We are in the season of the year which we call Lent. What does Lent mean to you? A time to give up chocolate and keep your fingers crossed for some weight loss? Or something with greater spiritual depth? Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, reflection and penitence leading up to Easter. If you have seen the film ‘Chocolat’, or read the book by Joanne Harris, then you will know that the church in the story links Lent to legalism, guilt, denial, prejudice and judgement. Not the most positive portrayal.
I find that it can be helpful to have a time of simplicity and sacrifice as a time of drawing near to God, an opportunity to reflect on Christ’s sacrifice for us. It is the purpose and intention of Lent. However, unlike the film, it doesn’t have to be something that is done begrudgingly. There can be joy and renewal as we pause to reflect. This is a season which can be embraced as a celebration of grace, forgiveness, acceptance, honesty.
The spiritual journey of Lent however is not an easy one. We strip back some of our excess in order to make more space for God and awareness of self. It can be a struggle as we can no longer hide from some of our own issues, and things that need to be put right. Lent invites us to deal with the mess of our lives. It allows us to see the parts of ourselves we’d rather leave covered up. The classic location of this struggle is the desert or wilderness, the place of wandering, waiting, hunger and temptation. This is because Jesus was tempted for 40 days in the desert. Lent is often linked to a desert experience.
Sometimes we find ourselves in the desert, and sometimes God takes us there. Being in the desert isn’t to punish us, it’s an act of love. He wants to take us away from a thousand other things that are clamouring for our attention and making a claim on us, and lead us to a place where we can be alone with him, undistracted. Very often that can be a vulnerable place. It’s not a place of escape, it’s a place of coming face to face with the deep things in our lives. The Holy Spirit leads us into the desert to speak to our hearts. To go into the desert is to go on a journey of the heart.
The desert doesn’t have to mean defeat or disaster, God is much closer than we think, and this is a place where we can be alone with him, to discover that God is the only one who can help us, and to draw us closer to him. At the end of this journey is new strength, hope, joy, peace, restoration, forgiveness and grace
It always amazes me how those who would never call themselves Christian, God fearing, or church goers, choose to observe Lent in some capacity. I wish to support people on this journey but also be mindful not to secularise this spiritual observance.
Guardian columnist Dawn Foster wrote about Lent recently and said :
“The hope is that you will come out of this period a better person, less prone to excess, less rapacious. You don’t necessarily need to take the Gospels as gospel to participate: many of us could find comfort in and benefit from winnowing down our bad habits.”
Dealing with bad habits and focussing on self improvement is never a bad thing, but the spiritual significance of Lent can’t be pushed aside. You are simply missing out if this is what you seek to do. Christianity is more than a self help book. If you don’t have Jesus as you wander in the desert then you become lost and dehydrated.
As the weeks draw closer to Easter Sunday, there is a death and resurrection ahead which has more power than this world can ever hold. It is so much more than anticipating the enjoyment of chocolate! For all of you seeking to travel this pilgrimage of Lent, I stand with you and encourage you, whether you have great faith or none. May this be a season of making space for the Almighty to invade the everyday.