Shrove Tuesday. I wanted to be ready for Lent this year, arrive at today with some clear thoughts about how to use this annual gift of the 40 days that lead us on a journey towards Easter. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are traditional Lenten disciplines taken directly out of the Sermon on the Mount. There, we are also given good advice about how to practise them: not openly, where everyone can admire us, but in a more hidden way, where only God can see. 'Go into your room, and shut the door' says Jesus.
So no revelations about my Lenten rule here, for then it would hardly be a secret. But what about the the meaning of Lent and how we observe it?
It's striking how different the Christian Lent has come to be from Islamic Ramadan. Muslims who are serious about their faith would not question the value the severe demands of Ramadan place upon them as an obligation. They probably think (but are too polite to say) that we have gone soft on Lent these days. They are right. Jesus doesn't say 'if' you fast but 'when'.
To change the normal habits of eating and drinking, and therefore alter familiar daily routines for a while, has the effect of clearing space for prayer, reflection, relationships and generosity. By suspending attention to ordinary human needs, other dimensions of living come into new focus. Our human and spiritrual landscape begins to look a little different. We are closer in touch with what really matters if we are to flourish as human beings. This is the value of fasting, 'giving things up': even the good, wholesome things that enrich life and fulfil us as men and women. The point is to learn what is truly essential to life, what we can't live without: in a word, God and his truth and love. We cannot live by bread alone, even if try hard much of the time.
But there's an important difference between Ramadan and Lent. Ramadan is meant to develop the practice of askesis for its own sake: with Islam's emphasis on rigour and discipline, the annual fast is an indicator of taking religion seriously. But Lent did not originate in this way. It was always related to Easter, a time to prepare in a serious way to mark the greatest celebration of the year, the Christian passover of the death and resurrection of Jesus. So already on Ash Wednesday, Easter is in view. 'Dust you are: to dust you shall return' says the liturgy as the ashes are imposed on our foreheads. And our foreheads are precisely the place where we were signed with the cross in baptism; so ashing is a reminder of how we are incorporated into the Easter movement of death and resurrection that we look forward to celebrating.
This means ashing can be joyous. It's a sign of our penitence, our sorrow for the tale of wrongs and failures that continue to describe so much of our lives. Hence Shrove Tuesday: 'shriving' is confession, and by extension, absolution. Good for the soul, but joyful too because forgiveness sets us free in new and unexpected ways. And what drives penitence for Christians? Why do we confess our sins and reflect on them with special attention during Lent? For love's sake. Or as I should have written, for Love's sake. Shriving matters to us because God loves us and we love God. It's our love for God and our desire for him that drives us to do anything, everything, that will draw us closer into the orbit of his divine love. How do we know God's love? Through the death and resurrection of Christ. So we are back to what Lent really means. Lent is ultimately a project of love in response to God's everlasting love for us and all creation.
To keep Easter in view every day from Ash Wednesday onwards is the secret of observing this season as a time of purposeful, joyous renewal. Lent is an old English word for spirngtime. Winter is almost past. Welcome dear feast of Lent!