Shortly we will begin our journey to Easter with the sign of ashes, an ancient sign, speaking of the frailty and uncertainty of human life.
But this year, we don’t need to be reminded of how fragile and uncertain our lives are. This year, in this new post-earthquake world of ours, we are all too conscious of the narrow threads that bind us to life and to civilisation, of the ways plans can change in an instant, of how dreams can be narrowed down to something as simple as a warm shower and a working toilet.
This year, as we watch footage of tons of liquefaction silt being shovelled, do we really want to hear ‘remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return’?
This year, it seems like Lent has come early.
This year, Lent has been forced on us all, inside and outside the church, inside and outside Canterbury, as people all over New Zealand are brought up sharp against reminders of mortality.
What have we to offer to the rest of our society, we who each year have entered, consciously and willingly, into this season? What has Lent to teach us, and through us, teach our friends, our neighbours who are suddenly struggling with a sense of impermanence?
We keep Lent each year to prepare for Easter, because the quietness, the sadness sharpens the joy of that celebration, because the reminders of death throw such a contrast with the new life that comes with resurrection.
We go through Lent, and through Holy Week, almost pretending that we don’t know how it ends, that we’re somehow in ignorance of what lies around the next corner. We wave our palms and shout hosanna on Palm Sunday and try to convince ourselves we don’t remember what happens next. We wash feet and keep vigil, like the sleeping disciples in the garden, we carry the cross on Good Friday trying to forget the end of the story until it happens, like our favourite childhood books that we made our parents read to us over and over.
This year, let’s forget about forgetting. Let’s remind ourselves and those around us that the end of this season of sadness and fragility is the joy of new life. Because the Lent-Easter story is a symbol of the larger story that everything is part of, the story that we are all living within, and it says to us that the end of any season of sadness and fragility is life and hope and rejoicing.
The Lent-Easter story reminds us that it will be all right in the end, and if it’s not all right then it’s not the end.
This is not to say that we gloss over the grief and the fear that have come to so many, or apply simplistic band-aids of pseudo-comfort, but we do not let it have the last word.
Going through Lent every year makes us all people of sorrows and acquainted with grief: it teaches us to sit alongside the mourning of others and not fear it.
And we keep Lent each year to remember our need for repentance, to remember that there are things in our lives and in the life of our society that are not good, that we must turn away from. The looting and the scammers in Christchurch are only reminders of what lies buried deep in all communities, in all selves. Lent invites us to put this away, but before we can do that, we have to face up to it, to acknowledge that we all need new hearts created within us and new spirits renewed by God.
The honesty of this season is another of its gifts to us, and through us to our communities.
The holy Lent into which we are called is one where we are invited to reach out to others. To share our bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into our houses, to share our clothes with those who are suddenly without them and not to hide ourselves and our own vulnerability from those who are close to us.
This season which we choose to embrace each year gives us practice in living lives that draw near to others, lives which bring justice and hope and comfort to those around them, lives which make other people’s lives better. After so many Lents we within the Church just might have some idea how to do this.
And above all we keep Lent each year to remember our need for God. To remind ourselves and each other that we ‘shall call and the Lord will answer, [we] shall cry for help and he will say, here I am’.
Remembering the frailty and uncertainty of human life, remembering our mortality and the mortality of those we love, makes us very vulnerable. We have to admit to ourselves – and the people of Christchurch and around our country have had to admit – that we don’t have all the answers, that sometimes we don’t even have sensible questions, that we cannot really do life all on our own.
We have to admit we need other people and we need God. And perhaps that is Lent’s greatest gift to us, and through us to others.
Writing to a people who had endured exile and the destruction of their city, Isaiah uses water as an image of renewal, a promise of hope for the future.
‘The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail.’
May this be so, for you and for me and for all those whose lives have been so disrupted, and may we come in the end to our Easters.
Vicar of Northland and Canon Theologian