To Keep a True Lent

Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, or to give it its more common name, Pancake Day. It’s traditionally the last day of indulgence before the start of the season of the Church year called Lent. This season lasts for 46 days (or 40 if Sundays are excluded, as they traditionally are). For many people Lent’s a time for abstinence and when I was a boy, there was no chocolate, no cakes and no biscuits from Ash Wednesday until Easter Day. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see Lent as something far richer than simply a time of giving up treats. This isn’t of course a new idea, as long ago as 1648, Robert Herrick wrote a poem called “To Keep a True Lent”. The first verse of which is:

Is this a fast, to keep
The larder lean?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep?

His initial reply to the question is:

No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

And he finishes:

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

He attaches importance in attending to the physical needs of those less fortunate than oneself and then to one’s own spiritual needs – “to starve thy sin not bin”. Giving up treats can of course serve both purposes. In the case of the former, we can spend the money saved giving to the food bank or to charity and in the latter, the discipline of refraining from and refusing treats serves as an all too frequent reminder of this particular goal.

You don’t have to be religious to see a need to examine your life and the way you live it; to examine your relationships and how you interact with others; to strip away the masks that you hide behind and the stories that you tell yourself to justify what you do and think. The main difference for those who believe in God is that there’s nowhere to hide. You can tell yourself that your actions are always entirely justified, as much as you like, but there’s simply no hiding from the scrutiny of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity.

Some say we’re now living in a surveillance society, with CCTV cameras everywhere you turn, but for those with a faith in God, it’s always been like that. Consequently it means we have to live life., as Paul wrote to the Ephesians: “as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible”. The difference for me between CCTV and God is that I’d rather be judged by the creator of the world, than by the creator of the webcam and whoever may be watching it on youtube, twitter or facebook.

Seven weeks a year of spiritual spring-cleaning through self-reflection and increasing self-awareness, might be helpful to anyone, religious or not, as they strive to become a better person. As the Scottish Prayer Book describes the penitent in the invitation to confession: “Ye that do truly and earnestly repent you of your sins, and are in love and charity with your neighbours, and intend to lead a new life”. That just about sums up for me what Lent’s about. Have a fruitful time between now and Easter and enjoy the Easter Eggs all the more.

Blessings
James

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