In the same kind of way as secular society anticipates Christmas by embarking on its spending and consuming binge around the beginning of October, so it anticipates Lent with what’s been called January Detox. Many people think that after all the excesses of their Christmas celebrations, particularly of eating and drinking, it must be good to have a time of dieting and going without alcohol. In fact studies have shown that a short time of abstinence has very little effect on our overall health. What’s needed is moderation all year round: a more sensible diet, and ideally at least two alcohol-free days every week.
The Christian season of Lent, which begins this year on 18 February, is often used as a time for denying ourselves some of the everyday pleasures we enjoy. There are good reasons for doing this, as a way of helping us not to be enslaved by our physical pleasures, and to remind ourselves of the millions in the world who don’t have the things we so often take for granted. Some people go without something trivial like chocolate or alcohol; others decide to forego something more serious, like TV or at least one meal a day. You might disagree (and so might I) about which sacrifices are trivial or major! The important thing, if you want to deny yourself during Lent, is to choose something that will cost you something in terms of will-power, but not be so difficult that you fail to keep it up and then just feel bad about yourself.
But Lent is so much more than just a time for self-denial. Far more important than this, it’s a time to prepare ourselves for the great feast of Easter, when we celebrate God’s victory over death, sin and evil. It’s a time for us to get to know God better. There are numerous ways of doing this, and most of them involve not giving something up, but taking up some new activity, or increasing what we already do.
We could spend more time in prayer — and perhaps learn how to pray better. For far too many of us, our prayers are not much better than telling God about all the things we want. I think of these as ‘Gimme’ prayers; and even if many of the things we ask for are for other people, not just ourselves, it’s still a kind of shopping list we have in mind. But prayer is also supposed to be a love language we use with God. It will include all the murmurings of thanks, expressions of our love and how much we enjoy God. There should be lots of silence too, in which we shut up and listen to what our Beloved wants to say to us. I’m convinced that if all the people who claim to be religious spent more time listening to God, instead of all the noise they make about God, they might even hear him saying, ‘Stop killing people. Build a fair society and world instead.’
We could go to church more often. I guess that during my time as a parish priest I’ve heard all the excuses people make for not going to church. But excuses is all they are. Of course we can worship and pray in solitude; but like so many other activities, we can learn to do them even better — even when we’re alone — if we also join with others to practise.
We could learn more about the faith we claim to believe in. Whether or not we have ever read the New Testament before, Lent is a good time to do it. Half an hour of reading on each of the 40 days of Lent (probably less time than we spend watching the news) will be enough to read it all. And of course, if you already know the New Testament, there are plenty of other worthwhile Christian books you could read.
And we could live more thankful, more generous lives.
But all of these ideas are not just ways to get to know God better, that we can then stop doing as soon as Easter is upon us. They are life-forming, life-giving habits. If all of us Christians lived by them not just during Lent, but all year round, the Church would be a better place — and so would the world.