Similar to the English word Easter, the word Lent was originally a secular word with no particular religious associations. The word is traced etymologically to an Old English word lencten, (related to lengthen, referring to the lengthening of the days) and simply meant the season of the spring.
The penitential season in the Church always fell during the springtime in Europe, and over the centuries the word ‘Lent’ became synonymous with the liturgical period. Additionally, for the Anglo-Saxon period it was an easier word than the official Latin title of ‘Quadragesima’ which means ‘forty days’ or more literally the fortieth day before Easter. This term identifies the season with the forty day period of preparation before the celebration of Jesus’s Passion, death and resurrection. However, Lent had its origins about nine hundred years after Jesus. There was international agreement that there should be a season of prayer and seeking forgiveness lasting forty days, plus Sundays, leading up to Easter Sunday. The number forty was chosen because immediately before he began his time of travelling and teaching, Jesus spent forty days in the desert reflecting on the future of his life.
Many writers have pointed out how this identification is spiritually beneficial. Lent is generally seen as a type of “spiritual spring” when a soul is renewed in fervour and cleansed of impurities. It is a time of solemnity and self-reflection where Christians confess their failings and resolve to live a more godly life based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Traditionally, the day before Lent begins is a time for feasting and celebration. All the luxury foods that won’t be eaten during Lent are consumed. Given that those foods include eggs, milk and fat – ingredients for pancake batter – it is clear why it became traditional to make pancakes. Here in the UK we call the day before Lent begins ‘Shrove Tuesday’ because the word ‘shrove’ is derived from ‘shrive’ meaning to forgive. The first day of Lent is Ash Wednesday. Many Christians go to church on that day to seek forgiveness from God for what they have done wrong. In some churches, the priest will take some ash and use it to mark a cross sign on the forehead of each person. It is a symbol of their remorse. The ash is traditionally made from burning palm crosses which were distributed on Palm Sunday the year before.
Despite this rich history in the church, many of us don’t observe Lent, but maybe we should. This special forty day period before Easter is a unique time for us to take an inventory of our lives, commune more intimately with God and clear out those things that may distract us from our commitment to him. Like New Year, Lent can become at best a season for making resolutions. People give up chocolate or sweets, alcohol or social media. They decide to pray more, to read something from a Lent study book every day and generally to be a ‘better person’. Beyond that, many people have little understanding of what Lent is about. There are many ways in which we could understand and engage with the season more meaningfully.
First Reading Matthew 4, 1-11
Jesus Is Tested in the Wilderness
4 Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted[a] by the devil. 2 After fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry. 3 The tempter came to him and said, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.”
4 Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’[b]”
5 Then the devil took him to the holy city and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. 6 “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down. For it is written:
“‘He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.’[c]”
7 Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’[d]”
8 Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. 9 “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.”
10 Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’[e]”
11 Then the devil left him, and angels came and attended him.
So Jesus is led by the spirit into the wilderness, where He fasts for forty days and forty nights. We are told that He was hungry. He was God incarnate, but He was also human. If any of us miss a meal or two, we feel like we’re starving. One can only imagine how Jesus must have felt after forty days without food. At His moment of greatest weakness Satan comes and challenges who He is. ‘If you are the son of God, command these stones become bread.”
We don’t know whether this was within Jesus’s power, but even if it had been, Jesus knew that His power was not to be used spuriously to please the devil or to satisfy His own physical needs. He trusted in the sufficiency of God’s care. He mastered His hunger and the desire for food by subordinating them to His greater purpose of living to please God. He responded, ‘‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ This is From Deuteronomy 8:1-3 where Moses is addressing Israel about why the Lord had led them through the wilderness for forty years and fed them with manna from heaven - it was so that they would be humbled and learn to trust and obey the Lord their God. In short, they needed to learn that God was their God. They could and should trust Him always to provide for and take care of them. This is something we can all learn from. Rather than trying to fix everything yourself, remember that the Lord will provide exactly what you need.
The second temptation involves Satan taking Jesus to the top of the temple and challenging Him to see if God would rescue Him when he threw himself down. Jesus answered him, “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” This is from Deuteronomy 6:16, which is actually an exhortation to God’s people Israel not to do what they had already done when they were on their wilderness wanderings. They frequently grew hungry or thirsty and complained against Moses and the Lord for bringing them out of Egypt. They wrongly tested God and doubted His care and provision. Jesus took the opposite stance in refusing to put His Heavenly Father to the test. Actually testing God is the opposite of faith because true faith believes and trusts God by doing what He says. Again, there is something for us here. Rather than complaining about our lives and wishing they were better in some way, we can simply trust that whatever we need will be provided for us, without us needing to see proof of it in advance. We do not need to test God because we know that He will watch over us and keep us safe. Look around you at everything you have. Hasn’t the Lord provided for you? Why test Him by asking for more?
The third temptation is one which probably has resonance for us more than any other. Satan brings the Lord to an exceedingly high mountain and shows Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. He then says to Christ, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Christ’s answer, “Away with you, Satan! For it is written, “You shall worship the Lord your God, and Him only you shall serve,” it shows that His heart, loyalty and devotion would be to Almighty God and Him only. At this Satan left Him. In Luke, though, it tells us that he departed ‘until an opportune time’. Satan hadn’t finished with Jesus and he isn’t finished with us. The reason this part of the story may have resonance for us is because we live in materialistic times, when offers of wealth and/or power might be very tempting to us. It reminds us to worship only God and not the more distracting elements of our life which involve acquisition of wealth or power.
When we reflect on the temptations of Christ, we are encouraged to remember His perfect faithfulness, and His perfect righteousness, and how that which is His becomes ours if we live in true faith. This wonderful truth doesn’t mean that we don’t and won’t have to fight the good fight. It actually means the opposite; it means we join in battle with Him.
So how does this relate to Lent? Well, we can, like Christ, use the forty days of lent to reaffirm our beliefs. How do we do this? Well, one way is by putting in context our own temptations and, in these Covid-ridden times, one temptation is that of falling into despondency and becoming very negative about everything around us. One thing to remember is that forty days is quite a long time and it comes at a time of the year that is most trying to human beings. It is difficult, when we look out of the window and see nothing but rain, cold winds and even snow, to find anything good in this time of year. We can’t get out and about as much and we can’t look after our gardens properly. It’s easy to start to feel slow and sluggish and as if there’s nothing much to look forward to. How we long for spring – fine weather, lambs in the fields, longer days. If we look at the forty days that Jesus wandered in the wilderness, tempted by Satan, however, we can see that it was a finite length of time. It came to an end and, rather than wasting it lamenting how dreadful it felt, Jesus used it to clarify His purpose. He shows us how a bleak time can become a time of transformation. Jesus was preparing for His ministry and, though it ended in pain and suffering, in reality Jesus was on the true path towards spiritual transformation. Rather than rushing it, He embraced the wilderness.
Reading 2 Matthew 13, 3-8 and 18-23
The Parable of the Sower
13 “A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. 20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Jesus began His ministry with the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 and He continued to refer to seeds, trees, fruit, vines and branches throughout his time. I think the metaphor of the seed works really well for Lent, not just because the spring takes place over the period of Lent, but also because, if you see the growth of a seed as a metaphor for Christian growth and spiritual development, it fits perfectly with the idea that we could use Lent as a time to grow. A seed needs a rich environment in order to grow; otherwise it will quickly wither and die. This applies to the environment in which we grow as Christian disciples. There must be an ongoing flow of comfort and security, challenge and inspiration, learning and service. Otherwise discipleship is stunted, stagnant or even dead. How can we grow spiritually? Well, we hope to spend our whole lives growing spiritually, but at Lent in particular we can achieve this through prayer, study, worship, fellowship and service. This is why people form groups during Lent to study, pray and talk, because in this way it is possible to use this somewhat bleak time of year to foster and nurture our spirituality, so that when the spring comes, it comes not just for the outside world, but for us, in our hearts and in our spirits, and makes us truly fit for doing God’s work on earth.
Reading 3 Matthew 13, 24-30
24 Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. 25 But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. 26 When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.
27 “The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’
28 “‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.
“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’
29 “‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’”
I put this one in really to show that we don’t live in a perfect world and we are existing side by side with all sorts of difficulties and evils which, not only do we not know how to handle, we are in danger of being drawn along by. Like the wheat was in danger of being uprooted alongside the weeds, we could be in danger of having our faith uprooted by being carried away by people and ideas that are not in keeping with our faith. Like Jesus in the wilderness, there are numerous temptations to be overcome.
Another problem is that we are also in danger of not being recognised as Christians because we can become so wrapped up in the ‘weeds’ of this world that our true natures are hidden within the tangle. Then we stagnate and, no matter how much we know we’re not living the life we want to, we become weakened and unable to pull ourselves straight again. If you look at Jesus in the wilderness, you can see how difficult it is, when you are at your lowest ebb, to resist the glories of the world. However, we can also use Jesus’ example to understand how to remain steadfast, rebuke evil and resist temptation.
If you know anything about planting seeds, you’ll know that seeds grow at different rates. Some sprout almost immediately and make steady progress; others that sprout later sometimes become early bloomers, whilst some normal beginners end up stunted and sickly. Growth is rarely even and usually chaotic and there’s nothing we can do to change this diversity. No matter how much compost you dig into the soil, you’ll still get some bloomers and some duds, but even duds can revive. Ian’s mum used to look at extremely dead plants and say, “Give it a year.” She never gave up on the duds and we shouldn’t either – even if the duds are ourselves!
How is it that we know this about seeds but we don’t understand it when it comes to people? Seeds teach us that to mature in different ways at different times is completely normal. I suppose what I am saying here is that we should never give up on each other, and we should never give up on ourselves. Even if you do feel you’ve made a hash of things and that you can never come back, always remember the beautiful fact that through Christ’s life and death, which hold particular poignancy for us at this time of year, you were forgiven before you were even born. No matter how much you feel you’ve failed, God never gives up on you and He always wants you back. I think the message here as well is to learn to forgive yourself and remember that you are, at the end of the day, only human.
Reading 4 Mark 4: 26-29
The Parable of the Growing Seed
26 “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
It’s important to remember as well that seeds can’t be rushed. They require the amount of time that they require and in God’s plan, the time things take is the right amount of time. This is hard for us – we’re impatient people who always want everything now. Oh yes, we’re heavily into next day delivery aren’t we? No wonder Amazon is doing so well. We live in an age of instant gratification. Seeds teach us that we need to learn to wait, to develop patience.
Christian formation is a process of seed-like growth, and patience is the key ingredient to transformational growth.
I actually think that if you rush the growth, you spoil it. Like a rose that blossoms too early and then is ‘blown’ before the summer comes, if you rush things too much you can end up ruining them. You might have a period of religious fervour that is unsustainable – like the plants that grew up strong but wilted quickly. It is far better to gradually grow in faith so that it enriches the depth of your being and becomes absorbed into your everyday life. I can safely say, at sixty years of age, that I am still learning and still growing. One thing that has helped me grow is writing talks like this. I would be lying if I said I had thought it all up myself. I researched on the internet and found lots of ideas, so many that it was difficult to know what to choose, but gradually my thoughts and ideas distilled into something like a train of thought and, in writing this, I’ve grown a little in spirit as well as in knowledge.
Reading 5 Matthew 13, 31-32
31 “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
Change also happens in stages. The full grown plant looks completely different from the seed, just as the acorn looks completely different to the oak tree. Growth goes through distinct stages, each one marked by unique characteristics. Such it is with faith. Belief and enquiry deepen to devotion and discipleship. Learning and following evolve into teaching and leading. Growth within the community of faith matures to a life of service in the world. We move through stages of faith development as we grow from seed to sapling to fruit-bearing tree.
This reading also shows that there is a miracle in the way nature reproduces. Seeds contain the past and the future. Each seed is the produce of previous generations and contains within it all the genetic code for the future. Seeds are filled with the information that yields transformation. Each generation builds upon the last and lays the foundation for the next generation.
The Word of God is the information we contain – passed down throughout the ages and preserved in us for the future – that holds the power to transform us. When we give ourselves time to grow, we unleash the God-given power to become mature disciples.
The lessons of the seed help us to see Lent, not as a time of sacrifice and denial, but as a time of preparation and anticipation – preparation for the work to which God calls us and anticipation of the fullness of life that God promises. Let's use it wisely and come out of it transformed and ready to do God's work on earth.