One of the most significant changes in myself since I left university is that – for the first time ever – I know make a conscious effort to keep my bedroom tidy. I’ve reached 21 and decided that now is the time to stop living in a hovel and start caring about my room. However, despite my best efforts, there remains one drawer where all my unsightly rubbish and no longer needed junk ends up. Instead of living in the debris of my life as I did as a teenager, I have shoved it all in one drawer. I’m sure most of us have that one cupboard or even room in our house which we’d rather our visitors didn’t see and which we’re never quite sure what to do with!
Just as it’s true of our houses, I suspect this is also true of our lives. We are very good at presenting the best version of ourselves – even subconsciously – but we rarely open up the doors of that messy room where we store our guilt, the aspects of our character or our history which we’d rather not open up to anyone – even to God. Yet, God longs for you to be a temple of his Holy Spirit and the place where he may come and abide, even in that messy room that we hide because of our shame.
The slow and uncomfortable process of opening up that messy room of guilt and shame to God, of opening our lives and hearts more and more to him, is a key part of the discipline of Lent. In the earliest centuries of the Church, newcomers to the Christian community were baptized at Easter – that time when the Church celebrates the conquest of death and the beginning of new life. But of course, believers had to be prepared for this great event, prepared by study, and prayer, and self-denial. It was believed that self-denial; fasting and extra prayer was something that, as it were, clears the way for God to make his home in you – like clearing space in your flower bed for bulbs to break through.
This is how Lent began. A period where people were thinking about baptism and the beginning of new life, whether literally as new converts to the Christian faith or – for the rest of the Church – people wanting to strengthen and renew their commitment.
This period of preparation quickly became associated with Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness where, through fasting and praying, he discovered what God was asking of him. During this earliest period it became more and more common for churches to tidy-up and strip away some of their decoration, to make themselves look a bit simpler – an outward manifestation of the inner stripping and inner austerity that this service entailed. Vestments were made either of sack-cloth, simple coarse fabric, or purple, associated with judgement and the season began with Ash Wednesday – where believers were reminded of their mortality and called to turn again to Christ.
All this simplicity and stripping away is important – in fact its vital in that process of clearing a space in our lives to experience Jesus afresh at Easter. However, it’s also important to remember that the word Lent itself comes from the middle English word for ‘spring’. This season is not about feeling gloomy for forty days; it’s not about making yourself miserable; it’s not even just about giving things up. Lent is springtime. Its our annual spring-clean as we prepare for that great climax of springtime which is Easter- new life bursting through death and flooding the world afresh with hope.
And Spring is exactly how this season feels – especially when we look at the incredibly rich reading from Romans 5 which we had as our second lessons. At first glance this can seem a rather gloomy passage – about the universal subjection of humanity to sin and death, and that is part of the story! But there’s another dimension, the abundance of Christ’s grace and mercy. Sin is wintry but like the flowers of spring, the forgiving love of God in Christ abounds and gives life to all. Death and sin are destroyed by an opponent who utterly overwhelms evil will the abundance and generosity of his love. In Lent, we return again to Christ the fountain of mercy, and seek to make room in our hearts to know and experience his abundant love for us.
If you would permit me, much out of character, I’d like to offer a couple of concrete suggestions for keeping a holy Lent this spring. Firstly, find some regular time to encounter Christ in Holy Scripture. I suggest reading Luke’s Gospel from beginning to end – it’s not that long – taking it in small manageable chunks and asking yourselves two basic questions about each bit you read: ‘what is this passage saying to me?’ and ‘how am I going to respond to it?’. With prayer and patience, this engagement with the words of Scripture is a vital part of clearing a space for the risen Lord when he comes.
Secondly, and more practically still, I believe a good Lent always flows out in generosity. There are innumerable ways to try to be more generous in this season – whether with money, time or prayer – but I would like to suggest one that is often neglected. In this season, I would encourage you to attend to the relationships in your life and especially those you have neglected over the past twelve months. Is there someone who really irritates you or who you struggle to love, befriend them, pray them and try to restore that relationship? Is there a sick or elderly friend or relative you’ve neglected to visit in the last few months, make time to rebuild that relationship in the weeks ahead. Perhaps, harder still, there is a relationship in your life that remains damaged – a relationship that haunts that inner room of guilt. Allow the new life offered to us in this season to flow through you – cross over barriers of pride and reach out to say you’re sorry; work to be reconciled and begin to make your life evermore a place where God would be pleased to dwell.
And so as we prepare ourselves for Easter during these days, by prayer and self-denial, we must remember that what motivates us and fills the horizon of this season is not self-denial as an end in itself but tying to sweep and clean the room of our own minds and hearts so that new life really may have room to come in and take over and transform us when Easter dawns.