Today is Shrove Tuesday so tomorrow Lent will begin. At a church we visited on Sunday, the minister spoke about Lent as ‘a time of preparation for Easter, the most important Christian festival’. My 7 year old son Tom turned to me aghast and said (a bit too loudly) “Easter? More important than Christmas? I think Christmas is loads better”.
The contrast between Christmas and Easter is significant. Generally during the Christmas period the religious aspects sit more easily alongside the secular, consumerist emphasis. Christians sing carols in a shopping centre and everyone is happy – generally both Christians and non-Christians can affirm the validity of each other’s celebration.
A more controversial hope
But Easter is different – it is more serious and more edgy. It has death and suffering right at its core, and the hope it speaks of is controversial. Despite the attempts to suffocate it under a mountain of chocolate, Easter lays bare a more counter-cultural message – of a God whose costly grace and love won a victory over death itself. This is the core of the Christian faith and where its real transformative power lies. It’s a message which exposes a gap between what the Church believes and wider society can accept. The last week has seen huge debate about how Christianity is embedded in public institutions. The recognition of Easter is a prime example – every year I wonder how long it will be that a public Bank Holiday is given for Good Friday. If a few prayers before Council meetings bother the National Secular Society surely an enforced public holiday to mark the death of an ancient wandering preacher should too?
Resistance and renewal at Lent Long before Bank Holidays were invented, the significance of Easter has led Christians for centuries to use the 40 days before Easter as a time of preparation. The season of Lent has been a time for Christians to re-order their lives in light of the truth of what God has done: a time to challenge established patterns of behaviour or thought, a chance to establish a new rhythm to our daily lives. A time to resist what easily tempts or diverts us, a time to be renewed by what truly nourishes us. What do we need more than anything? Most people recognise the benefit of a healthy rhythm of life which feeds our soul. This is why in our busy and stressed world, secular versions of ancient practices have developed. Magazines and self-help books are full of advice and regimes that help us detox, to rest and relax from our worries and our hectic lives of earning and spending. Many of these offer common-sense advice. But too often they are rooted in an individualism which put us at the centre of the story. We are the ‘masters of our fate, the captain of our souls’. Inevitably this leads to self-focussed solutions – get more time for yourself, do what feels right for you. It is a gospel of self-help which locates the solution in us and what we can do. The renewal of hope In contrast, the core of the Easter story is fundamentally about what God has done. We are not at the centre of this story. And the explosion of new life that broke out of the empty tomb on the first Easter morning released a hope which has been transforming lives ever since. The resurrection of Jesus is a foretaste of the ‘renewal of all things’ that God will one day complete. This renewal is pictured in the final chapter of the Bible:
“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21)
This vision can give us hope in the complex and tragic realities of life. A hope that helps us resist selfishness and despair; a hope which has the power to truly renew us; a hope which can bring healing and wholeness to a world which desperately needs it. If you are looking for a Lent book then I would really recommend Nigel Wright’s book Jesus Christ – The Alpha & the Omega. It has 4o readings which all focus on different aspects of Jesus’ character and his achievement. I used it last Lent and I found it brilliant.