“What are you giving up for Lent?” It’s a question that we ask, even if we don’t understand why traditionally people give up things for Lent. But, should we? When? Why? This sermon for Ash Wednesday tried to answer some of those questions…
I was at Belmont school today along with a few other vicars, being asked lots of questions by the Year 6 pupils, the oldest ones in school. And in amongst the questions I was asked ‘what are you giving up for Lent?’ I’m not sure that they really understood what Lent was, or why it was important, but they did know that Christians give things up for Lent. And some of them were telling me the things that they were giving up; usually sweets or chocolate or the like. And I know that it isn’t just children at Belmont. Looking on Facebook over the last couple of days, there are many more people who are giving up something or other for Lent, chocolate or sweets or Facebook itself for all sorts of different reasons. And that’s one of the problems really.
So, I’ll ask you the same question ‘what are you giving up for Lent?’ And I’ll ask you another question that the children didn’t ask me. If you are, why? Why are you giving up something for Lent? Because, the problem with the children was that they didn’t really know anything else about Lent, or why Christians sometimes give up things for Lent, why people fast.
But, the readings we heard give the reasons why we fast, why we might want to give up things at certain times. The prophet Joel, speaking to God’s people, was very clear in the reading we heard. Fasting is about returning to God. “Return to the Lord your God for he is gracious and compassionate”. Fasting is about showing that we are serious about God, serious about wanting to come to God and know his love and his mercy. It’s about showing that God’s love and mercy affects our life.
And Jesus, in the part of the sermon on the Mount that we heard, takes this further. Jesus talks about three of the things that we’re called to do as expressions of our faith: giving money, praying and fasting. They’re all important, they all affect how we live, and over the last few months we’ve thought about the importance of giving money and prayer. And we need to keep on reminding ourselves about them. Joel told his hearers to “rend your hearts not your garments”, but obviously people hadn’t listened. They hadn’t listened because Jesus needed to tell his hearers not to put on a show, for the fast to be between the person and God. Jesus spent time telling people that their worship, all their worship, including their giving, their praying, and their fasting, was to be done to and for God. Our lives, our worship needs to be centred on God, not on all those things that can get in our way, including all those church-related things that get in our way. Which might be a good thing to give up, and not just for Lent.
So, if you’re giving up things for Lent, why? Because this isn’t about losing weight, or being healthier, or any sort of self-improvement, or to spend more time with your family, or to gain a new skill, or whatever. And it’s particularly not about looking good, or looking holy, or trying to show that you’re better than other people. That was the attitude of the Pharisees, and was what Jesus was talking about. ‘Do not do what the hypocrites do’.
No, giving up things for Lent, or taking up things for Lent is really about getting closer to God, about giving us the time and space and opportunities to spend more time with God, discovering more about him, about our lives reflecting something more of his love and his call on our lives.
Why? Because God is practical, God is interested in the physical and the everyday. After all, he created it all, it said that it was good and he sent his own son, Jesus, to bring the whole of creation back to him. That’s why often worship with physical things, with the bread and wine of communion. That’s why we use water to welcome people into the body of Christ through baptism. Those things are called sacraments, they are things that physically show something of God at work and are ways by which we can physically meet with God.
Baptism and communion are the most important, they are the ones which we are called to do, which it’s important for us to do as part of our usual lives, as part of our regular walk with God. But, there are lots of other physical, practical ways of worshipping God. Lighting a candle, walking and praying, praying, giving money, working for God, studying for God. And one of those has traditionally been ashing, the receiving of an ash cross on your forehead at the start of Lent. Which is why it’s called Ash Wednesday.
Ashes are an ancient sign of penitence, of seeking forgiveness; from the middle ages it became the custom to begin Lent by being marked in ash with the sign of the cross. The ash being made from last year’s Palm Crosses, a reminder of how our hopes and dreams turn out differently to what we expect.
Job and Jeremiah talk of repenting in sackcloth and ashes. At baptism we receive the sign of the cross on our foreheads, with the words: “Christ claims you for his own. Receive the sign of his cross.” An ash cross is about coming back to God, seeking to put him yet again first in our lives, and is a physical, symbolic way of doing that. That’s why we’re offering it as something that you can choose to do in this service.
And during our services in Lent we change things to mark this season of penitence and preparation. We use purple, there are no flowers and we won’t be singing the Gloria, all of which makes the festival of Easter more striking.
So, my answer to the children? I told them that I wasn’t giving up anything in particular. But, that we, as a family, had made a list of 40 things we’d like to do this Lent, 40 ways to help us as a family worship God together. And, I said, that meant that we’d have to give up things so that there was time to do those.
So, give up chocolate or sweets. Give up chocolate that is made on the backs of the working poor. Give up chocolate that enslaves children and puts them in dangerous working conditions. Give up chocolate and spend the time and money you’ve saved worshipping God. Or take up Fair-Trade chocolate, as an expression of God’s love.
Or, give up Facebook. And take up writing letters to people. Someone I know was taking the time over Lent to write to 40 people to thank them for what they had done and were doing. That’s a great expression of God’s love and means that they’ll have less time to do other things instead. Or, take up Facebook. Give up the time-wasting games and keep in touch with friends and family all over the world. Use it to tell people about God’s love, use it to show what your life following God looks like.
Or, give up watching TV. And take up conversations. Take up stronger relationships, with God and with other people. Take up the Bible and take up prayer. Or, take up watching TV and reading the newspaper and lift what you see to God in prayer, or use it to get you to campaign for a world where God’s love and justice are seen more clearly. Christian Aid’s IF campaign is a great thing to get involved in this Lent, as it tackles the scandal that there is enough food for everyone, but still people go hungry. And during Lent we’ll be exploring other, practical, ways we can worship God.
But now this Ash Wednesday, have your forehead marked with ashes. If you want to. If it will help. But, not to take up shame and guilt. Have your forehead marked with ashes as a sign that you are again taking up your adoption as God’s child. Whether or not you are marked with an ash cross, take up your task to do the work of Christ. Mark the start of your Lenten journey to the cross, so that when you get to Easter, you can look back and know that this Lent, you did something with God. Rend your heart and not your garments and turn to the Lord your God, who is gracious and compassionate and abounding in love. Amen.