A reflection at the start of the season of Lent
For some of us, Lent seems to have turned into an opportunity to prove ourselves. Consciously or not, we can find ourselves competing against others – how many food groups can you give up? Or, maybe more commonly, we realise that we are competing against ourselves – how much time can I spend praying, reading and studying? How much good can I do in one day?
However, of course, this is precisely what Lent is not about. It is not a 40-day competition with a reward at the end, but, I would like to suggest, it is a journey towards our beginning. A journey in which we have the opportunity to realise that we already have what we are looking for: God’s love.
The point is well illustrated by Jean M. Watt’s poem Lent:
Lent is a tree without blossom, without leaf,
Barer than blackthorn in its winter sleep,
All unadorned. Unlike Christmas which decrees
The setting-up, the dressing-up of trees,
Lent is a taking down, a stripping bare,
A starkness after all has been withdrawn
Of surplus and superfluous,
Leaving no hiding-place, only an emptiness
Between black branches, a most precious space
Before the leaf, before the time of flowers;
Lest we should see only the leaf, the flower,
Lest we should miss the stars.
Jean M. Watt
Lent is a time of stripping bare. Because it is only when we strip ourselves from all behind which we hide, that we see our true selves. When we take away our distractions, whether those are material or not, we encounter who we really are. In the image of the tree: we see the trunk and it’s branches. Maybe superficially not the most beautiful image, but it is that which gives us life and sustains us, and ultimately enables us to flourish.
So, Lent is a journey in which we encounter ourselves. We see the ugly parts of ourselves, which we usually try to hide away. We see our loneliness, as if we were in the Garden of Gethsemane. We see our complicity in pointing to others, as if we are shouting ‘Crucify Him!’ together with the crowds. And we see our lack of commitment, as with Peter we betray Jesus, over and over again. It is not an easy journey.
However, it is a journey we do not make on our own. Yesterday, many of us have received the ashes: not only a reminder of our mortality, but also of our Baptism. The sign of the cross which symbolises that we are never alone. And it is precisely that knowledge, that we are never alone, in which we try to ground ourselves once more during Lent.
Not only will God never leave us, neither will he stop loving us. Paradoxically, this is maybe one of the most difficult truths of Christianity to accept: that God will never stop loving us. That is why we find it hard to see ourselves stripped bare, because we cannot believe that we are loveable as we are: the bare truth of ourselves.
It is precisely the re-discovery of this truth – which is at our beginning – that is the end of our Lenten journey. Easter, which ends the season of Lent, is nothing but a new beginning. It is not only the journey we endeavour every Lent, but also the journey of our life: at the end is a new beginning. And in that sense, it is not only the journey towards a new beginning, but also the journey home.