Have a Good Lent!

The Antiquities of the County of Suffolk (1846) by Alfred Suckling, record that in the registers of Darsham Church, there are “several curious entries”. Including:

‘A license granted to Mr. Thomas Southwell to eat meat in Lent, aged 82, and sickly, by John Eachard [Vicar], for which he paid 6s. 8d. for the use of the poor in Darsham, according to the statute, March 4, 1638.’

So here’s a church fundraising idea: rather than giving things up for Lent, you can buy a license to allow you to do whatever you like. Chocolate? That’s £10.00, please!

It’s been done before. In 1517, when the Pope wanted to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, he sent a Dominican Friar called Johann Tetzel to Germany to sell indulgences. Tetzel said that you could pay to have someone’s soul set free from purgatory – a sort of ‘get out of jail free’ card for a loved one. Tetzel was a good salesman, with his slogan:

As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.

That might not have been official church teaching – indulgences were really to do with punishments that the church could impose on the living, not the dead. But the way in which they were being marketed caught the attention of an Augustinian Friar by the name of Martin Luther. Luther put together a series of propositions and sent them to his bishop. (He may or may not have nailed them to the door of the church in Wittenberg. If he did, it was not the dramatic gesture it may have seemed – more like pinning something on a notice board.) These 95 theses included one which asked why the Pope, who was one of the wealthiest men ever to have lived, didn’t pay for the repairs himself rather than expecting poor ordinary folk to give their money.

These 95 theses, sent to the Archbishop of Mainz on 31st October 1517, marked the start of the protestant reformation. I don’t think that Luther knew what he had started, nor was he able to control where it led, but part of what he did was to get back to what the bible says, rather than what the church said the bible says, and what had accumulated over the centuries. Luther’s reformation shared with Renaissance humanism a desire to get back to the original sources – ad fontes: the Renaissance went back to Greek and Latin classical texts, rather than relying on mediaeval interpretations of those texts. The Protestant Reformation decided to go back to the bible, rather than on how the church interpreted the bible.

It began with this rejection of the sale of indulgences. Imagine being able to pay to have your sins forgiven and go straight to heaven!

But it turns out that the gospel is even more outrageous than that. What Luther discovered, when he went back to the bible, is that God saves us, not because of our merit, but by grace alone. We receive that grace by faith alone. Salvation cannot be bought because it is offered free of charge. It cannot be earned because it is God’s gracious gift.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
Ephesians 2:8-10

The problem with Lent is that it can make us feel worthy, even self-righteous. But the gospel gives us no reason to boast because none of it is our own doing. It is God’s doing: we are what God created us to be. And part of that is a life of good works – not in order to earn our salvation but simply because that is who God made us to be.

Ashes to Ashes

So, how’s Lent going for you? I’m writing this at the start of Lent (on Ash Wednesday to be precise), so, so far, so good! I am reading “Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent“, a collection of meditations by Fr Richard Rohr. Rohr is an American Franciscan Roman Catholic Priest. I first came across his writing when I was attending a conference in Salisbury. The conference was aimed at those looking at sustaining ministry for the long haul. (In other words, those who have been in ordained ministry for quite a while but who aren’t ready to think about retirement just yet! People like me.)

Richard Rohr has written about spirituality for what he calls the ‘two halves of life’. The first ‘half’ of life is a time for finding out who we are. It’s time to test the boundaries, to strive, to achieve. In the second half of life, all being well, we have found out who we are. Now it’s time to be who we are. So who are we? He says there are two key moments in our lives:

“One is when you know that your one and only life is absolutely valuable and alive.
The other is when you know your life, as presently lived, is entirely pointless and empty.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call a paradox!

The first moment is about connecting with God, our ‘ultimate Source and Ground’, in which we find ‘energy and joy’. The second moment gives us ‘limits and boundaries, and a proper humility’. We need to know both, and in Lent, we are invited to find both.

I suppose it depends on your personality and experience whether you need to be reminded how fabulous you are, or whether you need reminding how limited you are. We begin Lent with Ash Wednesday. Ashes have long been a symbol of humility and repentance – in Genesis the Bible says that we have come from ‘dust’ and to ‘dust’ we will return; and the phrase “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust” is used in the funeral service. It might seem morbid, being reminded of your mortality and of the need to repent, but we don’t do it every day of the year, just on Ash Wednesday.

Richard Rohr points out that the ashes we use at the start of Lent are traditionally made from the previous year’s Palm Crosses. Palm Sunday (on 20th March this year) is a bit of a false start. The crowds welcome Jesus as a hero whom they hope will liberate them from the oppression of their Roman masters. But those hopes are cruelly dashed on Good Friday. They were false hopes. Jesus will bring about our liberation, but not by espousing the methods of their oppressors – the violence of arms and force. So, as we begin Lent, the crumbled hopes of false starts are placed on our foreheads. No need to rub it in! we say. But it’s only one day a year and we are very stubborn when it comes to learning lessons. Especially the lesson of the Cross. We want a Palm Sunday Jesus, all cheers and celebration. But Ash Wednesday reminds us (even before we get to Palm Sunday) that Jesus won’t get to the bright glory of Easter without passing through the ash-darkness of the Cross.

We have a number of ways of helping you to know yourself a bit better during Lent. On the Wednesday evenings (February 17th and 24th; March 2nd, 9th, 16th and 23rd ) we have a service of Compline (7:30PM at St Matthew’s). Compline is to do with bringing the day to ‘completion’ – a quiet, peaceful, thoughtful time of prayer before the day ends. But it also invites to consider how all things will come to their completion. (Don’t worry, it’s not as morbid as it sounds. Those who come love it.)

On Palm Sunday (20th March, 4:30PM at St Matthew’s) we are getting our ‘extended choir’ together again for a service of worship that will get us ready for Holy Week. On the Monday of Holy Week (7:30PM, 21st March) we look forward to welcoming the Bridgewater Singers who will perform Bob Chilcott’s ‘St John Passion‘. And then on the Tuesday and Wednesday evenings there will be more opportunities for prayer and reflection.

Thursday 23rd March is Maundy Thursday, when we mark two of the greatest gifts that Jesus gave to his disciples – the eucharist and the great commandment ‘to love one another’. There will be services at St Matthew’s at 10:30AM and 7:30PM.

Good Friday is on 24th March. We will be following the Stations of the Cross at both churches – 10:00AM at St Cross and 2:00PM at St Matthew’s. Between them, at noon, there is the Bridgewater Churches Together act of worship and witness in the middle of Stockton Heath.

So, have a good Lent. Easter isn’t that far away…