Event Name Sermon given at the Sung Eucharist on Ash Wednesday 2017
Start Date 1st Mar 2017 5:00pm

The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster

What is Lent really for? What should we make of it?

Of course today is the first day of Lent and we could simply say that Lent is six weeks or so of preparation for Easter.

Or we could say that Lent mirrors the weeks of our Lord’s temptation in the wilderness: ‘Forty days and forty nights, Thou wast fasting in the wild; Forty days and forty nights Tempted, and yet undefiled.’

It seems most likely that from the days of the early Church Lent was most closely associated with the weeks of final preparation for those to be baptised at the great Easter Vigil. But nowadays, people are baptised and confirmed through most of the year, not just at Easter. So the idea of Lent as the final weeks of preparation for catechumens has rather gone by the wayside.

So, the question remains, what is Lent really for and how should it work for us? Can we just say that it is a time to take our faith a little more seriously? After all there are endless Lent books published, including one this year written by the archbishop of Canterbury, so it seems that at least the publishers and, I suppose, the books’ writers expect us to read helpful and encouraging books during Lent and so to grow in the understanding of our faith.

Or should we think of Lent as a time of repentance for our sins? We often think of Lent as a time of giving something up, a time of fasting and abstinence, of stricter discipline. The example of the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan, when nothing is eaten or drunk during daylight, perhaps encourages us to take fasting more seriously. Some parishes have a weekly Lent lunch with a bowl of soup and a slice of bread and money given to a good a cause. Some dioceses have particular charities during Lent to which people give the money they save from giving up food and drink. We often hear that fasting is good for us. But if we are only fasting to do ourselves good, that might seem to undermine the point, if we aim to draw closer to the suffering of Christ and become more faithful disciples in mind, body and spirit. In any case, people seem increasingly now to exercise discipline for the sake of their bodily health in January, after the excesses of December.

So there is a large range of possibilities and a good deal of confusion when we think about Lent and how we should make the most of it.

In all this, one uniting feature is that Lent is supposed to be a bit of a grind. We are supposed to be a little hard on ourselves: to give something up or to take something on. So, people might give up sweets or chocolate, or possibly a proper meal one day a week, or they might join a discussion group or read an improving book.

Now, I don’t want to discourage any of this. I want us all to advance in our understanding of the faith by which we hope to live our lives and I am equally sure that it does no great harm to give up some little luxury that we can well do without.

But although we have explored a few ideas of what Lent might be about, I don’t think we have yet got to the nub of it.

Some years ago I found myself thinking about the meaning of Shrove Tuesday and what that might suggest about Lent. Bear with me for a moment.

hrove Tuesday was yesterday, the last day before Lent. The word Shrove is interesting and not nowadays familiar. But it does have a very clear meaning. You will perhaps know William Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet. If so, you may remember the moment after Romeo and Juliet have fallen in love and before her planned marriage to the count Paris, when Romeo is giving the nurse a message to take to Juliet, ‘Bid her devise some means to come to shrift this afternoon. And there she shall at Friar Lawrence' cell be shrived and married.’ Romeo plans to be married to Juliet by Friar Lawrence when Juliet’s parents think she has just gone to shrift before her marriage to count Paris. What is shrift? What is it to be shrived or shriven? It is to go to sacramental confession, to be forgiven for our sins.

Now the rule for Catholics remains to go regularly to sacramental confession. That is to confess your sins in the presence of a priest and to be given by the priest ghostly counsel and absolution, that is spiritual advice and the declaration that your sins are forgiven you. Before giving you absolution, the priest will ask you to make a penance, to say three Hail Marys or some particular prayer.

For Anglicans the rule is that all may go to sacramental confession, some should, but none must. Here at the Abbey the duty chaplain usually offers visitors the opportunity of sacramental confession, as well as the sacrament of healing through anointing, twice a day, after the hourly prayer at 10 am and 2 pm. Many Anglican clergy hear confessions and give absolution, and before absolution we too propose a penance.

The penance is a small act of thanksgiving for sins forgiven and of what we might call spiritual recompense. It is not a payment for sins forgiven. It cannot be. No recompense we could offer would ever be enough. Our Lord pays the price of our sin in his own body on the Cross. Because of the sacrifice of Calvary, God is able to forgive us our sin freely and generously when we confess our sin, whether in private or to a priest. But the penance is a small offer of rebalancing, and an expression of heartfelt thanksgiving for the freedom God gives us from the burden of our sin.

Therefore, Shrove Tuesday means the day for confessions before Lent, not really Pancake Day. This means that traditionally Christians make their confession before Lent begins. That surely means that Lent cannot be a time of repentance for sin, or special penitence, a time you might say for wallowing in our wretchedness and trying to work hard at being better – not something easy to do in our own power. Rather Lent is a time of penance – of thanksgiving that God has forgiven our sins, of rebalancing our relationship with God now that the weight of our guilt is off our shoulders, a time of recompense.

All the giving up and taking on is now to be seen in a new light: not a time of grind and grief but a time of delight and joy, of thanksgiving and celebration, in our restored relationship with God. ‘Free at last, free at last; I thank God I'm free at last.’

This very evening, confess your sins in your heart and receive the mark of ash as a sign of your repentance, hear the words of forgiveness, and then let this Lent and its giving up and taking on be entirely a time of peace and joy as you build on the beauty of your restored relationship with God and float freely on the warm, uplifting cushion of God’s love.

© 2018 The Dean and Chapter of Westminster

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