40 days and 40 nights - a guide to Lent
It may begin with pancakes and end with Easter eggs but Lent itself – which starts next week - is more about self-sacrifice than self-indulgence, says the Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh
The season of Lent is almost upon us, with pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to help us face the discipline of the weeks ahead. Shrove Tuesday is the day when we, as Christians, take stock of ourselves in regard to the habits and attitudes that we would like to see change in our individual lives, in the life of the Church and in the world of which we are a part.
The pancake ritual also connects us with our Jewish roots. We use up the flour and butter in a way that corresponds to the Jewish Hametz, a marking of the season of unleavened bread and the beginning of Passover. The Jewish biblical scholar, Jacob Milgrom sees fermentation, or the action of leaven which causes bread to rise, as symbolic of decay and corruption, while also being the source of life and gestation. So the pancake ritual reminds us, like the Hametz itself, that we are entering into a period of spiritual flourishing, a time for turning back to God. For this to be possible, certain things or habits of mind must ‘die’.
Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent, returns us to the physical and material, specifically those things which get in the way of our relationship with God. At the service of the imposition of ashes we are urged to ‘turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ’. We receive on our foreheads a reminder of our own mortality, in the mark of the cross made from ashes. Sometimes, the palm crosses from last year’s Palm Sunday will have been burned down to create these ashes, so unifying the liturgical year as it brings us back to this quintessential moment of turning away from sin. To turn away from sin is to turn back into God.
The pancake ritual on Shrove Tuesday, and the imposition of ashes that takes place the following day help us to think of Lent as a time of returning. The biblical name for this returning was ‘jubilee’. A jubilee year marked the liberation of captives and the cancelling of debts. For us, it is a new beginning, and a re-orientation of our lives and priorities so that they are better aligned with God’s loving purposes, and hence liberating. It is a returning to our deep centre in God, to the place where we truly belong.
When Jesus was tempted in the wilderness, he was being invited to turn away from the God he called Father, through self doubt, despair and in an appeal to vanity – specifically the lust for power and success. What is important for us, though, at the beginning of this season, is that Christ was tempted as we are and that the temptations he faced were a challenge to his trusting relationship with God.
The wilderness, or desert, in which Jesus was tempted also corresponds to the wildernesses we all inhabit, and to the wilderness of secular materialism itself. The temptations he endured underpin or support our own efforts to allow ourselves to be transformed through entering into a deeper relationship with God in Christ. So the purpose of Lent lies in entering into God’s redemptive work of transformation, the transforming of our individual and collective wildernesses into ‘fields of asphodel’, as the Bible puts it (Isaiah 35:1). The transforming work begins in the heart of the individual who turns back into God by desiring a deeper and more truthful relationship with him. This takes time and effort, but it does not always involve giving things up.
If Lent is to be a time of deepening into God, we need to ask ourselves if the things we are giving up really serve this end, or do they perhaps have the opposite effect? It’s fine to give up alcohol or chocolate, but if we spend a significant portion of the day longing for a glass of wine or a piece of cake we may be no closer to God than we were when we started. At the same time ‘succeeding’ in these resolutions may make us feel healthier and more in control of our appetites but have little effect on the quality of our relationship with God. It would be better, perhaps, to focus our efforts on something that benefits someone else, or another community, or the planet itself. We work out our relationship with God in the way we conduct our relationships with all sentient beings.
The spirit of Lent is ultimately manifested in any word or action that speaks of the love of God. Since we are not always honest with ourselves about the extent to which we live out our lives in a spirit of Christian charity, these transformed words and actions will invariably involve self-sacrifice, or at least a willingness to let go of self-delusion.
There are any number of tasks that can be undertaken to help us in this respect. In terms of our obligation to the planet, a vegetarian Lent is a good place to start a purposeful fast. We might also try to hear and make space for those who need our time or our understanding, including people we do not know personally. We could be more vigilant about the way we use time itself, allowing nothing to have dominion over us. A self-imposed limit on the amount of time spent on social media, or in a directionless grazing of news and gossip would be one way of doing this. When the temptation to scroll comes outside the limit we have set ourselves, it would be better (even if harder) to switch off and be present in silence to the presence of God, replacing the screen with an icon or other ‘fixing’ image to hold our attention.
As the forty days of Lent go by, we will find that this becomes our ‘returning’ point, a place of ‘jubilee’ in which our lives, and the lives of those with whom we come in contact, are in some small way transformed, so witnessing to the Resurrection which we have quietly been celebrating all along.
To find out more about Lent, or join a Lent course, get in touch with your nearest church. Contact details here
You can also download Lent resources here: