Lent is the period of 40 days, beginning with Ash Wednesday and ending at Easter. It has traditionally been seen as a time of repentance and a more frugal lifestyle. The Ash is a reminder of “from dust you have come and to dust you will return” (Genesis Chapter 3 verse 19). Ash depicts our own morality and spiritual condition.
I had not been I Ireland very long when at a business lunch during lent the host bemoaned the fact that he was ‘off the drink’ for lent. He then realised that I was ‘off the drink’ for life’ and reckoned he had not so bad a religion after all!
While we may smile at the inconsistency the origins of Lent lie in Jesus, as part of his spiritual preparation, going into the wilderness and fasting for 40 days and 40 nights (St Matthew Chapter 4 verses 1 to 11). The culmination of Lent is the celebration of Easter with the empty tomb of Jesus and the triumphant shout “He has risen” (St Matthew Chapter 28 verse 6).
There should be no outward show. The practice of the ultra-religious is to be avoided. “Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning. Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” (Joel Chapter 2 verses 12 and 13).
There are places in the world where calamity hits the church. One of these is in China where, after a period of toleration, Christians and other faiths are being persecuted. One church which has suffered is the Early Rain Covenant Church in the province of Chengdu, China. Their leaders have been imprisoned for their faith and their congregations are subjected to increasing harassment. The church members have been arrested in their homes, workplaces or on the streets in a series of coordinated raids.
In these circumstances the practice of Lent is over-taken by a faith which exists in the hearts of the people of God and which triumphs in adversity. Part of one of their prayers which is reproduced here gives a flavour of their circumstances: –
“Lord, today we worship you in police cars
We worship you in police stations.
We worship you in detention centres.
We worship you in prisons.
And we worship you in homes.
We have no other goal but to worship you alone.”
Perhaps during this Lenten period, we could remember what the writer to the Hebrews said
Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering (Chapter 13 verse 3).