‘When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but not finding any, it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.’
Today marks the start of Lent, the season of penitential fasting which leads through a time of self-denial and self-discipline as we walk on our way towards the Cross. Some mark today with a ritual of ‘Ashing’, when the sign of the Cross is marked on our foreheads with ash, representing that which is burnt out and wasted. This ancient emblem of grief and mourning has been adopted by the Church as both a symbol of sin and to warn of the coming dark days for Jesus.
Whilst I love the ritual and symbolism of Ashing, I am rather conflicted about some of the self-debasement and self-advertisement that goes with it. I don’t think penitence is really about that, hence the mark of the ashes is easily hidden or rubbed off. But what is it about?
Lent has become a time to adopt some ‘penitent fasting’. We can, for example, ‘sweep ourselves clean’ of the impurities of sugar or alcohol. If we effectively cleanse our bodies, does this mean it is just a temporary state of ‘putting in order’? Many of us welcome the end of our deprivation on Easter Sunday with a return to our old ways of over-indulgence; it has merely been a 6 week exercise to lose weight and give our livers a rest!
Perhaps this is a flippant interpretation of Jesus’ words but maybe it gives us notice that unless we fast in a way that will help us act permanently in a state of repentance of greed, repentance of injustice and the unfairness of having too much when so many have too little, repentance for not living simply so that others might simply live – then are we leaving ourselves vulnerable to returning to our ‘old ways’ and more?
Penitence is about sweeping our own house clean but surely it shouldn’t be temporary and must include the world too?
Lent is as good a time as any to begin, but it doesn’t end at Easter.
As we walk with Jesus, we remember all those in our world who are crucified today……. As we deny ourselves, we remember those who go without all the time….. As we repent our wrongdoing, we remember those who are unable to forgive…. As we walk towards the Cross on the path of discipleship through Lent, we pray for ourselves, and others… Amen
The Rev’d Lis Mullen is a retired Minister and member of Kendal URC.