Just when you think spring is near we get hit by a “polar vortex” and we have another week of cold weather to look forward to.
It is also the second Sunday of Lent and the origin of the word “Lent” comes from an old English word meaning spring and suggests the image of new life pushing out of the cold, hard earth.
Although there are signs around St Mary’s of the daffodils trying to break through the ongoing cold snap makes the colour of spring seem slightly remote, although it will eventually come.
We are still in February and early in the season of Lent and it seem a long time until the church is filled with the flowers and fragrances of Easter.
To use a running analogy: In the London Marathon there is a sign that congratulates you for running 8 miles, but then says only another 18 to go. The second Sunday of lent can feel a bit like this point: there is still a long way to go.
The main focus of Lent in the church is always focused on the cross and the reading today from St Mark describes how Jesus openly tells his disciples what will happen to him in Jerusalem, rebukes Peter who is horrified by the idea, and then to the crowds describes the path of discipleship: deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.
Then there is a saying that has a strange reversal: if you want to save your life you will lose it and if you lose your life (for my sake and the sake of the Gospel) then you will save it.
The cross from this perspective, although a stark and uncomfortable image, does seem to point towards salvation and new life.
Last Wednesday evening we had the first of the film for Lent and watched Silence. It tells the story of two Catholic Jesuit Priests who priests in the seventeenth century incredulous that the former leader of their group has renounced his faith. They arrive and are hidden by villagers and minister to the people. The church is being persecuted and those who do not renounce their faith face the very real possibility of martyrdom. Yet, the authorities are clever, rather than give martyrdom to the priests they persecute the people. The chief inquisitor tells the priest who wants martyrdom that “these people will suffer for your glory.” As he is a compassionate man when faced with innocent people being tortured until he renounces his faith he has to make a decision.Does he sacrifice his faith so that others might live? One of the challenges given is “by all means pray, but pray with your eyes open.”
The film tomorrow, Life is Beautiful, is of a different sort as he sacrifices that are made are willingly given, although involve courage and imagination.
These types of discipleship dilemma are fortunately for us in the west not as pressing as some parts of the world where the threat of persecution is very real.
I was asking this week how some of the children at St Mary’s and St Bartholomew’s School were getting on with their Lenten promises. It was a mixture of giving up chocolate, watching television and someone said not eating broccoli. A few had given up but there were some children who were holding firm.
In some traditions in the church there is a suspicion of things like fasting as it suggests that we are trying to focus on effort and hard work rather than God’s grace. I personally don’t agree with that as worthwhile things do usually require effort and dedication, not to earn God’s favour, but to help us appreciate afresh what God has done for us.
I won’t push too searchingly how we are getting on two weeks in but I think there is a recognition that whatever we have chosen to do in Lent it should be testing and require focus and effort. It is raising the question of how important is faith? Do we make time for prayer? How much do we want to invest in the life of the church? When Jesus says that following him involves taking up a cross, do we want to carry its weight or is it easier to leave it and focus on something else.
There are different ideas on the internet that provide emails on a daily basis with Bible readings and suggestions for the day. These include 40 Acts of Stewardship and Generosity. There is one for schools and they provide a good focus to think on themes around kindness and generosity.
On Tuesday one of the students at St Albans introduced me to some words from Pope Francis on Lent that was written last year. It was written to give a different perspective on the discipline of fasting. They are as follows:
Fast from hurting words and say kind words
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude
Fast from anger and be filled with patience
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope
Fast from worries and trust in God
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity
Fast from pressures and be prayerful
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy
The cross is and always has been a strange and uncomfortable symbol. As we come closer to Easter there will be time to think about the different ways that it has been interpreted. I don’t think that Jesus wanted to put fear and dread into his followers, but was simply being realistic.
Yet, there is the strange promise that from the disaster of Good Friday the promise that “after three days (he) will rise.”
We are being called to a new way of life, it will be hard and as we approach the middle of Lent we may find that we need to dig in and keep going forward.