Sermon for Ash Wednesday Eucharist

21 February 2007 at :00 am

Joel 2: 1-2, 12-17; John 8: 1-11

Many centuries before the life of Christ, a plague of locusts threatened to devastate the land of Israel. The prophet Joel called for a fast. Everyone was to implore God to avert the catastrophe. All were to participate: infants at the breast; children; brides and bridegrooms; even the aged. If all fasted, perhaps God would relent and the end of the plague would show the nations that there is a God in Israel.

The fast on which we embark this day has no such motive. Our relatively prosperous and comfortable life is not threatened by a plague of locusts. Our life seems not to be directly threatened at all. It's easy enough to inure ourselves against the more remote threats, of global warming, and of inter-communal or international strife.

In any case, most of us, most of the time, would be reluctant to ascribe cause and effect as straight-forwardly as Joel. We do not see a plague of locusts as a sign of God's wrath, though we would do well to see many of the ills of our society and world as being the result of our turning away from God.

So, how should we think of Lent? What if anything should we do? Should we fast?

We'll start with the traditional answers. Lent recalls Jesus' forty days in the wilderness, resisting temptation as he prepared for his public ministry. In the Church's Year it is a time of preparation for the celebration of the Lord's passion, death and resurrection in Holy Week and Easter. In many individuals' Christian journey over the centuries, it has been a time of preparation for Christian initiation. This is reflected in the blessing of the water of baptism that we shall celebrate on Easter Eve and the renewal of baptismal vows.

So we often think of Lent as a time of repentance, a time when we reflect on our sins, which were the cause of his passion, and resolve to do better. A vast trade of books for Lent encourages parishes to organise Lent discussion groups. The Church of England is this year promoting nationally a campaign called Love Life Live Lent. There is a website and publications and there has been a deal of interest in the media. The website says this about Lent. "People began to fast through Lent from the fourth century AD, eating only one vegetarian meal a day. Today, people 'fast' spiritually by giving more time than usual to prayer and reading spiritual books, and through generous acts of kindness to individuals and to charities. Even a small action made generously can make a difference to someone's life. Love Life Live Lentsuggests that we give generously to ourselves, to our neighbours and to the world."

Although I support the Love Life Live Lent campaign, which has certainly raised the profile of the season, I wouldn't be so keen to dismiss the idea of a physical fast. The Church's traditional language is of fasting and abstinence, where fasting means going without a meal and abstinence means giving up a particular luxury. To interpret that in practice: if we were to fast this Lent, that could mean giving up one meal, perhaps on a Wednesday or Friday, the traditional days for fasting; if we were to abstain this Lent, that could mean doing without some luxury, such as chocolate or alcohol, either throughout Lent or on a particular day each week. The fasting rules should not apply on Sundays, which recall the Lord's resurrection, even in Lent.

I want to suggest a particular perspective on all this. Whatever discipline we take on, whether fasting or abstinence, or indeed joining a Lent discussion group or giving a bit more generously, we should avoid the two dreadful pitfalls: of pride in our achievement; or of thinking that we are somehow currying favour with God. Lent is not a means of giving ourselves spiritual brownie points or of earning our way to a happy Easter or indeed to a place in heaven. Nor should the fast be undertaken for other motives such as losing weight or proving that we can do without alcohol, though these may be welcome side-effects.

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday. That is not just of course, pancake day, when we use up all the eggs and fat in the pantry before the Lenten fast, but the day for shriving, or shrift, the day in other words for going to confession and being shrived, absolved from our sins. In the practice of confession, the sacrament of penance, a godly and virtuous discipline open to Anglicans, after the priest has pronounced God's forgiveness, he or she suggests a penance for the penitent to undertake. This might typically be a prayer or the recital of a psalm or occasionally a good act. The penance should not be seen as a punishment, or a way of making up for the sins which have been confessed - nothing could do that - but as a means of confirming the penitent's commitment to a new life and as a thank-offering for God's gracious forgiveness.

Lent begins with the confession of sins and the pronouncement of God's forgiveness. That is reflected in our service this evening in a few moments. We should see the Lenten fast, therefore, not as a time of repentance, where we continually beat our breasts that we are sinful, but as a penance, a confirmation of our commitment to a new way of living and a time of thanking God for his gracious forgiveness.

The Lenten fast is an act of positive self-discipline, of training in the spiritual life, of self-giving love, in response to the great love of God. Fast! Abstain! Free your spirit! Focus on God! Love life! Have a joyous and enriching Lent!

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