It is still horribly cold…but the days are beginning to lengthen at last! And that’s where we get the word ‘Lent’ from. The old English word ‘lenten’ means the time of lengthening and growing days. For centuries, that time of growth has been a pointer to the idea of spiritual growth and renewal. There may be an etymological link to a similar French word 'lentement', which means to 'go slow'. Just as we are all getting busy, hacking away at our gardens and going out in the lighter evenings, the wisdom of the church is to be careful...take it slow.Traditionally, spiritual growth and renewal has always been assisted by penitence, fasting, giving to the poor, and prayer. None of these ideas are only about self-denial. Like anointing with oil, fasting was believed to be a purifying and strengthening challenge…a preparation for some challenge yet to come. And the idea of giving things up for Lent was always balanced by the requirement to give something out to the poor: for we surely cannot claim to love the God whom we have not seen if we do not love the poor at our door that we do see.
That is why each year our Bishop invites us to participate in his Lent Appeal. This is an extra call on our purses – at a time when we are encouraged to think most deeply about what it means to be a follower of a Lord who gave up everything for us. This year, our new Bishop Jonathan, is inviting us to the mission charity, USPG. I know from personal experience in Ghana how important their work is in supporting churches in some of the poorest places in the world...churches which then bless their own local communities.
However 'slow' Lent is meant to be, this is undeniably a time for tidying up and preparing for Spring and Easter. At Meadowlands, I’m especially conscious of the need to clear away dead leaves, trim the bushes, plant new seeds. This year, thanks to advice from Martin Hampton, our 'wild gardener', Clare and I have been inspired to leave some of our garden to grow wild - providing a wide range of habitats for different species. I look forward to holding a garden party, later in the year, so that everyone can see the results!
This then is the heart of Lent…growth and spiritual renewal stem from an appreciation of who we are…failing human beings. We are like a plant that needs the sun. We cannot grow without the love, wisdom and power of our heavenly father. That’s why, alongside the Bishop’s Lent Appeal, we also encourage you to participate in our Lent Programme - printed in the Chronicle. It is packed with lots of different ways to go deeper, and to grow roots of spirituality to last throughout the year. Let me encourage you to get involved with one, or more, of those opportunities…take the chance to deepen your understanding of the wisdom and power of God to transform and change you.
As we receive the Ashes, today, we will be reminded that we are ‘but dust…from dust you came and to dust you shall return;’. To the modern ear this sounds a rather morbid thought…but actually it’s intended to remind us, very simply of what we are…We are made of dust. Stardust, in fact…our atoms once burned in the heart of the Universe before they became grouped together with the ball of rock we call Planet Earth. From the nutrients, atoms and molecules of that planet, each of us came forth. Our mothers ate what the planet provided, and we came forth. We are the product of a physical and biological process. But what else are we?
Christians proclaim that yes, we are made of Stardust…but we are also given life by the Spirit and Power of the living God. It is his power that sustains us, his wisdom that guides us, and his love which frees us to become all that we can become as Children of God. From dust we came, and to dust we shall return…but thanks be to God: our Spirits will sing, and our souls will be set free.
So let me invite you to receive the Ash cross this year, as a sign of your commitment to carry on growing in God…to reach beyond the dust from which you were made, to become fully the child of God you were destined to be.