mean? People are intimidated by the Bible, wondering if they should not see something immensely profound. The answer is that you see what God shows you on the day. Sometimes you see a lot, sometimes you see a little. If you have a short time ask yourself the obvious questions about the plain meaning of the text before you. Of course there is more, of course one can learn New Testament Greek and read profound commentaries and that is wonderful. But in Lent, do what you can, not what you can’t.

And what do I do about it? Ask yourself: “How do I make my life more open to Christ because of what this is saying to me?”

For myself, such reading is part of my own daily discipline of prayer, which includes a lot of other things as well. Time is spent and at the end of jotting down whatever banal or very occasionally less banal thoughts I have, I always put in a couple of lines of what I can do about it.

Sometimes it is very practical writing to someone or speaking to someone who I may have offended. It may be very simple, merely saying a prayer of sorry, or thank you, or petition for something of which I need reminding.

Of course, to make straight the way of the Lord, so that he comes to us, to open our lives so that hope comes up fresh, to smooth out the road so that our lives are open to listening, has infinitely more variety than this.

Let me suggest one other. As individuals, even short periods of complete silence during Lent, fasting from noise and conversation and distraction, will be of great value. How little we do of it.

Every weekday at Lambeth Palace, in the Chapel, there is a period silent prayer after Evening Prayer. When I can because I don’t have any immediate appointment, I join with the community there in the silent prayer.

It starts with my mind churning with the event of the day and upcoming events, with reports in the press, with resentment and joys, and the occasional twinge of cramp in my foot. Fortunately, I am not the only one and silence is occasionally disturbed by an “ouch” and a shifting.

But as the churning subsides, I begin to hear other things. The sound of a siren going by (we live between a police station, a fire station and a hospital). Then after a while I incorporate that into the prayer and find, just a little, that God is in the midst, and space is being made and I can hear.

I’ve had to learn, and I’m still very much learning, that I do not need to do anything in that time. I need only to be willing to listen. It is a time of meditation and reflection, of discovering the God who – all the time – is saying: “Here I am.”

But Lent is no mere individualistic, narcissistic and inward-looking self-help festival. The basic building block of society has been communities of different sorts and shapes. What that means has varied extensively at different ages and in different places. For many people it is still a family, that wonderful building block of society; one of many. For others it’s an extended family, for others a group of friends you see most regularly or with whom you share a house. A good Lent must overflow in generosity. It’s one of the signs.

Here again, take out the bumps in the road. How do we live a good Lent with those whom we live with? The bumps in the road we need to smooth out for the Lord to come? Relationships that have been neglected and therefore are full of clutter that needs removing?

They can be very difficult: broken relationships may be easily mendable, little irritations – or it may be that we need, in a good Lent, to take the first step to clearing away a major landslide.

The Community of St Anselm, which we will be launching in September, will have as part of its prayer discipline the process of confession with one another, of being open with one another in prayer.

I’ve watched them do it at Chemin Neuf and I can tell you it’s not a lot of laughs, sitting with someone with whom you live, having to confess where you’ve gone wrong. But it doesn’t half make for functional community. We need to deal with what it is we find in those closest to us…

How do you do it in practice? Openness, transparency, and also go back and use the same approach to scripture as I suggested a few moments ago. One has to treat each person and situation differently.

There’s a wonderful book called the Pastoral Rule of Gregory the Great which describes this at great length. If you’re going to deal with relationships, if you’re going to smooth the road so God finds a living community of those who love one another and shine out and overflow with the goodness of Christ, you’ll have to deal with each person individually.

Look at the story of Zacchaeus. The story is dramatic enough, and also extremely humorous. Its events will have shocked the crowd that watched it.

Here was a bad guy, a tax collector, received by Jesus who knew his name, who then invites Jesus to his home (and Jesus accepts) and repents and turns away from all he does wrong.

What we have here is a series of mended relationships. Zacchaeus repairs his relationship with the community of Israel. With Jesus he makes a new relationship, and he sorts himself out with God. His household will have been turned into a place of hospitality rather than exhaustion. That is a good Lent, lived in a few hours in Jericho on a hot day.

The bigger the institution we are part of, the harder it is to have a moral centre that is maintained, and the easier it is to slip into bad habits with institutional life that drown out the voice of God. That has always been an issue with the church, and remains an issue today. Our own concerns and troubles, even the entirely legitimate ones, may obscure our capacity to see and hear Christ in those with whom we disagree. A really good Lent, for the church, moving outwards again, is one in which we give up not listening.

We may also give up insisting that everything must be done for us and in our way. We may even take up the habit of paying attention to those we find difficult and with whom we disagree.

Making space for Christ in the life of the church comes when the church looks outwards and suddenly He is there in our midst. The discipline of a good Lent is to find again how we welcome the stranger, how we practice hospitality, how we listen.

We hear in the most unlikely places, when we listen collectively. Benedict reminds us that “whenever weighty matters are to be transacted in the monastery, let the Abbot call together the whole community… we said that all should be called for counsel, because the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best.”

It is the eternal experience of the church that God’s word to us comes in surprising ways and from unusual, and very often in our eyes unimportant people.

In practice, let us see whether together we cannot make a discipline of listening better; and perhaps in churches gathering once or twice during Lent for a period of prayer, of silence, of confession, of dealing with bad relationships and of sharing a meal together. There we will find Christ. There the road will be made smoother.

And I just want to end by imagining for a moment whether it is possible to have a good Lent in society as a whole. Can we even talk of such?

It is the point for which we pray, "your will be done on earth as in heaven”, and like all prayer we need to follow that prayer by saying inside ourselves, ”here am I, send me".

It is where we find God's Spirit at work in the world: both where the world breaks into the life and action of the church, and where the church breaks into the life and action of the world.

The Bishops’ letter talked of the need of a new politics. Perhaps that new politics includes the capacity to listen humbly to one another, which we find so difficult. To serve and form new exercises of power. To create and make space for people to flourish, to grow their own businesses, to hold solidarity, to make space for those who are weak to bless the strong. To make straight the way of the Lord, to let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

The interaction of church and society is the foundation of a good Lent and a good Lent the foundation of a just society. Not a Lent of abstinence, but a Lent of listening to our vocation, to rejoicing with those for whom things are going well, to suffering with those left behind.

A listening Lent is one of robust disagreement not bland assurance; but disagreement with a moral vision and destination.

A good Lent starts within us. It moves through those most closely around us. It comes into the church and it must be so generously experienced that it overflows into society. We will not really have a Good Lent until that chain is complete, and for that, we pray, may your Kingdom come.

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