A while back I published a blog about the Autumn harvest and Divine prosperity. Emerging out of the winter, the days grow longer and we enter, paradoxically, a time that was in the past a period of hunger and austerity. The provisions of the autumn harvest had dwindled, and the fruits of early summer were yet to come.
It was during this time that the Lent tradition of fasting and prayer emerged, a practical, spiritual response to an annual period of thrift and hardship. Sacrificing something for Lent, combined with prayer and charitable giving, became a call to penance before the ultimate salvation of the Easter Passion.
It lasts 40 days, a significant number in many Biblical stories. Jesus spends 40 days in the desert being tempted by Satan, before his ministry begins; Moses spends 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai where he receives the Torah; Elijah spends 40 days walking to Mount Horeb where he hears the Voice of God; and Jonah gives the people of Nineveh 40 days to repent.
In each of these stories, those 40 days represent a period of transition and preparation, a change from one state of being to another, purer form. The Israelites spend 40 years in the desert, during which all but two of those who left Egypt with Moses pass away. A whole new generation enters the Holy Land, led by the most reliable of those who made the Exodus. This symbolises the transformation of the soul away from slavery to worldly things, in which everything but the best of ourselves needs to be shed. We enter the ‘Holy Land’ in a more enlightened state of readiness to fulfil our purpose in Creation. The purpose of Lent therefore is to make oneself ready spiritually for The Easter Passion, the ultimate letting go.
We find the concept of sacrifice throughout scripture, so it is worth bearing in mind what the English word means. It comes from Latin sacrificium, meaning to make (facere) Holy (sacer). It’s not an idea that has found popularity in modern culture. Nowadays it tends to imply depriving ourselves of something we would really rather keep. To give up too has negative connotations. But consider giving up as lifting to a more enlightened state of being and the connotation changes. What we make holy enriches us at a much higher level, and the rewards, whether earthly or heavenly become worth the effort.
Often it is fear of deprivation that makes the austerity of sacrifice seem frightening. The alternative is non-attachment to worldly things, in the knowledge that we will always have what we need.
This is the theme of Psalm 23, “God is my Shepherd, I shall not lack”. Jesus too observes, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”¹ Both are about trust. Not a blind faith but an inner knowing that we are not alone and that “my cup overflows”. The word Shepherd in the original Hebrew also means ‘Beloved’. Consider: “God is my Beloved, I shall not lack”. Faith too is an act of love.
Lent represents our time in the wilderness, the dark night of the soul, when we feel as though we are indeed walking in “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” (more literally in Hebrew “the morbid valley”). But what is death, if not transformation? God restores my nefesh, my animal soul, enabling me thereby to complete the tasks of life; or provides a new nefesh so that the work may continue with renewed vigour in another life. Jesus accepts Crucifixion, so that Resurrection is inevitable and immutable.
When I read the newspapers in the morning, everything seems to be in such a state of chaos that it is hard to find hope. (I’m thinking of giving up newspapers for Lent!) Brexit, economic austerity, Mr Trump’s twittering, Isis, Syrian refugee camps etc… These are the trials of the modern world. Read scripture, indeed look at any history book, you will find the same stories re-enacted over and again. The sacrifices of Lent are a reminder that, in the face of adversity, giving up those things we fear to lose can transform into giving up fear itself.
“Raise up your heads, O gates, and be uplifted…so that the King of Glory may enter”² – the ultimate harvest is here and now!
¹Matthew 6:26. Having no Greek, I’ve borrowed the New International Version. The translations from Psalm 23 are from the Stone Edition, and follows a traditional Jewish reading. The King James Version is more familiar and poetic, The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want, but not as close to the original text.
²Psalm 24 – the sequence of Psalms is wonderful, I am restored in Psalm 23 ready to ascend the Holy Mountain in Psalm 24!