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Lent, Repentance, and Society

The season of Lent does not loom large in the secular narrative of much of Australian society, at least not until Holy Week, but it is not wholly absent.
Hot Cross buns, traditionally associated with Good Friday, are found in supermarkets from early in the calendar year.

Various fundraisers, associated with pancakes, occur just before Lent.  This relates to Pancake Tuesday, a name for the day before Ash Wednesday, which relates to a tradition that on this day various cooking ingredients could be used up prior to the fasting season of Lent. ‘Ash Wednesday’ lives on in Victoria as a label for bushfires that raged on that day 34 years ago now. ‘Palm Sunday’ is now prominent as an annual march in support of refugees and people seeking asylum, thus building on the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem, marked over the years by processions – the name resonates even though it has been replaced by ‘Passion Sunday’ in the liturgy of the Catholic Church.  

The Easter long weekend is more visible to the population at large – Good Friday is widely recognised for the appeal for the Royal Children’s Hospital; Easter eggs compete with hot cross buns to be first onto the shelves, and Public holidays at Easter affect many dimensions of daily life, from work and study to most aspects of play.  And the popular media usually has some coverage of Good Friday as a remembrance of the crucifixion, and Easter Sunday as a major celebration in the Christian year.

But, while Lent has a much lower profile, for Christians, the images and reference in the public arena, meagre as they are, can remind us of the deeper meaning of the season. For Christians, Lent is a time of repentance, and of preparation for our special annual commemoration of the heart of the Christian message, that our God, in Christ, became human as we are, that he conquered sin and death, and asks us to love him as he loved us.
Our culture is familiar with repentance.  We connect it with remorse, and seek it from wrongdoers in our personal lives, and in the courts. Words along – saying sorry – aren’t sufficient. We connect repentance with sincerity, and underlying change. Repentance requires a change in a person – it requires that they develop a new understanding of their actions and themselves.

In some circumstances, repentance can be achieved quickly.  This might be when we recognise immediately that our foolishness, inadvertence, etc, caused unintended harm; and determine to change ourselves so as not to behave that way again. It then remains for us to take the action that flows from such repentance: by making reparation; and by disciplining ourselves to change our future behaviour.

But at other times, repentance can be slow in developing.  We might regret an action, a habit, etc, and its consequences, but not be ready to engage fully with true repentance. For this might cut across aspects of our life that are quite attractive to us: drinking, for example; making lots of money; enjoying a comfortable life. We might need a change deep within us, a change of heart. And that is not easy.

In Matthew’s Gospel, John the Baptist’s message in the wilderness of Judea was ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is close at hand’; and Jesus began his preaching with the same message. This repentance is not a short-term endeavour. It is a call to a deep-rooted change, a conversion that re-orients us, and all our relationships as Jesus taught us through his words and his life.

Lent is a time of 40 days in which we are invited to focus on the repentance that is a necessary part of our Christian calling; a change of heart that will always be a work-in-progress, as we strive to deepen our relationship with Christ: in the words of a hymn both modern and new, to strive each day to know him more clearly, to love him more dearly, and to follow him more nearly.

Part of the genius of the Church’s annual cycle of celebration and remembrance is that we are regularly reminded and assisted in the various dimensions of this work of a lifetime that is our call to follow Christ.  So it is with Lent.  Our call to conversion is assisted by the liturgies of the season, and by the traditions that have developed to assist us in our endeavours.

In his message for Lent this year, Archbishop Hart draws on these teachings and tradition in reminding us that Jesus challenges us personally to engage in prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and then outlining steps we can each take in each of these areas.
And in leading us deeper into this engagement, the Archbishop reminds us that an essential element of our conversion is to be concerned for those in need, and to working for the good of others.

At the end of our 40 days of repentance is our annual commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Those commemorations, ranging over Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday, mark a re-connection with the heart of the Christian message, that our God, in Christ, became human as we are, that he conquered sin and death, and asks us to love him as he loved us, and to love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
Our repentance prepares us for these commemorations.  It focuses us on our God and our neighbour, on our ultimate purpose; and prepares us to contemplate anew these mysteries of God’s ultimate engagement with the world.

Lent will come around next year too, and we will again be reminded of the call to repentance, and be assisted in our responding to this loving call. But, we can hope that our response to God’s Grace this Lent will have some lasting effect, and that next year, and beyond, we might move closer to the love of God and love of neighbour that are the end point of a true conversion of heart.

For society in general, we don’t really know to what extent the Lenten-tide images might evoke an awareness or understanding of Lent itself, but it would be a reasonable assumption that, for many, the direct link is at best tenuous.
It is indirect linkages that have the most potential.  

If we can, by the Grace of God, achieve change in ourselves, and in our commitment to the Gospel calling to love of neighbour, then these changes should be perceptible to others – they should make a difference to the people we encounter, and to the society that we are part of.
That is the fruit of Lent. That is the fruit of the Gospel.

Denis Fitzgerald
26 February 2017


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