Easter being early this year, there has been very little time to re-adjust from the post-Christmas season to the season of Lent.
Epiphanytide ended rather abruptly less than ten days ago, and Lent has suddenly arrived with the first snowdrops. The wilderness season is upon us wrapped into the season of gestation and first growth. In this particular wilderness season, the one which presages ultimate and eternal life, we are obliged to think about what must come first, which is death.
This week’s Observer Magazine features an article about death. It is a brave article. It also invites Christians to distance themselves momentarily from what we believe about death and re-engage with this unpopular subject from another perspective, the one which many people are most used to, which is simply the fact that ‘WeCroak’.
‘WeCroak’ is a phone app which reminds its user of the truth about their own mortality several times during a single day. Lent is a season for dealing with truths that most of us would rather not face, especially the ultimate truth that we must all die. You could say that it is a rehearsal period for death itself.
The only really frightening aspect of death is that, when the moment comes, we may not be quite ready for it, so it is essential to come to terms with this fact if we are not to be taken unawares by death. The purpose of Lent is to provide a space for facing the reality of our own mortality and of the passing of all things, both good and evil. The phone app is useful here because it simply says, as it pipes up in its random way (there is no set time-table), that whatever you are doing or thinking or saying right now, this precise moment could be your last. What, therefore, would you really like to be doing, thinking or saying?
Facing into death is also essential for knowing how to live. We face into death by facing into the reality, or truth, about the present moment, or of our present set of circumstances. Am I at this moment bored? Or hungry? Or short of sleep? How do these feelings and states of health colour my responses to the needs of others? The last question is the one that matters most because our lives are bound up with other lives, especially those we deal with on a day to day basis.
This is not to suggest that Lent is a time for repression and arduous discipline aimed at some kind of mind enhancement or dubious self improvement. It is a time for defeating the kind of death which destroys the individual from within and then goes on to destroy society and the world we inhabit. Every individual is responsible for the greater whole.
We begin to address the questions which pertain to the present moment by throwing out old habits of mind which have passed their ‘sell by’ date, so to speak. What we thought yesterday about any given issue or person pertains to memory, and after a while memory can become skewed. Memories need to be revisited, and this may not always change them for the better. The truth of a memory sometimes has to be revealed as worse than we had thought it was. Facing into this truth is also a kind of dying, dying to the lies we have grown accustomed to living with.
Lent is wilderness time, patterned on the forty days endured by Christ in the desert when he would have faced into the truth about himself and his life’s purpose – and questioned it. Lent is a time for questioning and for facing into doubt. The biggest questions are invariably presaged with the word ‘if’.
For Jesus, temptation also came as doubt: 'If you are the Son of God, turn these stones into bread' (you know you can do anything and you must, of course, take sensible measures when it comes to your own comfort and wellbeing). It came as 'If you are the Son of God, jump off this great height' (and show them all who you really are. You know you won’t die – or do you?)
Lent invites doubt. But we need doubt if we are to know the truth about ourselves, and hence about the purpose of our life and of our own mortality. Lent obliges us to seek out and face into doubt, as we return to our own particular wilderness, to our compressed memories and to the truth about what we are doing, thinking or saying in the present moment.