Each year Lent overlaps with the Baha’i fast and it’s good to think of us going through these days in solidarity with one another. In the past the Christian fast would have been much more exacting and though lent is described as a time for prayer, fasting and almsgiving, fasting is much more of a discipline and abstinence from a craving, a habit, an inclination that limits our freedom. When I was young it was always staying off sweets though any given to us were collected in a tin until Easter. Coming from an Irish background, however, we were allowed to eat some on the feast of St Patrick! Lent was seen as a solemn, penitential time and I know some people who think that life is penitential enough (and it certainly is for some) to have to give up something in a spirit of penance. However some do still observe lent by more positive action like decluttering an article a day for the forty days of the season (something that’s become popular recently) or even disciplining themselves to develop a new talent. I’ve done that and like the sense that I’ve accomplished something by the time of Easter – a kind of resurrection in its own way. Friends are often intrigued to know what I’m doing for Lent. The important thing, I think, is that Lent helps us do something, no matter how small, that challenges the greed that resides within all of us and today seems to rule the world. It helps us look at ourselves more honestly, be aware of our shortcomings and the place of God and others in our lives - and in this sense the spirit of lent is very much in keeping with that of the Muslim and Baha’i fast.
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, a day on which some denominations of Christians, ceremoniously receive ashes with the words ‘Remember that you are dust and into dust you shall return’. Recently there has been an option to replace this with ‘repent and believe the good news’, one that on the whole people prefer, It’s generally thought to be a bit more positive. But I like the original verse and think it’s very pertinent for today. It comes from the Book of Genesis in the context of Adam and Eve’s punishment for sin and expulsion from Paradise. Because of this it became associated with sin and a sense of worthlessness and, as a teacher said to me this lent, ‘how could you tell young children that they are nothing but dust’. There is, however, another way of understanding this text which is in keeping with changes in theology and our understanding of the universe in which our world rests.
To remind us that we are dust is to speak a word of fact and not punishment. It’s to remind us how connected we are to the fabric of the earth. We contain within ourselves the whole history of evolution; we share DNA with animals and even insects; we are interconnected with all things; we are part of nature, not above it. To be human is to be part of the earth and to be in a relationship with all that grows and lives. It’s important in this age of global warming and the destruction of so many species that we learn to live in peace with the earth, to love it and to care for it. We need to recapture this sense of being ‘earthlings’ if we are to move from domination and destruction to participation and creation. And we need to repent of what we, sometimes in our ignorance, have done. No doubt the invention of plastic was thought to be something great and yet now we see its destructive effects in our throw away culture. But sometimes too we intentionally destroy nature by cutting down rain forests, killing protected species, polluting the atmosphere, knowing that this endangers our very future. Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, has expressed this so eloquently when he says in his poem ‘To a Mouse’
I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union
An’ justifies that ill opinion
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor earth-born companion
An’ fellow mortal!
What a great and glorious thing it would be if we Christians took to heart the fact that we are dust and of the earth, reminded ourselves of it each day during lent and made the Lenten journey to Easter caring for our planet and walking responsibly on an earth which is sacred and fragile. We couldn’t have a better Lenten discipline than that.