Christians come to Lent from one of two directions. Some of us approach from the past. We look to the season as a time for penitence. We reflect and repent from previous sin. We acknowledge our individual and corporate failings. We give up, even if only for a few weeks, things that have distracted us from our holiness, or have become idols. Some of us approach from the future. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter. We form spiritual disciplines which we hope might be landmarks on the lifelong journey we call sanctification. We commit ourselves to charitable works that might in time become habitual. We abstain from good things in order to appreciate them more richly later. Maybe, if we are experienced and sophisticated in our approach, we try to do a bit of each; to focus on both past and future.
These two approaches broadly reflect two metanarratives with which we approach life and faith: the myths of regress and of progress. To the regressive Christian, “Change and decay”, linked forever in the Hymn Abide with me, act as synonyms. The constant shortening of human lifespan recounted in the Book of Genesis is clear evidence that things only get worse. The first few chapters of Paul’s letter to Rome depict a process of degradation against which the Church of God must stand, rescuing whom it can, while it may. By contrast, to the progressive Christian, decay is the consequence of not changing enough, or not sufficiently quickly. Luke’s account in Acts of the gospel reaching out to begin its conquest of empire, offers a view of an ever advancing Kingdom. It’s a destiny towards which, like Paul’s athlete, we must run, and run at our fastest. If a traditional hymn is needed, let it be From Glory to Glory advancing.
Of course, these characterisations hugely simplify reality. We are all a mix of progressive and regressive. But the balance between the two can be very different in each of us. So here’s a challenge for Lent. Try to live it in the opposite myth to your natural preference. If you are a progressive, then let a backwards facing Lent be a way of broadening your sympathies, deepening your understanding of others, so as to grow in holiness. If you are naturally regressive then face forwards. Find something in the world to embrace and enjoy. Maybe force yourself to eat at least one piece of chocolate very day.
That’s a hard ask; for most of us hard enough if not too hard. But, for a minority who have the motivation and the strength, maybe there is, to quote St Paul again, a better way still. Live this Lent neither looking to the past or future. Live it deeply in the present moment. Fast not to improve yourself, nor to express regret; fast simply because Jesus did. Take up or give up such practices as you choose, not because they will help you to achieve some goal, but simply to mark out this season as distinct, as a time set apart. A time for God to use in whatever way God wants.
David Walker is Bishop of Manchester