Lent? It’s a ‘work in progress’ and a time to re-group all our thoughts

Oxford Mail: The Rev Dr Elizabeth Macfarlane, chaplain of St John’s College The Rev Dr Elizabeth Macfarlane, chaplain of St John’s College

THE university term is over, and so it’s time to begin work. One of the strange reversals of the life of the university is that at the start of the vacation, when most of the students go home, those who teach return to their research and writing.

Freed from meetings and classes, it’s possible to spend a morning in the lab, or reading, and so to nurture the very core from which next term’s teaching will come. The vacation isn’t a holiday.

I see Lent as that kind of vacation too. Lent gives us permission to let go of our usual patterns. It’s time to re-group our thoughts, and re-align ourselves with the heart of our Christianity.

And Lent is always going to be a work in progress. It’s never going to be complete, because it’s the work of a lifetime, and it can’t just be going through the motions, or the same as last year.

We can’t do the same things every Lent and expect to learn and grow: we’re not the same people we were last Lent, and our needs aren’t the same.

Neither can Lent be a one-size-fits-all spiritual exercise. Lent groups can be thought-provoking, or just plain provoking, as we find that we’re all in different spiritual places, and speaking to competing agendas.

Lent is a time set apart, and to engage properly with it, we sometimes need to set ourselves apart, and allow ourselves to be alone with God.

When Jesus withdrew into the wilderness, it was to be purified and prepared. Too often we see the drama of Jesus’ temptation – those tantalising offers of food, power and doubt – as the point of the wilderness experience, and when we do so, we limit ourselves to re-producing only a faint shadow of that drama, in our own 40 days and 40 nights. We make our wilderness too small.

Just before the start of Lent, as we were preparing, one of the Sunday readings was the passage from Matthew’s gospel where Jesus invites his followers to ‘Consider the lilies’.

It’s an invitation not just to be ‘in the moment’, but to be part of the moment: not just to see, and smell, and admire the flower, but to be attentive to its life and beauty, and the life and beauty we share.

That’s the possibility of Lent, and it makes much more sense than manufacturing misery by relentless stubborn self-denial.

In all the excitement of the big special-effects temptation of Jesus, we forget the wonder of the final verse, which tells us that he was cared for by angels.

It isn’t too late to begin Lent, or to begin it anew. Lent is an invitation to step back from meetings and to-do lists, spiritual or secular. It’s an invitation to break with the cycle of resentment and regret, and to join again with Jesus’ work in the wilderness, considering the lilies.

Lent is a working holiday.

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