Last week I was asked what had happened to the Sundays we used to call the Gesimas, the three preparatory Sundays before Lent. These Sundays are still to be found in the Prayer Book but they stopped being used in the Roman Catholic Calendar in 1969. Septuagesima now known as the 3rd Sunday before Lent, (which we celebrated last week) comes from the Latin word for "seventieth" with Sexagesima today and Quinquagesima next week from words meaning "sixtieth" and "fiftieth" respectively. They sort of coincide with the number of days before Easter but not exactly. The Sundays were named after the Latin word for the season of Lent, Quadragesima, meaning "fortieth" which does accurately refer to the fact that Lent is a period of forty days long excluding Sundays and it’s the liturgical season that leads us to Easter.
It may surprise you to know that in the first
three centuries of Christian practice the preparation for the Easter
feast was usually for only one or two days and the first reference to a
period of 40 days wasn’t found until the teaching of the first council
of Nicaea in 325AD. Today as followers of Christ we recognise the
importance of Lent as a great journey and one in which we hope to find
significant spiritual growth, a fuller life in Christ and a deeper
fellowship with God and we can use these three weeks before as
preparation for that special season.
So what is Lent and what does it mean to us today? It’s a season with so many component parts; the importance of baptism, fasting, (although recent practice tends to be taking on an extra discipline rather than giving something up) reading scripture, psalms, prayers, rituals, acts of charity, self-examination and penance, all of which help to lead us as travellers to the great joy of Easter and a resurrected life. However if we are to reach our destination renewed and refreshed we have to discipline ourselves and set aside time for prayer, devotion, exploration and reflection both on a personal and a public level and fortunately we have many options to choose from to help us do just that.
We only have to look at our Church calendar
to see the great variety of things on offer but let’s be sincere and
also realistic about how we plan to keep Lent; we don’t need empty
formality, comprising more and more prayers, more services, more
reading etc. etc. and so these pre Lent weeks provide us with time to
consider what we actually take on and the quality of the effort we are
prepared to put in. We all respond to different things in different
ways; some of us prefer to be part of a discussion group, others prefer
meditation or reading. If reading is your preferred choice you may like
to order one of this year’s recommended books for Lent and I shall
leave them at the back for you to browse through after the service.
I do hope you will all give some serious
thought to going on the quiet afternoon led by Bishop Richard at
Sandymount in Blundellsands on Saturday 12th March entitled ‘Be still
and know that I am God’; a real opportunity to enter more deeply into
your own relationship with God.
There are a series of services on Sunday evenings or Stations of the Cross. You may wish to go to The Cathedral for this year’s ‘Food for the Journey’ talks or you may want book a place on the Churches Together Lent Course, facilitated by St John’s Parish.
Whatever you choose; reading, discussions, prayer and quiet times they all help us to experience the power of God at work. With greater understanding and improved spiritual awareness we are likely to enter more fully into our worship and demonstrate the Easter message in our daily lives and activities with greater confidence, trust and faith.
So where do we start? Well at the beginning,
and that is something we can all do together. The first day, Ash
Wednesday when we receive the sign of the cross in ashes as a sign of
repentance and leave church with a visible mark to show we are doing
the best we can for God. The collect of the day gets to the root of
things, when we pray that God will ‘create in us new and contrite
hearts.’ May I suggest that we commit ourselves now to take those first
Lenten steps alongside each other here in Church to worship and pray at
the beginning of Lent’s unfolding journey. A journey which gives us the
chance to leave the muddle, the confusion and the uncertainties of our
daily lives behind and make the space for God’s love, teaching and
grace to penetrate deeper into our hearts, minds and souls.
Only then will we be able to stand back to see what is of greater or lesser importance in our lives. Today’s gospel reading brings it clearly home to us that there is more to life than the food we eat, the designer clothes we wear or the many possessions and luxuries we may hoard. Perhaps it is true to say that in this era of greed and selfishness we have gone astray and lost sight of our moral and spiritual bearings; we have become enslaved by the things that make us feel more secure and we are in constant danger of living in the wilderness. We are perhaps guilty of looking for happiness in the wrong places which in turn has had a negative effect on the spiritual development in our lives.
So the gospel tells us to be free and make
time to reach out to God, we mustn’t allow ourselves to become bogged
down by the pursuit of material needs or lack of funds. However the
Parish share, poor heating or a leaking roof are all very real concerns
and they can’t be ignored. But God tells us not to worry, I do believe
we should live each day as it comes and trust God to meet our needs.
God will provide although not always in the way that we expect or hope
for. I love a quote I read recently. ‘Care genuinely for the people and
the money will take care of itself’. Although it really is hard we
shouldn’t waste energy worrying about anything; as the gospel says the
birds and flowers aren’t anxious and they are well cared for; God knows
their needs and provides for them and he will provide for us.
This does not of course mean that we should sit back being blasé
or taking things for granted, it means getting our priorities right,
not losing sight of the value of life itself and using the gifts we
have been given wisely and using them for the good of others.
As we approach the first step on our Lenten journey the week after next let us commit ourselves to revitalising our spiritual lives and further developing our spiritual maturity. By taking up some of the many options on offer this Lenten-tide and providing we seek to become spiritually enriched and as well as being prepared to put in the quality of effort I mentioned earlier then all things with God’s grace are possible. As we enter church this coming Lent let us prepare to come closer to Christ who offers faithful, unconditional love and who is longing to help us in our desire for ‘new and contrite hearts.’
I invite you this coming Lent to....
Put aside your busyness for a while,
Take refuge from your troublesome thoughts;
Throw away your cares and put burdensome worries to one side.
Take some time off with God and rest in Him a while.
Enter the secret room of your mind, put out everything except God and whatever helps you to find Him.
Then close the door of your mind and hand yourself completely over to God. Amen.
(Adapted St. Anselm. D.1109 36th Archbishop of Canterbury)