I came across this comment from a clergy colleague on Facebook – “This is the Lentiest Lent that I have ever Lented”. It struck a chord.
The themes of Lent are certainly magnified for us today. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when we are marked with ash to signify our mortality, ‘from dust you come and to dust you shall return’. We are enjoined to spend the forty days of Lent in fasting, self-denial and acts of charity, and these disciplines are to help us to return to God. For much of the year, in good times, it is more possible to forget God, for life is comfortable. In Lent we are to instead adopt a more austere discipline, letting go of pleasures and pastimes in order to remind ourselves of what is truly important.
Which is where a great deal of meaning is now to be found. As a society and nation – indeed, as a community of nations – much of our normal pattern of behaviour is on hold. We are being required to assess what is really important, and what is merely optional; what gives life, and what takes life away.
We are, in short, being invited to return to the Lord.
In this, the Long Lent that we are journeying through, and for which we cannot confidently predict an end, we are in fact entering into a Sabbath. There is much important theology about the Sabbath, and the importance of observing it. At its heart is a sense that the Sabbath is a gift. For one day of the week the people of God are to put to one side their normal burdens of existence, their ‘work’. They are instead simply to be, to exist. They are not to do, to achieve, to strive. All the doings must stop, must come to a complete halt, in order that the people of God might remember who they are in the sight of God. Then, on that basis, they are to re-engage with their normal patterns of life and labours, and slowly work towards the redemption of the world.
If we are to follow God’s will through this time of coronavirus I think we would do well to think of it, so far as possible, as a time of Sabbath, when we can pause in our strivings and spend time listening to God, seeking to understand what God is telling us at this moment in time. I think it rather unlikely that God wishes us to return to the status quo ante. Instead I think we are to exercise discernment, and to sift all our previous habits, as with Lenten disciplines, and ask what gives life, and what takes life away.
There is a related theme in the Old Testament, which is summed up in the word Jubilee. The people of Israel were required to keep a Sabbath year as well as a Sabbath day, during which time they were not to farm their land. In that year they were simply to consume what the land naturally produced. They were also to renounce efficiency in doing so, leaving the gleanings for the poor and the animals. By doing this, the land would be blessed. After seven cycles of this (49 years) there would then be a Jubilee year, during which time all debts would be forgiven and each family would be returned to its ancestral home.
However, this instruction was often ignored. The people of Israel lacked faith that there would be enough to go around, and so kept farming no matter what happened. When the Babylonian army destroyed Jerusalem and took the Israelite leadership into Exile this teaching was remembered, and we read in 2 Chronicles that as a result “The Land enjoyed its Sabbath rests; all the time of its desolation it rested, until the seventy years were complete…” (2 Chron 36.21)
I hear the stories being shared now, of the way in which the dolphins have returned to the canals in Venice, and the blue sky can be seen in previously polluted cities, and I wonder if this is a sign to us. That we have gone too far with our doings and our strivings and achievings, and that we need to spend time resting in God, simply being human. We have been forced to become more local, more simple, calmer and quieter. This seems to be of God to me.
Let’s ensure that when this remarkable time of confinement has come to an end, we return to a busier life with a clearer sense of what is important, of what gives life and what takes life away. If we do, I believe that God will richly bless us.
“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” (Jeremiah 29.11)