Preoccupied as we have been with strange and terrible events in the world about us, we may be surprised to find that Lent is upon us. This Wednesday was Ash Wednesday, the start of the forty-day period of preparation for Easter. Lent shows the Christian faith at its most gloriously varied. Some Christians keep Lent, some don't. Those who keep Lent do so in different ways but often choose to give up something they value, such as chocolate, meat or even social media.
Thinking about Lent I am struck by the fact that, uniquely amongst Christian events, it lasts for a long time – well over five weeks. In fact, let me suggest that time is an important element in Lent and I find it raises three aspects of time.
First, Lent points to the time of Easter. Lent is above all the period of waiting before the great event of the Christian year: the remembrance of the death and resurrection of Christ that gives all who trust in him forgiveness and eternal life.
The importance of Easter mustn't be underrated. The most detailed account of anything in the Bible is that of the three days of the first Easter, covered as it is in four parallel Gospel accounts. Similarly, with its forty days of anticipation, Lent focuses us on Easter. We have got used to the idea of Advent calendars with their daily open-door path to Christmas. Lent is, if you like, an invisible Easter calendar of forty days leading to the cross and resurrection. (It's worth noting that one is often marked with the daily presence of chocolate and the other – at least for some Christians – marked by chocolate's absence.)
This lengthy build up is important. Even in our world where we like everything to be instant, we recognise that there are many things in life which shouldn't just happen immediately. So, for example, most of us would be very unhappy if we went to some expensive restaurant only to find each course served seconds after the previous one was finished. There needs to be time for anticipation. It's the same elsewhere: we love that moment in the cinema when the lights dim and a hush descends; those precious instants of twilight just before the sun rises; the final seconds of a countdown to a rocket launch.
Easter, with its triumphant announcement of Christ destroying sin and death, is the grandest and the most dramatic moment of the church's year. In order to do it justice, we need to prepare ourselves, and that is precisely what Lent does. The best way to appreciate the dazzling brilliance of Easter is to come to it through the long darkness of Lent.
Secondly, Lent points us to the time of eternity. If you take Lent seriously, then these forty days can seem to be a long and often wearying season in which you never get your own way. Here, pleasures are postponed until Lent's solemn shadows are banished by the joyful dawn of Easter. In a way, the forty days of Lent echo the forty tiresome and frustrating years that God's ancient people spent in the wilderness before they finally made it to the Jordan River and crossed into the promised land.
We who are Christians can see a parallel here with our lives. We are currently living lives in what you might call 'Lent mode' where things do not go as planned, where hopes are frustrated and where joys are short-lived or even absent. Yet for the believer, Lent looks beyond this life to that day when we go to be with Christ for eternity and where all our pains and losses are replaced by an indestructible and enduring joy. If you know Christ you can whisper to yourself: I may live in Lent but Easter is coming.
Finally, Lent points us to the time of our existence. The forty days of Lent remind us of who we are and how we spend our lives. By giving up things of whatever kind for Lent we are setting limits on ourselves. We are saying no to our appetites and desires and, by doing so, reminding ourselves of the easily overlooked truth that we are not masters of our own existence.
Indeed, there is a curiosity in the English language in that the word lent has a double meaning. Lent may mean the Christian season, but it is more commonly used in the sense of us being lent something: given or loaned a thing on a temporary basis. There is a truth here of which we need to remind ourselves. Our days and years are not something that we can control or extend at will, but are a gift of unknown length that God gives us, that he may withdraw without notice and for which he will hold us responsible.
There is a profound exchange in The Lord of the Rings between Frodo and Gandalf. Frodo laments the way he has been caught up in the looming war in Middle Earth. 'I wish it need not have happened in my time,' he says. Gandalf responds, 'So do I, and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.' That's a striking phrase: 'the time that is given us.' Lent is a reminder that all of us live in days we have been lent. We are all on 'borrowed time' and we must live in the light of this.
Lent, then, reminds us of the coming Easter, the coming eternity and that, in the meantime, we must live our lives on the basis that we will be held to account for them. And that thought of responsibility and accountability should turn us back again to Easter and the One who bore our sins and failings on the cross. In Psalm 90:12 we read, 'Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom' (NIV). In Lent's forty days may we all learn the wisdom of knowing and living for Christ in the time lent to us.