May my words be in the name of the Holy & Undivided Trinity: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit.
Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the first day of Lent. I well remember my first Lent – or rather, the first Lent I actually engaged with in the sense of giving stuff up.
I was seven. We were living with my grandparents on their farm near Newmarket in North Cork. Our teacher, Mrs FitzPatrick, was quite religious – well, wasn't everyone back then? - and she encouraged us children to take the season seriously by giving something up.
Now this was back in what now seems like the dark ages. Television was black and white and had only one channel. There was no internet or mobile phones back then, so none of your 'digital fasts' from their beloved devices that are popular with some these days. No, back then giving things up meant giving up some tasty food item you were particularly fond of. Adults tended to go without milk and sugar in their tea – and perhaps the biscuits that normally went with it. Or maybe the drink. And children gave up sweets.
I found this both hard and surprisingly easy. Hard, because, as we all know, sweet things are pretty much addictive, so saying 'no' to them voluntarily is tough. On the other hand, children didn't have much money back then. This made sweets an occasional treat. I think my intake at the time would have been limited to a few penny sweets from the shop near the school a couple of days a week; with the odd chocolate bar thrown in … but something as large as a chocolate bar always had to be shared with friends, which meant you could only reasonably expect to eat at most half of any bar you bought.
So with relatively few sweets in my life my first Lent was tough - but not so bad that I thought it was going to kill me. And, of course, I comforted myself with the thought of all the sweets I would buy when it was all over. By the time I got to the end I had a whole lot of pennies burning a hole in my pocket screaming at me 'Lent is over – you can buy sweets again!' Not long after Easter Day we went to town for the Fair Day and I bought all the sweets I would have eaten over Lent at once. And then I ate them all. And felt dreadfully ill. I didn't actually throw up, which was a blessing as the whole town would have seen.
I would like to think that I have learned a little more about what the meaning of Lent is since I was that little boy. I think of the season as being a gift to us from God through his Church. It is a time that allows us to bring very forcefully to mind the fact that we are indeed sinners in need of redemption, sinners who need to repent. That is the significance of ashes on Ash Wednesday – the use of ashes being in keeping with the Biblical tradition of repenting in sackcloth and ashes; a tradition emphasised by our Lord in chapter 11 of St Matthew's Gospel when he speaks wonderingly at the lack of faith in certain cities that he has performed miracles in, and remarks that if certain foreign cities that the Jews regarded as sinful had seen such wonders they would have been moved to repent in sackcloth and ashes.
Lent is also a time that allows us to discipline ourselves in resisting temptations. We do not give up things just for the sake of doing so, or making some kind of a public display; no, we do it so that in order by giving up things that we are allowed to have or do we may be better able to resist doing things that are not in accordance with God's will. Just as the athlete trains in order to be better able to run the race, even though the training itself is not the race, so our training in resisting allowing ourselves small but permitted pleasures during Lent helps give us the self-mastery that will aid us from falling prey to temptation and doing what we know to be wrong.
But as I finish, one final thought. My first Lent as a child was perhaps not done as well as it might have been. But it was done with a childlike sincerity and simplicity. And our Lord, we know, exhorted us, to be like little children if we were to enter into the kingdom. So my prayer for you today is the hope that you may recapture some of your own childlike wonder and innocence as you engage with the season of Lent this year; and thereby grow stronger in the faith and closer to God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.