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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Birth and Death In Lent

Jenny and I are like Simeon and Anna in the temple, getting old while we wait for a child to turn up. Not that we are quite ready to say Nunc Dimittis just yet. The child in question is our daughter’s first baby, and our first grandchild. I blogged when we first heard that a birth was on the way. He or she (the parents have opted not to be told which) was due on Shrove Tuesday, so was inevitably nicknamed Pancake. Now it is ten days into Lent, and still there is no nativity. We are learning a lot about waiting.

Meanwhile, a friend and his family have also been waiting in these early days of Lent.  For them, it was the last illness of his mother; the waiting was quite simply for her to slip away peacefully, as they hoped her death would be. We talked about these different kinds of waiting, one of us for a birth and the other for a death. Like T. S. Eliot in The Journey of the Magi, we had seen birth and death and thought they were different.
But perhaps they aren’t.  When we keep vigil by a loved human being going through one of life’s sacred passages, when we wait for a birth or a death to come, we realise how similar they are, to people of faith at any rate. We are born, we die, we are re-born in some new and unimagined way. Both usually involve waiting and pangs, and generous helpings of patience, endurance and hope. There is often not much else that we can do than be present to what is happening and to those who wait with us: we must allow things to take the time they take.  

This theme of how we spend time has a Lenten aspect to it. This Lent, a Durham idea about trying to live in a way that is less busy has captured the imagination of a surprising number of people. It was stimulated by Stephen Cherry’s recent book Beyond Busyness. There is a website with resources: www.notbusy.co.uk, and even a red wristband to wear as notbusy people. The Twitter hashtag #NOTBUSY is being well used. All this is to open up space in our lives so that we pay more attention to God and to one another; perhaps, in the words of a slogan we coined in my Coventry days, ‘do less well’ (read those words several times putting the accent on different words).

I’ve found in the first two weeks of Lent that waiting for our grandchild has instilled a keener sense of wanting to be less busy so that I can concentrate on this great event that is about to happen, be present to the experience of anticipated delight and joy.  Of course, everyday life doesn’t stop when someone is born or dies, though it can feel like it – ‘stop all the clocks’ said Auden in a brilliantly observed line of poetry.  For time does change in the way we experience it, which is why we find it astonishing that the world goes on as if nothing has happened to us. 

This different and more sacramental quality is what I am trying to notice.  I want to try and embrace what we might call ‘God’s time’ with its gift of a deeper experience of being alive. And I want to allow this glimpse to make some difference to my ordinary days.  Lent with its intertwining of mortality, springtime, renewal and resurrection hope is an exquisitely rich season. So, waiting and preparing for Easter, and waiting and preparing for a birth or a death, belong together. Lent gathers up so much of life, its shadows and its light and everything in between.

And if ‘death is swallowed up in victory’, then birth too is an act of defiance against all that is deathly and deadly in our world. A birth brings not just delight but hope for the human race: life begins again. The old English word ‘Lent’ means spring. Soon the green blade rises.  

For my recent sermon on not being busy in Lent, see my blog of sermons and addresses at 

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