14th February 2016
With Rev. Helen Mitchell
What Day is it today?
Did anyone get a card? Flowers? Is anyone hoping for a romantic dinner?
Perhaps many of us are past the age when Valentine’s Day is exciting. But maybe you can remember receiving a first Valentine’s Card, anonymous of course.
I know I can. Who could have sent it? It was the cause of much excited and pleasant speculation.
Of course, people have been sending Valentine’s cards forever, the craze stared in the 1830’s, encouraged by the Victorian penny post. But now it’s not just cards. The romantic dinner is the thing.
I can tell you the essential elements from having studied advertisements from Waitrose and M&S.
And so you don’t miss out, I can tell you that if you’re not going out, and I recommend that you don’t, since every restaurant will be overbooked and the service will be dreadful, you can get a lovely meal to eat in, with wine and chocolates thrown in, for £20.00 for two from either place.
Of course it’s over commercialised and it is a celebration of the sort of romantic love that can never live up to all the expectations placed upon it, but Valentine’s Day is far from meaningless.
By giving cards or flowers or a romantic meal, those in committed relationships can say, I do love you, even if it seems that I usually take you for granted, you are special to me, I think about you and I care. It can help with the bonding and reinforcement that all relationships need if they are to last and continue to be life-giving.
For many people today, Valentine’s Day does have real meaning as a celebration of their close, loving, intimate relationships, the love that gives their lives their shape and meaning and purpose.
It seems that there could not be a greater contrast with the other answer to my question, what day is it today? Since it doesn’t have such a high profile, I may have to tell you
It is the first Sunday of Lent. Someone will certainly put me right, but I can’t remember another time when those two were on the same day.
It’s one of those times when the church looks like a real kill-joy place to be. While everyone else is tucking in to their wine and chocolates,(and you’ll note how I seem to be fixated on them at the moment), – while everyone else is tucking in, we are just beginning the time when we seem to try to give up all the yummy things that make life pleasant and settle down for a season of gloom.
Not only that but we have a really gloomy gospel reading in which poor Jesus is stuck in the wilderness, fasting and being tempted by the devil. If anyone wants to leave church now I would quite understand.
So why do we do it? Why do we do this to ourselves, when it would certainly be so much more pleasant not to? Is it because we don’t want anyone to have any fun? or just because we are self- hating masochists?
Last week, on Ash Wednesday, we were urged during Lent, to keep a time of self-discipline, through fasting, self-denial, studying the word of God and giving.
Why? What is the point of our Lenten disciplines?
On Wednesday night Maggie gave us some of the answers.
Lent is a time of preparation for the most important season of the Church’s year, the solemn celebration of Holy Week and the wonderful joy of Easter morning when we celebrate the Christ’s victory over death.
If we have not fasted first, we cannot possibly really appreciate the joy of the feast. As she said “We have forgotten how to feast because we have forgotten how to fast.”
Fasting is abstaining from those things, those comforts, those luxuries, those pastimes, those habits of thought, which can so easily become necessities or even addictions, which we rely on to get through our days instead of relying on God.
We live in an instant society and one that, although much given to feasting, only understands fasting in the context of the calorie controlled diet.
But fasting is not that. Fasting as a spiritual discipline is a de-cluttering of our souls, so that they rather than our bodies become lighter. Like throwing ballast out of a balloon so it can rise and float.
How does it do this? Firstly,most of us need training in self-discipline.
Paul lists self-control as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit in our lives and so it is, but most of us require practice in exercising it. It doesn’t come easily and can get flabby if we don’t practice.
Also, we need to practice saying no to ourselves in little and unimportant ways, so that when the big temptations come our way our self-control will be up to the challenge.
God does not send us temptation, but life assuredly will. Self-control may be an unfashionable virtue, but it sets us free from the habits that enslave us, from the tyranny of the selfish ego self.
Secondly, times of voluntary emptiness and longing and waiting on God are necessary to feed our souls. They help us to endure with fortitude those times in our lives when the waiting and longing and emptiness will be anything but voluntary.
The time that Jesus spends in the desert, before he begins his ministry, prey to all the temptations that the devil can throw at him to take the easy way to success; this time of emptiness and struggle is preparing him, as nothing else could do, to endure the rigours of his ministry, and for the struggle in the garden of Gethsemane before his death, when he will fight the huge temptation to avoid the horrendous, so painful death on the cross.
Paradoxically, Times of waiting and emptiness train us for joy. They enable us not only to rejoice with exceeding joy when the time comes for rejoicing, but also to become more sensitive to finding joy in small things even when times are hard.
But if we are not to get the emphasis horribly wrong, so that we become miserable and cross rather than lighter and more joyful, all this needs to happen in the context of prayer and reading the word of God, in the company of Jesus.
Jesus is so steeped in his scriptures, the Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament, that he has an biblical answer to quote for every temptation the devil throws at him.
In this fight we too need the word of God available to us as weapons for the right hand and for the left.
It will only be available to us in this way if we are very familiar with the words of the scriptures and Lent is an opportunity to become more so. Bible Study or maybe learning some verses of scripture off by heart are wonderful Lenten disciplines.
Worship together is so important through this time, keeping Lent should not be a solitary occupation, give worship a higher priority, so we know we are all in it together!
And the prayer. We can simply try to give it more time than we otherwise would. Do use the opportunities for prayer that we have set up to help:
the reflections on the prayer table, the quiet hour on Friday lunchtimes, the usual Meditation and prayer times, or find a good app for your phone if that is more your style. Whatever works for you, do it!
The purpose of all this is not to win God’s approval, we already have all the love he can give us, and nothing we do or don’t do, changes that, neither is the purpose to become some-how holier than thou.
The purpose of all this is to spend more time in the company of Jesus. As we spend more time with him, we get to know him better. As we get to know him better, we will grow to love him more.
What I like to do when the chocolate is calling to me from the larder and the glass of wine from the fridge, is to offer it to Jesus instead. In my head I take the chocolate and offer it to him.
As I do so, I realise what a tiny insignificant thing it is that I am offering to him, so I know, that with all he did for me, I can at least do this small thing.
It puts my deprivation in proportion, but also in its proper context, and it grows my relationship with Jesus, because as I do so, he smiles at me in love and we share the good joke, which is an understanding of the littleness, but the reality, of my love for him.
It grows our relationship, because I feel that I am doing something for him, just like the giving of the card, or the flowers or the meal together on Valentine’s Day can help to cement and grow loving relationships.
As we grow to know Jesus better and grow to love him more, it is easier for us to become more like him.
As Christians, our calling, our vocation is to become as loving and as giving as Jesus.
All our Lenten disciplines are working towards this goal.
They are working to increase our capacity to love and our freedom to love.
So in-spite of the surface contrast, what I wish to suggest to you is that the first Sunday of Lent is just as much about love as Valentine’s Day is.
And that the keeping of Lent, through fasting, self-denial, studying the word of God and prayer, will strengthen our relationship with Jesus and our love for him and so also strengthen every other relationship, by growing our ability to truly love others.
And if you are now wondering what to do with the wine and the chocolates, the other good news I have to give you is that, traditionally, the Sundays in Lent, especially Mothering Sunday, but all of them, are break days in the Lenten fast. So, if you can’t fast on Valentine’s Day, and other people are always more important than our fast; you can say, “I’m on a break!”
To finish with, this lovely prayer, especially good for Lent, written in the 13th century, by Saint Richard of Chichester, lets pray:
Thanks be to you, our Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which you have given us,
for all the pains and insults which you have borne for us.
Most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
may we know you more clearly,
love you more dearly,
and follow you more nearly,
day by day.