Lenten and lifelong staples

The Reverend Dr Michael Hull writes:

We are already well into the Season of Lent. If we have not done so already, there remains ample opportunity to pause and reflect. Lent is a microcosm of our Christian lives. The Lenten liturgical season marks a fixed period to contemplate our need for a Redeemer, that is to acknowledge our need to repent of our sins; and, at the same time, to express our confidence in the Redeemer: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again! Just as Jesus ‘took time out’ for forty days in the wilderness to prepare for his earthly ministry, so we take forty days each year to (re)focus our ministries, whatever they may be, by following Jesus’ example in the wilderness and in his life among us. As Lancelot Andrewes remarked in a Lenten sermon, ‘Repentance itself is nothing else but a kind of circling: to turn to the One by repentance from whom, by sin, we have turned away.’ What do we find when we look at the Lord’s life? Holy Scripture says that Jesus prayed always, that he fasted in preparation for his public ministry and that the poor were his special concern. These, then, should be our Lenten and lifelong staples: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. 

During Lent, we ought to inculcate a spirit of prayer both communally and personally. Each one of us ought to consider how it is that we spend our time. For example, we might consider how a lessening of television viewing, internet surfing and self-indulgent activities would allow more time for worthy pursuits such as the reading of Holy Scripture, the lives of the saints, the spiritual masters and Christian literature. The cessation of superfluous diversions during Lent will leave us free to spend more time in prayer. It is an occasion not only to ask for forgiveness for our faults and failures but to pray for others, especially those who are less fortunate than we are spiritually and materially. ‘Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive’ (Matthew 21.22). We ought not to let this Lent pass without praying. 

During Lent, we ought to inculcate a spirit of fasting. Our contemporary society is enslaved by its obsession with comfort and ease. In this season of fasting, with our minds turned to the Scourging and Crucifixion, we ought to practise rigorous self-denial. Lent is the ideal time to mortify the flesh by the renunciation of types and amounts of food, by ceasing to smoke, by shunning luxurious ‘creature comforts’, and by any and all acts of penance. Our Lord, when fasting for forty days and tempted by the devil, invoked Moses’ words to God’s elect after forty years of wandering in the desert ‘that he might make you know that one does not live by bread alone, but that one lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 8.3; see Matthew 4.4 and Luke 4.4). We ought not to let this Lent pass without fasting.

During Lent, we ought to inculcate a spirit of almsgiving. ‘Do not turn your face away from anyone who is poor, and the face of God will not be turned away from you’ (Tobit 4.7). How many of us have been apprehensive about economic downturns only in terms of ourselves and not in terms of the needy whose plight only worsens in tough times? Recall the words of our Lord to the rich young man who asked, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?’ Upon hearing that the young man observed the Commandments, Jesus said, ‘One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me’ (Luke 18.22). Unless we have taken pains to provide for the poor among us, we are not true followers of the Lord. We ought not to let this Lent pass without almsgiving.

Indeed, prayer, fasting and almsgiving are hallmarks of Jesus’ life. They have been staples of the Christian faithful who have followed after him for two millennia. We underscore them in Lent because, as Andrewes reminds us, Lent and life are ever a circling back by repentance to the One from whom we too often turn away. In point of fact, we Christians ought not to limit our prayer, fasting and almsgiving to Lent. Whilst they surely are our Lenten staples, they are also our lifelong staples, for the vocation of imitating the Lord is much more than a forty-day probation each liturgical year. It is a lifelong commitment. We ought not to let this Lent pass without prayer, fasting and almsgiving if our goal is to follow the Lord in this life and into the next.

Dr Hull is an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s and Director of Studies at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.