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Lent Confession

I’ll start with my confession. 

Of all the Christian seasons, teachings, habits or traditions, Lent is the one about which I am most confused and the least likely to engage with. 

I grew up in a tradition that was pretty suspicious of anything which smelled of ancient tradition or mysticism. If it was something the Pope might get involved with, that that was a pretty strong clue that it wasn’t for us!

As I got older, I found it even more dumbfounding. 

My understanding of the glorious gospel of Jesus was that he has made me holy and pure through his death on the cross (this works by what CS Lewis referred to as “deeper magic”…a more fulsome explanation is usually tricky!) The upshot of this work though was that misery and self imposed gloom was not only unnecessary, it seems to be entirely to miss the point. Why wallow in self pity and personal denial when your entire identity had been irrevocably changed by the God of all goodness?

Mates who were “not religious” would religiously give up chocolate / TV / Facebook for lent and be confused as to why I wasn’t giving up anything. Mates who were not ordinarily troubled by religious habits in their regular life would suddenly dive off the deep-end and declare themselves vegan for a month. And it was all somehow supposed to be connected to Jesus being tempted in the wilderness by the devil incarnate for 40 days and to pancakes. And pancakes are not even mentioned in the Bible. 

So my confession is: I still don’t really get it. 

Why give up chocolate for 40 days (and argue about if you’re allowed to eat it on Sundays or not) when you could give up comparison to others permanently and experience actual freedom? Why give up booze for 40 days rather than building a life where you feel safe, able to relax or confident regardless of any other substance? Why suddenly go all religious and join in with a tradition clearly made up in a historical period famed for its pious misery and its ruthless religious over-lords?

Well. I’m trying to grow in wisdom a little more. And so instead of simply dismissing the whole thing out of hand, I am trying to look for the lesson. What is the “win” which a period of reflection, abstinence or withdrawal might grant me?

It turns out of course that there are many virtues, but this year one thought has struck me. 

Attention equals love. 

For the monastic communities and early church communities who first practised a period of prayer and fasting leading up to the almighty celebration of Easter (they were doing this years before anyone thought of similar traditions for Advent) the point was not simply to abstain from something, it was to abstain so that they could make space in their hearts and minds for a growing awareness and appreciation of Christ. 

The practice enabled them, sometimes forced them, to focus their attention on God. 

Attention equals love. 

You know this to be true if you have ever watched a new parent gaze at their new baby. You know this if you have ever sat across the table from someone who loves you and looks at you and chooses to spend time with you rather than any of the other things they could have been doing at that moment. 

You also know this if you have felt the frustration of talking to someone who then diverts their attention to a phone, or the football scores. You know the if you have ever sat in a park and watched kids yelling for their adult to watch them on a slide while their adult scrolls (presumably important) social feeds…the loss of attention feels like a loss of care. A loss of love.  

The point (I think) of lent, is not in the giving up, but in the gaining. The switch of attention and purposeful focus enables us to focus on the author, perfecter and goal of our faith. It allows us to marvel at the presence of the creator in our midst and seek a deeper appreciation of the work of the Spirit in our lives. 

Ease McCalley writes that
a season dedicated to repentance and renewal should not lead us to despair; it should cause us to praise God for his grace

So I guess, if giving up chocolate, Instagram or Netflix helps me with my attention, then that could be a good thing. Maybe as I divert my attention, I might be able both to demonstrate my love for God, AND experience more of God’s love for me. 

That would be a win. 


So whether you are abstaining or not this Lent, may you be blessed with the ability to show God some determined attention and affection. And as you do this, may you also be overwhelmed with the brilliance of his attention on and affection for you. 


About the author

Paul Oxley

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