Ask the average passenger on the hypothetical Warrington bus what (if anything) springs to mind in connection with Lent, and the answer in all probability will be something on the lines of giving up (chocolate, sugar or whatever). Those at St. Mary’s will, of course, by now have grown beyond that essentially childish approach, and come to see a deeper spiritual meaning in Lent.
But what exactly does that deeper spiritual meaning consist of? We begin Lent in repentance – the dust and ashes of Ash Wednesday. But repentance properly understood is not about grovelling before God and making ourselves as thoroughly miserable as possible (Is that why the Ash Wednesday service is so poorly attended?). It is about seeing the need for the revolutionary nature of the Gospel to change us, to change our awareness of how we are and how the world around us is in the light of the cleansing and healing compassion and justice of Jesus Christ. That changed awareness sets us free – from guilt, from despair, from lack of hope – to be more truly ourselves.
In other words, Lent is about growing. It’s a time when we make a concerted effort to grow in our understanding, in our vision of God’s world, and in where our own Christian discipleship might be leading us. Lent invites us to consider more closely what the path that Jesus Christ took for himself might have to say to us. A key test is this: if we emerge at the end of Lent exactly the same person as we began it, then whatever we have been doing with our time during Lent, and whatever outward observances we have kept, we have not been Lenten people.
It’s no accident that this year we have three key developments in our local church life coming together in Lent, for each represents a major opportunity – and a major challenge – to us to use Lent to grow.
First, we have the Lent discussion groups, spirituality course and home-based retreat pack. They offer us a chance to grow in our understanding of our faith and our relationship to God, as well as learning from and sharing in the experiences of some of our fellow Christians. They help to build us up as a stronger community of faith, to recognise that we are not lone Christians but part of a vibrant fellowship – each one unique yet reflecting something utterly distinctive about our life together as God’s people.
Second, there is our annual stewardship renewal, where we are asked to reflect on the generosity of our response to all God’s gifts to us. Every church is dependent on the generosity of its members not just to pay the bills but to develop and grow our parish ministry. In that sense our giving is a true test of our faithfulness: do we really believe God has hopes and plans for this church, this parish, or do we hold back, not really having the faith to believe in a dynamic future of growth? In financially-straitened times it is not easy to increase our giving, but what is Lent if not a time to meditate on our willingness to make sacrifices, to choose the quality of life that led Christ to the cross and beyond?
Third, there is our parish annual meeting, the time when we elect churchwardens and PCC representatives for the coming year. This is about growing in responsibility, where we indicate our willingness to put ourselves forward as people willing to try to discern what the will of God is for St. Mary’s, and to help shape the kind of church we believe God wants us to be for the future. It is an opportunity to take responsibility for our worship and spirituality, our nurture of children, young people and adults, and the stewardship of our resources, both buildings and financial. If you truly care about the St. Mary’s of today and tomorrow, why would you not want to be involved in working in co-operation with God and your fellow Christians to bring about that future?
In life, it is a basic principle of nature that we are either growing or decaying. So too in the Christian life. Will you choose growth this Lent?