Lent has given way to Holy week, and we’re within 7 days of Easter Sunday. The 6 Nations rugby has drawn to a close, and England have (somehow) clung on to their first Grand Slam in a long time. Yesterday as I watched the final match of the tournament it set me to thinking about journeys and pilgrimage. In the age of TV talent shows, where we are fed an endless diet of contestants’ ‘journeys’ – generally involving a tragedy or disappointment of some kind – the idea of life as a journey has become hackneyed. Yet part of why sports tournaments are popular is the arc of the narrative – you start somewhere, and you hope your team will end up somewhere. The matches throughout the tournament are scenes and plot-twists within the journey to the final.
I love advent, the journey to Christmas, because it holds within it the chance to explore the deep and complex longings within us for light and hope. It is a journey through darkness, with the hope of light. I’ve always been a bit less sold on Lent, despite loving Easter and Holy Week. Lent in its modern form can feel like WeightWatchers aimed at both body and soul: Give up chocolate and be more holy! Or, perhaps more accurately: Give up chocolate and drop a dress size, with the added bonus of it being socially acceptable to talk about how much you miss chocolate, because giving up something for Lent is somehow virtuous. A festival as a cover for a society’s obsession with weight and image doesn’t seem really my thing.
In an attempt to challenge my Lenten misgivings, this year I’ve been reading through Word in the Wilderness, a book with a poem a day for Lent and Holy Week with brief commentaries by Malcolm Guite. (If you haven’t read any Malcolm Guite and you like poetry, you might want to look him up.) What has struck me most is the sense of journey or pilgrimage. Unlike Advent, when the coming of Light was longed for, this Lent I have been aware of the same sense of expectancy, but around a realistic evaluation of oneself, almost an apprehension rather than a longing. If Advent causes us to look at darkness and ‘lostness’ in the world, Lent is an opportunity to look at these within ourselves.
Easter itself is the brightest of the Christian festivals – Jesus dies for all people of all time, and is raised to life to reign in majesty, declaring us whole and holy. Yet the sense of darkness in Lent is found in the recognition that we most willingly live in the shadows and have created a debt to God, making Jesus’ death a necessity. The brightness of Easter is the lifting of both gloom and debt, through the terrible cost of an innocent death.
Lent becomes a time to more fully know ourselves, and recognise that beneath the outward mask that I show others lie a complicated mass of competing desires, jealousies and stubbornness. Rather than being a time to congratulate myself on giving something up, this year it has caused me to reflect upon myself and my relationship with the community around me.
And so back to the journey. Thinking about life as a journey helps to make sense of life by giving us a way to see events as twists and turns, stops on the way. While we live, we have not yet arrived.In the build-up to any sports event there is much discussion about the team set up and support. This Lent has helped me to reflect both on myself, and those around me who have walked with my on the journey so far.
Some friends join us for a few steps along the path, others will walk with us in easy rhythm for years and decades. Some parts of the journey seem more like an upward scramble over windswept rocks, while others seem like a walk in an ornamental park. I am grateful for those who have walked alongside me thus far.
As I look forward to Easter, to the despair of Good Friday when all is lost, to the joy of Easter Sunday when Life and Forgiveness burst forth, I want to use this time to reflect on Lent and Easter as a picture of my whole life. Lent is a reminder that we journey for the whole of our lives, Easter is a reminder that one day, through death, we will arrive.
While I live I want to be thankful for those who journey with me, those who dance, drink, rejoice and mourn with me along the way. Our Grand Slam is already won, we just need to keep on playing until the final whistle.