Last Wednesday the season of Lent started. Many churches, across the denominational spectrum, mark Ash Wednesday with a special service where, using the Old Testament symbol of ashes as indicating sorrow for sin, people are marked on the forehead with ash, mixed with a little oil to make it stick, in the shape of the Cross.
I joined the good folk at St John’s for their morning mass and, like the others, went up to be marked with Ash. Fr Paul, as he imposed ashes on each of us, said “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
It’s a good reminder for all of us. Lent, in the West, however, isn’t what it was. In the Eastern Churches, however, it is still taken very seriously. There is a minor fast in the days leading up to Lent – no meat – but when Lent starts Orthodox Christians abstain from meat and dairy products – taking on, essentially, a vegan diet until Easter. This used to happen in the west and the tradition of Pancakes on Shrove Tuesday came from the need to use up dairy products before the great fast of Lent started.
By the Middle Ages the fast was compulsory not voluntary and by the time of the Reformers there was a reaction to this. New translations of the Gospels made people realise that this type of fasting, designed to be a sign of penitence, preparation and identification with Jesus in the wilderness wasn’t commanded by Jesus for the rest of us. One of the earlier Reformers, Zwingli, ministered in Zurich and his first rebellion was about eating meat in Lent – sausage in his case – when, in 1522, he declared that: Christians are free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent. The affair blew up when a printer served sausage to his workers who were exhausted from working hard to get some extra printing done. Zwingli didn’t eat the sausage but didn’t condemn those who did and an outcry developed which led to the Reformation in Zurich.
Zwingli’s point, that Christ doesn’t command us to fast in Lent, was well made and has rather influenced Protestantism and, ultimately Catholicism which now only asks people to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Most Protestants generally don’t see fasting as a spiritual discipline but Pentecostals have rediscovered the discipline and one of the many diets now pushed in the effort to get us all to lose weight is called Intermittent fasting where you fast – or eat just 600 calories which as far as I’m concerned is the same thing, one day and eat normally the next. It’s sometimes called the 5:2 diet with two 600 calorie days a week. The theory is you don’t eat as much the next day and starving the body two or three days a week makes it burn fat. Interestingly a secular society is discovering a spiritual discipline.
Nowadays, Christians in the West may try and give something up for Lent or maybe take something up. It’s a good time to take stock of our lives, to reflect on what tempts and tests us and to help us turn our lives around.
Now, at the start of Lent, we focus on the start of Jesus’ ministry and his temptation in the Wilderness immediately following his baptism. Picture the scene, the lush fertile land around the river Jordan gives way to desert and Jesus goes to spend time in preparation for his ministry and all that must follow.
Mark’s gospel is, as I’ve said, very fast paced. If all we had was his Gospel we would have no record of the specific temptations he was faced with as these are recorded in Matthew and Luke, all we’d have are these seven short verses telling us he’d been tempted, lived with wild beasts and angels ministered to him. We know the other stories so we sort of project into this story what we know from Matthew and Luke, but we’re left wondering why Jesus did this – 40 days in the wilderness, fasting (presumably having something to eat from time to time), dangerous wild beasts, the devil and angels.
We think of this time in the Wilderness as temptation but perhaps we’d be better thinking of it as testing. During this time Jesus’ self-identity was perfected. At his baptism God tells him that Jesus is His beloved son, now in the wilderness he goes to be formed – just as the People of Israel were formed during their 40 years in the Wilderness.
In our own way, we find that time away helps re-form us, re-energise us, perhaps recover from a bad time or prepare for what comes next. “I want to get away from it all!!” It is a cry that many know well. Even if the sentiment is not verbally expressed, no doubt most have had the feeling of needing a break from the pressures of daily living in order to find some peace, clarity and a renewed sense of purpose for life.
While a monastic life is certainly not for all, there seems over the last few decades to have been a re-awakening of the importance of retreat and taking time out to pray, to be quiet and to rest within some parts of the Christian community, and even from those outwith a particular faith community. Those programmes which follow groups of men and women spending time in a monastery or convent have been compulsive viewing. They too spend time apart to gain new perspective, new direction a new energy.
I think part of what Jesus was doing in the Wilderness was this. The first part of his life, the private part was over. We assume he’d grown up in Nazareth working with his father as a carpenter but we don’t know. He clearly had learned his Bible and his faith – some wonder if he’d been part of a Jewish monastic group but we just don’t know. By the time we get to this part of his life there is some mention made of his mother and brothers but no mention of Joseph – the man whose genes God didn’t need has vanished so people normally depict Mary as a widow. But now was the turning point, whatever had gone before remained in the past and during the time of his public ministry – again we don’t really know how long this lasted for, people normally say three years – he acts more like a wild beast than the religious establishment were comfortable with.
So this time in the Wilderness is perhaps more properly seen as testing rather than temptation. Temptations sneak up on us when we’re least expecting it, Jesus knew what he was in for, and like an athlete training for a competition, goes willingly to be tested. Not only that he goes to a place with no distractions, no people asking for teaching, or healing, or exorcism. Away from his family and their demands, this is before he had disciples so there was no one, no situation to distract him – apart from the loneliness and the physical demands of fasting.
I don’t know if Jesus knew what to expect next; did he know what he was preparing himself for. Of course, the compiler of St Mark’s gospel does and there are hints. That little bit about John the Baptist being arrested – a foreshadow of the opposition, and eventual arrest, that Jesus would face. Evil appears in different guises throughout his ministry – here in the wilderness, later in opposition, in Judas’ betrayal, in the unjust trial and execution and, of course on the Cross where, like so many people before and since, the powers of injustice and evil seem to rule. I wonder if Jesus knew what was to come next if he’d been able to face it or, instead, if the future was revealed step by step to him. Either way this period of testing and preparation gave him the strength he needed for his ministry.
So What Can We learn from this?
First, I think we all need time out every so often. Whether that’s a holiday, a day off, space by ourselves or with a loved one, a retreat or simply a walk – we all need time to re-create, re-charge and recover from the harder things in life. The regular discipline of down time is counter cultural when we’re expected to be busy all the time.
Second, there is the related idea of needing to make time for prayer. In Matthew and Luke’s gospel it’s clearer that Jesus is spending time in prayer and fasting. It’s very easy for us to get in the habit of seeing Sunday worship as the only time when we pray – Sunday worship is that, of course, but should also be a celebration, a coming together, a communal celebration of the Lord’s risen life. Day by day we need to find time to be quiet, to read a little bit of the Bible, to pray and be still in God’s presence.
Third, we need to prepare for what comes next. This time last year Ian and I were starting to prepare for the move up here having received the Call. That preparation meant thinking about how we’d manage living apart, what furniture we’d need to buy, practical discussions re train times and how good Ian’s boss would be at letting him leave in good time on Thursdays. It meant practical things about lodgers in Manchester and a nice space up here. It meant, for me, thinking about the needs of each of the churches and how I’d spend my time and energy with each congregation without any of them feeling short changed. All of that took time, thought, prayer and a bit of testing things out. All of us have to prepare for what comes next – but what comes next might be different for all of us – changes in family life, a new job, the end of a current job through redundancy or retirement, new children, or grandchildren, finding time to actually be retired seems to be a common theme here, facing illness or uncertain health and, for all of us sooner or later, death.
Lent is, above all, a time of preparation. Preparation, of course, for Easter and the joy of new life, but also preparation in our everyday lives of discipleship. We don’t know what will happen next – I suspect Jesus didn’t in the early days of his ministry, but he equipped himself through prayer, reflection and fasting so that when he was tested he could cope. Time to ourselves, rest, prayer and preparation will what sees us through testing times.
Will you pray with me?
Spirit of integrity,
You drive us into the desert
to search out our truth.
Give us clarity to know what is right,
and courage to reject what is expedient;
that we may abandon the false innocence
of failing to choose at all,
but may follow the purposes of Jesus Christ,