Deuteronomy 26. 1 – 11

Luke 4. 1 – 13

Written by Fr Alex; preached by Fr Bernard


Lent – it’s a straightforward, no-nonsense sort of a word, isn’t it.  But I wonder if you know where it comes from?

It’s a form of the old English word ‘lencten’ which has always referred to the Church’s season of preparation for Easter; but it also means ‘the springtime.’ ‘Lencten’ is from an older root, meaning literally ‘long days,’ or ‘lengthening of days.’

And so this simple word is a little more complex than it first seems.  It sums up for us a paradox that is our experience of this season: the abstinence and self-denial of the fast of Lent, along with the joy and delight of new life, warmth, and growth.

But this is what the season is all about, the mystery of what seem to be opposites: life and death, fullness and emptiness, gain and loss. 

Lent and the Paschal Cycle reveal to us that the opposites of life in fact belong together: that what appears to be defeat might in fact turn out to be victory; that what seems to be the end is actually the beginning; that the grave of death becomes the place where new life is to be born.

And we see this in nature all the time, don’t we.  We’ll see it again soon this spring as the trees that once shed their leaves and now look dead and lifeless, will suddenly burst into leaf and flower.

Some of this natural imagery is even used by Jesus himself as a illustration of the kingdom, and the life of faith.

He reminds us that a seed only brings forth new life by first going into the ground and dying.  A vine that looks perfectly strong and healthy – or perhaps something more familiar, the rose bushes of our gardens – needs to be pruned back in an almost brutal fashion in order to flourish in the next season.

In Fr Alex’s homeland, Australia – not somewhere Jesus ever visited of course, so this image never made it into the New Testament – there are bush fires on a regular basis.  They’re getting worse as the world gets hotter, but they’re in fact a normal part of the cycle of nature.  And it’s the devastating fire itself that actually activates the growth and flourishing of many plants.  Rapidly the black, charred, seemingly dead branches burst into new, green life.

So in a similar way, Lent is all about the connection between self-restraint and self-denial on the one hand – dying to old ways of life – and the quickening of life and growth and fruitfulness on the other.

And this is part of the reason why the tradition of giving something up for Lent has come into being. 

It is, of course, in imitation of Christ’s fasting in the wilderness that we heard about in our Gospel this morning.

Straight after his baptism, as he begins his public ministry and his work of salvation, Jesus takes himself away into the wilderness to fast.  He is led by the Spirit away from the world, in order to come closer to God.

But ours is not just an imitation – a dead ritual.  It’s a living tradition, and one that still has much to commend itself to us today.  It’s summed up for us, I think, in our first reading from Deuteronomy.

When the people come into the land that God gives them, the land flowing with milk and honey – a land full of good things – they offer the first fruits of it back to the Lord, as a thanksgiving.  A thanksgiving for all the wonderful things the Lord has given them, and for protecting them and sustaining them through all their hardships.

And then they are to rejoice, to celebrate with all the peoples around them the bounty that the Lord God has given them.

This is Lent and Easter in a nutshell.  We give up something pleasurable, not because pleasure is evil, or the things of this world are intrinsically evil – but to reorientate our lives towards God.  To remind us that all these good things we enjoy come from God; and that when we take delight in the good things of life, we are delighting in the goodness of God, who has given us everything.

Like a vine that has too many branches, we accumulate too much stuff, and indulge in too many bad habits, and they start to hold us back; they prevent the flowering of the life that God desires for us. 

Like the rose bush, we put all our energy into maintaining the various branches of our lives, that we don’t have any energy left to make new flowers.  And all of a sudden we’re surrounded by the thorns of life – the thorns of anxiety, addiction, depression – and not the wondrous flowering beauty of the freedom of life.

And so Lent is our time for pruning back those branches, and refocussing our energy on growing the flowers of love, charity, faith, gentleness, simplicity, within us.

But like the people of Deuteronomy, the time will soon come when we will – we must – celebrate again the bounty that God gives us.  At Easter we will rejoice in the new life that we will have seen growing all around us – and within us, if we can keep a good and holy Lent.

Before I end I just want to say a short word about the situation in Ukraine, and the terrible evil being done there by Vladimir Putin and his agents.

So far I have talked about our own personal Lenten journeys – focussing on our inner lives.  But of course, we cannot separate our inner life of faith from our outer experience of the life of the world.  Our growth in faith pushes us out into the world; as we cut away the thorns of our own lives, we notice more the thorns that choke and tear at the lives of others.

And this Lent we’re very much being pulled into the world as we stand in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and watch helplessly as their cities are destroyed, and their people are killed.

So let us keep this Lent not just for ourselves, but for them – and all who experience pain and suffering at the hands of others.  Let our fast be a prayer for them – our experience of a small hardship be an act of solidarity with them in their great hardship. 

Just as our small imitation of Christ’s great sufferings brings us closer to him, so our prayerful connection with the people of Ukraine this Lent will bring them great strength, and bring us all into the loving purposes of God for all his people.  And just like the seeds that go into the ground: out of the death and destruction, our God will bring new and wondrous life.  Amen.