Lent is here. It’s a long season, all the way from Ash Wednesday to Easter that does not exactly inspire many modern day Christians. In this fast moving world, we lack the patience for a season of such length. We prefer the one day beano, like Christmas, Easter, or (at a pinch) Pentecost. Sometimes we might actually stretch it out to a three day holiday weekend, but an observance lasting forty days and forty nights, like Lent, is almost beyond imagining.
Giving up chocolate, or some other pleasure, is the focus of Lent for many - 40 days of misery so that we can feel jolly at Easter. There are 2 problems with this. The first is that at Easter we ought to be celebrating much more than the end of a long period of self-imposed privation. Second, it misses the essential point that Lent is principally about reflection and repentance.
To repent means to change direction, to alter course, to change one’s mind. The conventional understanding involves drawing up a list of ones foibles and sins…then, trying to cross those sins off the list one by one. Yes, I’ll surely try to give up smoking; I’ll try to lose weight; I’ll try to be more concerned about the hungry and the homeless; I’ll go to church every Sunday; I’ll even try harder to be merciful to my least favourite people. The problem is, we usually find, after an effort at moral reform, that the sins come back all the more healthy than ever: lots of chocolate cake and ice cream, deep resentment about the flaws of certain people, terrific self-indulgence. That’s the problem with the moralistic approach to repentance. If we approach this season with the idea of routing out all that is evil in our lives, pumping ourselves up to a pitch of virtue and good will, we’re likely to find that the bubble of our virtue bursts soon after the season of our reform has past, and the vices come back on with a vengeance.
Instead of approaching Lent from a moralistic perspective, we should perhaps reflect upon the true meaning of repentance. This is the season for exploring the mysteries, a time for looking beneath the surface and examining our own motives and desires, asking ourselves where we are headed. What in the world makes us tick? Where does our real commitment lie? If we are brave enough, this can be a time for pushing beyond the conventional wisdom, for re-examining traditional understandings and finding fresh new perspectives on our faith. Rather than trying to “pick off” individual sins, true repentance is about orientating the whole of our life together - individual, church and society - in a God-ward direction, seeking the mind of Christ who “did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil 2:6,7). So repentance is not about self-improvement, still less is it self-indulgent.
True repentance directs us to the needs of others as surely as a compass needle is drawn to point north and is more about joy than misery.