Joel 2.1-2, 12-17
2 Corinthians 5.20b-6.10
+In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
There is a powerful passage in the Epistle of St Paul to the Romans, that has always resonated with me; St Paul writes:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
We often think of Lent as a time of self-discipline, and very often as a time of rules. We might make some sort of resolution about giving up one or another thing, about taking on some definite discipline of prayer, or of giving something more than usual to charity. But the self-discipline and the rules are only a means to an end; they are not the meaning of Lent.
One of the things that Lent is really about is freedom. And that sounds paradoxical. But the point of the self-discipline, the point of the rules, is to allow us to live with more freedom, to allow us to do the things we want to do, and not to do the very things we hate.
Let’s think of a simple example. There may be a moment when we feel a little down-in-the-dumps, and we decide that a cup of tea and a biscuit would be just the thing. And when we open that packet of chocolate Hobnobs, we are thinking perhaps of eating one, maybe two at most, and yet somehow it happens that a little later on we find ourselves sitting next to an empty packet, no less down-in-the-dumps than we were before we started, but now also feeling slightly sick.
I am told that something similar can happen after opening a bottle of wine…
We do not really want to eat the whole packet of Hobnobs, we do not really want to drink the whole bottle of wine, but somehow the weakest and greediest part of our nature just takes over, and our better nature seems powerless to resist. We can will what is right, but we find ourselves unable to do it.
Very similar things happen with our best intentions in other aspects of life. Why is it that we are so often unkind to the people who are close to us? Why is it that we react to others with impatience, with unkindness, with indifference? Why is it that we gossip? We cannot truly say that we want to behave in that way. We know well enough that it is hurtful, because we know that it hurts us when others do it to us. And yet somehow the better part of our nature just doesn’t seem quite able to win the fight against our nastier side, and so we do the thing that we do not want to do.
And not only in our relationships with others, but also in our relationship with God. We may decide that we are going to go to church more regularly, we may decide that we are going to say our prayers, that we are going to do more devotional reading or bible study, but then our beds are warm, the Six Nations seems a more gripping prospect than reading Rowan William’s meditations on Covid-19, and oh yes we missed a couple of episodes of The Archers so why not put the kettle on and settle down with the omnibus on Sunday morning, and let God wait until next week.
In the gospel for today Jesus speaks of fasting, of prayer, and of charity – when you fast…, when you pray…, when you give… – not if, but when; He takes these things for granted as a part of religious practice. And it can be helpful to us to set down some definite rule, to have a moment of decision where we set a rule and stick to it. Those who battle with chocolate Hobnobs or bottles of wine will know that it is much easier not to eat or drink when the packet is still sealed or the cork is still in the bottle. Having none is actually much easier than just having a little. Easier still is if you don’t have it in the house at all.
So for the period of Lent we might set ourselves a rule. I’m not going to have any of… whatever my particular weakness may be. And paradoxically we find that in this rule there is freedom, that we are freed from our weaknesses and our compulsions, and the shame and guilt that go with them, and that space and time and energy are available in our lives for other more helpful things.
Food and drink I think are the simplest examples to use, but similar things are true of prayer and charity. Things that we do very regularly are always easier than things we only do now and then. Most of us will brush our teeth twice a day without really even thinking about it. Little rituals and routines can greatly simplify life for us. A few simple definite rules about the ways in which we relate to God and the ways in which we relate to others can paradoxically be much more liberating than a vague resolution that we really must try harder.
But St Paul continues:
For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
Disciplines, little rules and rituals, these can be enormously helpful for us, they can paradoxically be liberating, freeing us from the burden of decision-making, and the subsequent guilt and shame when we make bad decisions. We make a definite rule and stick to it – the decision is made, and space is freed up for other things. But no discipline or rule can ultimately win us freedom. They can certainly be very helpful and they have their place in our lives. But Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!, because our freedom is in Him, our freedom has been won by Him.
And so whilst it is right and good to begin the season of Lent with some definite decision about what to give up, and about what to take up, decisions about fasting, praying and giving, it is also right and good to begin the season of Lent here at the altar at which we celebrate the Sacrament of our Redemption, where we are brought even to the very foot of the Cross, where we rejoice in the mystery of the presence of Christ Crucified and Risen.
Here our weak intentions and offerings are united with His one, full, perfect and sufficient offering; here our weak love is united with His perfect and infinite love; here we open our hearts to feed on Him. Empowered by His Holy Spirit, we take on our Lenten disciplines that we may grow more fully into that freedom which He has already won for us by His Cross and Passion, and by His precious death and burial, and by His mighty Resurrection, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, now and for ever.