The word ‘Lent’ comes from Northern Europe. It describes a practice, dating from the early Church, of preparing for Easter and recalls the forty years the Israelites wandered in the desert and the forty days Jesus spent preparing for his mission. In many European languages the word used is not ‘Lent’ but a word that derives from ‘forty’. Norman Tanner, an English Jesuit, gives us a sample,

Quaranta (Italian), Cuaresma (Spanish), Carême (French). The English word ‘Lent’ has another, very beautiful derivation. It comes from the Anglo-Saxon (early English) word meaning to ‘lengthen’. Lent comes at a time when the hours of daytime are ‘lengthening’ in Europe, as spring approaches, and so it is a time when we too can ‘lengthen’ spiritually, when we can stretch out and grow in the Spirit.

Isaiah urges us:
Widen the space of your tent, extend the curtains of your home, do not hold back. Lengthen your ropes, make your tent pegs firm for you will burst out to right and to left … (54:2)

The woman who cared for my parents in their old age once wrote to me during the dark, cold and often wet days after Christmas in Europe, ‘there’ll be a stretch in the evening from now until St Patrick’s Day (17 March).’ She was talking of the weather but that is what Tanner also points to – as an image of life in the Spirit. We are to stretch ourselves, lengthen our reach, in preparing for Easter.

And Tanner also makes a further point. You do not have to do anything. You just wait for the days to lengthen. So it is with Lent. Sometimes we think of Lent as a time when we ‘do’ things; as children we were encouraged to give up sweet things. As adults we are encouraged to give up excessive TV or internet exploration. These are good but the message here is to stretch our capacity, open our doors. Allow the Spirit to be heard in our hearts.

The forty days are to be seen as a time of receiving rather than doing, relaxing rather than achieving, listening rather than speaking. Where there are resentments, we stretch out our tent to build harmony; where there are quarrels, forgiveness. Anger gives way to patience, hatred to peace. These are gifts we receive. We cannot manufacture them on our own.

And these are the ways we prepare for the climax of the Incarnation, God ‘with us’ in the flesh. So much with us that he suffers all our grievous wounds. Carries all our burdens. Lent is a deeply joyful time. We are in the midst of struggle but victory is certain.

18 February 2024 Lent Sunday 1 B Gen 9:8-15 1 Pet 3:18-22 Mk1:12-15

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