Last Wednesday night I was watching ‘Reporting Scotland’ on the BBC. Among many stories there was one about lowering the sugar content in the iconic Scottish fizzy drink ‘Irn-Bru’. A reporter asked a few people in the street for their opinions on the decision. My attention was drawn to a middle-aged woman whose forehead had been marked with a darkened sign of the Cross. Unless she had a very peculiar hygiene regime, she must have begun her Lenten observances by attending Mass on Ash Wednesday. Some of us did that too, and then paraded the marks on our foreheads on the way home. Some of us didn’t, for various reasons, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still make Lent meaningful.
What does it actually mean to ‘make Lent meaningful’? In the liturgical texts we find expressions like ‘self-denial’, ‘self-constraint’, ‘self-restraint’, ‘battling against sin’, ‘repentance’ and so on. Generally speaking, they recall a medieval vision of rather unattractive self-loathing. It can be said quite safely that most of us here are not grave sinners; yes, we have our imperfections, shortcomings and vices – but we try to be good Christians and good people. So, do we really have to do anything more, or to do anything other than what we do on a regular basis? The answer is simply: ‘yes’. Let me give you an example.
This church of ours is a rather old building – older than any of us, anyway. It’s undoubtedly beautiful: if you need any proof of that, just read the comments in the visitors’ book or ask any visitor. But every now and again a problem comes up. Sometimes it’s a leak, sometimes it’s an electrical fault, or maybe it’s a shattered glass panel… Unfortunately, however, some problems are less obvious or even invisible to the untrained eye. So, every five years, we have to commission a trained eye in the form of a professional architect to examine the whole building and produce a document called a Quinquennial Report. In it, all those hidden or not-so-obvious defects are presented, along with suggestions regarding remedial works. In this way, the building can be repaired before minor problems develop into major problems that are more difficult and more expensive to rectify. So, our church is being maintained on a regular basis, but every five years it has its own ‘Lent’.
I’d say that for us, regular churchgoers, Lent is not so much a time for making massive changes in our lives; it’s more about taking a closer look with the light of faith at our lives, habits, attitudes, behaviours and so on, to identify minor problems and to rectify them before they have the chance to develop into major problems. A few years ago, I started to have a wee dream at the end of the day to help me relax. Then I decided to abstain from alcohol for Lent. In the very first week, I noticed that that innocent little habit of mine had the potential to progress into an addiction. After that, the rest of Lent that year was plain sailing, at least in that respect. Since then I do have the occasional wee dram, but it’s a much rarer indulgence – and mostly when I’m having friends round.
Today’s first reading and gospel are beautifully-crafted stories of temptation under the guise of meeting necessary material or spiritual needs, or fulfilling personal ambitions of freedom and self-determination. In the case of the woman in the Garden of Eden, she falls right into the trap; Jesus manages to withstand the temptations. The lesson is that each one of us is being tempted; or, to put it in modern terms, to follow our ‘natural instincts’, lending ourselves to self-indulgence, either in material, or mental or social aspects. Lent is a special time of God’s grace, of powerful spiritual support offered by our Father in Heaven. The Church traditionally calls upon her members to take up the task of improving themselves by three means: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. It’s for you to find out how to apply these to your own life. Be assured: it’s worth it!