February is the shortest month, but pace T. S. Eliot, I've always felt it to be the cruellest. (He believed it was April, which is to disparage the month of my birth.) It is Lent, and althought the old English word means 'spring', up here in North East England it is still definitely winter. And cold. Not the fierce iciness you sometimes get at this time of year, just that relentless damp chill that creeps up from the river banks and clings to the peninsula. Maybe I am just feeling my age.
However, the snowdrops have been spectacular this year, carpeting the precincts and river banks in a delicate white. Now, aconites and crocuses are bringing back the colour we have missed for so long. The sun is rising higher in the sky and the days are longer again, even if its rays have yet to regain their warmth. When we reach the end of evensong, it is still daytime.
The month begins with a burst of celebration and colour. On the 2nd we keep the joyful feast of the Presentation of Christ. It commemorates Joseph and Mary bringing their infant Jesus to the temple to be blessed. The story tells how aged Simeon took the baby in his arms and spoke of him as a light for the nations. Hence the traditional English name of Candlemas. At the service, the Cathedral is lit by two thousand candles (tea-lights if I am honest). It's an extraordinarily beautiful sight - even if it's quite a job for the vergers. You see the building illuminated as its builders always intended, its magnificent vaults, arcades and piers lit from below. It's a luminous experience, literally and spiritually.
Not many days later it is Lent. You couldn't have a starker contrast than that of Candlemas and Ash Wednesday. This solemn day is our Christian equivalent of the Jewish Day of Atonement: a time to reflect on our sin and wrongdoing, our falling short of what God wants us to be and what we know we could be. The Cathedral is stripped of decoration: the hangings and vestments are of plain sackcloth-white, the flowers are gone until Easter, the music is understated and we don't say alleluia. At the Ash Wednesday service the choir sings the haunting Miserere of Allegri, Psalm 51, that outpouring of guilt and shame that the psalmist feels might be beyond forgiveness and healing. We try to pare things down to their essentials and ask ourselves: what is human life? What is discipleship? What ultimately matters as we walk with Jesus as his followers and friends?
We read about the age-old disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving in Jesus' teaching at the Ash Wednesday eucharist. We receive the ashes on our foreheads as we hear the portentous words that speak of our mortality: 'remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.' But we don't take our eye off the goal of it all. For that is Easter, the very centre of our faith, so we give these six precious weeks of Lent to prepare to celebrate it. 40 days. Not counting the Sundays of course, because every Sunday is the Christian memorial of the resurrection. And Lent, while it is a solemn time, should never be joyless or grim. A good Lent is a cheerful Lent. There is simplicity, but there is also joy. As George Herbert puts it in a memorable paradox, 'Welcome, dear feast of Lent!'
So Lent will see winter give way to spring. At last. Not just the cold and the wind, the sleet and the rain, but the wintriness in our souls. R. S. Thomas has a poem that talks about the frost and rime that encrust our hearts. The liturgy and the personal discipline we adopt for Lent help us face this fact of life. They hold out the promise of transformation to come, a springtime of renewal and resurrection.
Here's how I put it in a Lent poem I wrote some years ago.
Lent is no fast time, but a hard long prising
Out, from winter’s fist, of spring’s gestation;
A slow, waiting season, new life’s birthing,
Atonement’s womb, Easter’s incubation.
It is year’s shaping, scaffolding under skin,
Bones bearing body, strong and spare;
Like earth’s ancient rocks, world’s silent discipline
Exposed when spirit’s topsoil is scraped bare.
Lent’s lengthening light, concentrated and clear,
Lean as plainsong, sharp as east-wind’s keenness,
Shrives air astringently, calling passion near
To wash the ashen soul in fat white cleanness.
No hasty passing over old world’s loss –
Lent’s unrelenting climb toward the cross.
Even in February the sap is rising.