A Message from the Presiding Bishop
Lent is once more upon us, and with it the season of reflection and repentance that leads us up to Easter. Lenten customs have varied over the years, and indeed, it even took a few centuries for the Church to agree how long the season should be. In the fourth century, there were those who would have favoured "Lent" to be a short, sharp shock immediately before Pasch, but on the other hand, there were those, especially in monastic communities that would have preferred a season of seventy days of penance. In the end a middle course was pursued, forty days of fasting in remembrance of Christ's time in the wilderness at the beginning of his earthly ministry, and less directly, of the forty years that the children of Israel spent in the desert with Moses.
Now those of you who are quick at Math, will have realized that Ash Wednesday to Easter Even is not forty days, this is because Sundays are not included - which is why we refer to Sundays IN Lent, not OF Lent. Ancient Church custom made Sundays a perpetual memorial of Our Lord's Resurrection, so they were never fasting days. Back in the day the Lenten abstinence was quite severe - meat, fish, eggs, and dairy products were given up for the duration, and there was only one meal a day for the whole of the fast. I bet folks really looked forwards to Sunday! The Eastern Orthodox still keep Lent in the manner. However, in the western Church, the restrictions were gradually eased with dairy products and then fish being allowed during the Lent as the mediaeval period progressed. This was eventually relaxed further so that abstinence was largely abandoned, but the fast, by now eased to one main meal, and two light snacks per day, was all that was left.
At the Reformation, the Church of England retained Lent, and Lenten fasting and abstinence. Gradually though, the influence of the foreign Reformed Churches led to Lent being largely abandoned except in High Church circles until the great Church Revivals of the 19th century, when the practice was again looked upon with favour. Stricter spirits again adopted the old meat free period of fasting that had been the 16th century practice, Middle-of-the-Road Churchmen adopted the relatively innocuous sounding practice of "giving something up for Lent." The whole idea being to introduce a modest amount of discipline into the Christian life.
Today, we are perhaps more aware than ever, through the revival of Christian healing, and the studies made by medical men, that body and mind/spirit are connected. The old discipline of fasting that was poo-pooed in the late twentieth century as a survival of superstition does not quite seem so peculiar as it once did. Mind and body are connected, and our Lenten discipline should be aimed at two things. Firstly, making time for God and reorganising our lives to be more centred on God. Secondly, on disciplining our lives so that we are less focussed on ourselves, and more devoted to the things of God. Fasting and abstinence can play a role in this, by uncluttering both body and mind. It has to be remembered though, that we do not fast in order to obtain favour with God, we already have that favour on account of our faith and election in Jesus Christ, but in order to allow His grace freer influence on our hearts and minds. For some of us Lent will take unconventional forms - such as a fast not from meat, but from media - in order to make us more available to God. One object of Lent should be a spiritual spring clean in which we put of sloth in religion, and instead approach Our Saviour in renewed seriousness, as we wait, in expectation for the annual remembrance of 'his blessed passion and precious death, his mighty resurrection, and glorious ascension, and the coming of the Holy Ghost.'
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Lastly, I would like to add that we firmly believe that the best way for the Church to advance the Christian Faith is to abstain from ecclesiastical politics, and to devote all our energy to preaching the Gospel of Christ, and celebrating the sacraments of our Redemption. Our mission as the Church is to point always beyond ourselves and towards our Saviour preaching the Gospel of God's Love in Christ for humanity.
+Peter D Robinson,