A few months ago someone gave me a miniature rose plant. It was very kind of them, and very pretty! Unfortunately though, I’m terrible with plants. Within weeks, the leaves went greyish, brownish and crispy. Dead, in short. I almost threw it out, but I’m also not very tidy, so for weeks it sat in my kitchen looking like dead twigs in a pot.
Dead twigs in a pot might be a good way of thinking about how I often feel during Lent. It’s hard work. Each year I choose to give something up (chocolate, Facebook, booze…) and take something up (exercise, recycling, gratitude…). Then, inevitably, I fall off the wagon to some extent. Jesus managed 40 days in the wilderness without transgression, but Lent unfailingly highlights my human weakness. I recognise my human frailty, but I’m not sure how much I grow as a disciple.
Anyway, this week as usual, I decided on something to give up. But somehow it seemed like empty rule-making. And that’s not really the point, is it?
So what is the point?
In the Ash Wednesday service that marks the beginning of Lent, the Book of Common Prayer directs the priest to invite those in attendance to “the observance of a holy Lent”, by practising self-examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, self-denial, and reading Scripture. The point of this is that putting down (and taking up) specific behaviours for a time can remind us of the reality of our human condition; of human poverty, finitude, and our need for God’s love and forgiveness. Both Latin and Greek Orthodox names for the season resonate with that understanding: the Latin term Quadrigesima (“fortieth”) reflects the 40 days Jesus spent being tested in the desert, and the Orthodox tradition calls it the Great Fast.
All of this is important. But it is not the whole story. The English language is unique in the terminology it uses for this season. The word “Lent” has its roots in the Old English lenten, which means “spring time”, in turn a compound of the words for “day” and “lengthen”. There’s something fitting about that as an additional lens through which we can view the experience of Lent. For Lent is a journey and not a destination; it points us to something else, full of light and life. Lent finds its fullest meaning not in the darkening weeks of Lent themselves, nor in the blackness of Good Friday, nor the silence of Holy Saturday, but rather in the early morning of the first day of the week when a group of women find a tomb with its stone rolled away. It is empty, for the crucified Christ has risen.
As I heard the words of the Litany used in the Ash Wednesday service (a long prayer of confession, seeking God’s mercy) yesterday, I had a sense of being called back to obedience as a disciple. The words called to mind some things in me that could use a spring clean – to be held in the light of the God who created and loves me, and cleansed. I felt the nudging of the Spirit that the call to keep a Holy Lent, for me, for this year, ought to look a little different. I don’t need a Lent that looks to external, physical discipline, but something relational and intimate. It will still involve a deliberate discipline, but it won’t need me to quit chocolate. So the “rule” set earlier in the week is no more. I’m not about to tell you exactly what that means though; I’ve told one person so that they can hold me accountable, but that’s enough. The only person who needs to know is God, as Jesus teaches in Matthew 6.
All of this gives my Lent a different hue – still penitent, but tinged with hope and promise this year… Which brings me back to the miniature rose.
A couple of weeks ago, I decided to give the rose one last chance. I pruned it hard, fed it and placed it on my brightest windowsill. And in a recovery that’s little less than miraculous, it seems that pruning and care are coaxing it back from the brink of death. It is showing signs of new life; bright green shoots among hard brown stems.
I feel like that as this Lent starts: pruned. Yet pruning has a purpose. It gets rid of that feeling of being like dead twigs. It encourages growth. It enables flourishing and the bearing of fruit. Even in the hard work of allowing God to show us, and prune, our spiritual dead wood, we can anticipate growth and life and joy to come.
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’