Lent and Christian Ethics: a talk given at Abrar House

Our talk today is premised on concern that the values which seem to dominate our world, namely materialism. consumerism, utilitarianism, individualism and opportunism are taking us away from what should be our true focus in life, namely how we place God first and also how we treat our neighbour.

As a religious leader living in the West I quite often speak in my sermons about how we are distracted from what is really important and what will give us true happiness, by the pursuit of power, status, wealth and the good life both in our work and in our leisure.  That said it is worth reflecting that for a vast number of people in our world the reality is a struggle for physical survival, for a secure place to live, for enough food to eat, and for a place to live where one can feel safe, and for a place where everyone is treated as a person of value, in Christian terms “made in the image of God”.  The current refugee crisis, the proliferation of food banks in the UK, the increased numbers of those living on our streets is evidence of this.

Christians develop their ethics and morality from a range of sources.  Some will stress the teaching of the Bible and in particular they may focus on its message in both Old and New Testament that God sides with the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and the persecuted.  Others will turn to passages of Jesus’ teaching like the Sermon on the Mount and be inspired by such verses as “Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, Blessed are the Merciful, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, Blessed are the Peace makers.  Others will talk about the need for following Jesus’ example of compassion and mercy, forgiveness and love, and seek through their own understanding, guided by the teaching of the church, to put this into practice in their lives.

Beneath all this is an understanding that God loves his creation (in its wider sense not just humanity, but the whole created order), and that his desire is for the created order to flourish and to thus reflect the glory of God in all its dealings.  In a sense we may understand this as a vision of “heaven on earth” Christians pray daily, in the saying of the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy (God’s) Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as in heaven”  The prayer continues “Give us this day our daily bread,” a prayer not just for ourselves but for all humanity,  and applying both to physical food and spiritual food, and then “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who trespass against us”.  This directly links us with the season of Lent which Christians are now observing.

The season of Lent provides Christians with an opportunity to annually reflect on all of what I have been saying and to try and re-orientate their lives so as to better reflect God’s glory.  Of course this is not something that can be achieved by human effort alone, if at all.  Christianity has an understanding of humanity that we are all flawed beings and finite beings, and we need God’s providential grace to be redeemed.    This is very much the focus on Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. When Christians come to the church for forgiveness, their foreheads are marked with ashes reminding them of the biblical symbol of repentance (sackcloth and ashes) and mortality: “You are dust, and to dust you will return, turn away from Sin and commit yourself to Christ”.

Lent is one of the oldest observations on the Christian calendar. Its purpose has always been the same: self-examination and penitence, which is the acknowledgement of one’s own sin (one’s failings) and the expression of the desire for forgiveness.  Lent is a season to prepare oneself for Easter, the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus from the Dead, which for Christians is the foundation event of their faith.

I would like to speak first about how Lent has been observed in the past, but then to reflect on its meaning for Christians in the UK today.

Traditionally Christians have been encouraged to spend time during Lent in prayer, to confess one’s sins, to fast, and to do acts of charity.  In past centuries it has been treated as a time of self-denial, when metaphorically one suffers for one’s sin in order to purify one’s soul.  It was treated as a period of somber reflection lasting forty days which comes to a climax in the period of Holy Week when Christians recall the events leading up to the passion and death of Jesus Christ.

Why forty days?  The number “40” has special significance in scripture.  In the Old Testament, On Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Ten Commandments, “Moses stayed there with the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights, without eating any food or drinking any water” (Ex 34:28). Most importantly, in the New Testament we learn that Jesus fasted and prayed for “40 days and 40 nights” in the desert before He began His public ministry (Mt 4:2). It is described in the NT as a period of inner turmoil and challenge for Jesus when he faces his adversary “the devil” and is tempted by him to follow his own desires for power, wealth and status.  Jesus’ renounces these distractions and instead pronounces that what is prime importance is the Worship of God and doing his will.

In terms of practice traditionally Lent was strict in its interpretations of the rules of fasting.  Generally it meant abstaining from meat and sometimes fish.  The day before Lent began (Shrove Tuesday; so named after the practice of striving) was a day of feasting and carnival; to let off steam before the lencten fast began. The rule during Lent was for a person to have only one meal a day.

However from the late 20th Century the emphasis on fasting had been relaxed, although Ash Wednesday and Good Friday remain days of fast.

What I have been speaking about so far is a traditional understanding of Lent.  Today there is less emphasis on the “suffering elements” and more positively an emphasis on the opportunity for Christian to renew their relationship with God.  Christians believe that their sin and the sin of the world separates human beings from God.  It also separates us from each other.  There is a greater emphasis today on the communal aspects of sin and on the sins of society.  There is also a recognition that often people are trapped by the situations they are in and that compassion rather than punishment is called for.   Lent is after all about rediscovering the heart of God in Christ; For Christians the core of Jesus teaching is about love and compassion.  Thus they seek to put this into practice into their lives.

We are conscious of the ease with which we can selfishly be drawn into the consumerism and materialism which is around us.  Lent provides an opportunity to restore the focus, to cleanse the mind and heart and to rediscover the roots of one’s faith.   It also provides an opportunity to think about one’s lifestyle and to try and change one’s daily practices to better respond to the needs of the world.  The Christian tradition has a strong emphasis on social justice and Lent provides an opportunity to focus on this.    So reinterpretation of the spiritual practices has taken place.  For example, fasting may now be linked to one day (traditionally Friday) and the emphasis will be on eating a simple meal and then giving the proceeds saved to a charity.   One practice we are following in our church which comes under the heading fasting and purification  is the project “40 bags in 40 days decluttering challenge”, a challenge to rid ourselves physically of those things which are not needed, to put them into bags and then maybe to give them to charity or share them.   But we might take this idea further; to emotionally declutter (perhaps face those things which are preventing us from moving on or growing in our lives or obstructing our relationships with family or friends), and to declutter spiritually, to rid ourselves of anything which is impeding our relationship with God.  Another examples; In terms of charity our church community puts a special emphasis onto supporting the foodbank run in a neighbouring parish as well as seeking to support those whose lives are in danger globally.

The English word ‘Lent’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon (early English) word meaning to ‘lengthen’. Lent comes at a time when the hours or daytime are ‘lengthening’, as spring approaches, and so it is a time when we too can ‘lengthen’ spiritually, when we can stretch out and grow in the Spirit.   We provide the opportunity by focusing our selves on God through our spiritual practices for God to build his home in us.  It is a time therefore of renewal and rebirth, a time to rediscover the light of Christ within us, a time to remember our Baptisms, sacramentally (metaphorically) our time of birth in Christ (traditionally Baptisms took place at Easter) Today, the spiritual practices we pursue (prayer/fasting/charity etc) are less interpreted as paying a penalty, and more about refocusing and renewing our lives in God/Christ.  This is why Lent now is seen as a joyful season, about a renewal of inner peace (in the face of all the distractions of the world) and a refocusing on what should be important in our lives.


Laurence Hillel (Reverend)

March 2016