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Lent began in the early years of the Church as a preparation for the celebration of the resurrection at Easter. It seems originally to have lasted for the two or three days before Easter Sunday. Over time this period was extended to 40 days to imitate the 40 days that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his public ministry (Matthew 4: 1 -- 11). The first official mention of Lent as lasting 40 days is at the Council of Nicaea in CE 325. In many languages the word for "Lent" is related to the word forty (Italian: quaresima, Spanish: Cuaresma, French: Carême).
Lent is both a penitential season and a joyful one. It is penitential in requiring us to acknowledge our sin and to turn back to God asking forgiveness and seeking mercy. It is a joyful season because we know that God is compassionate and loving and welcomes us back with open arms.
Lent is still a time of preparation for the great feast of the resurrection. I generally find that it is better to prepare for Easter by doing something extra during Lent than by giving something up. Each Lent I find myself faced with the same question. How can I best use this time to prepare to encounter the risen Lord at Easter? So I ask myself what spiritual practices, what ways of behaving will best open my heart to his life-transforming presence in my life? There are two "images" from our monastic prayer in Lent which helps me to focus on these questions.
“O that today you would listen to his voice, harden not your hearts.”
Each Sunday in Lent we begin our morning prayer by singing this verse from Psalm 95, "O that today you would listen to his voice; harden not your hearts." This is always a bit of a wake-up call. Listening is at the centre of the Christian call. The first word of the rule of St Benedict is a call to listen to the voice of God. It's very easy to allow myself be distracted from that. In Lent I'm reminded to make a greater effort to turn away from distractions and to tune the ear of my heart to the voice of God in my life.
This verse also reminds me that if I want to spiritual renewal I need to look at the condition of my heart. I need to look at where it's become hard, stony and unresponsive to the word of God and to the needs of those around me. I need to allow my heart to become open and vulnerable again to God's presence in my life. I need to look at the parts of my heart that I have closed off from the touch of God and to allow God in to transform them.
“The angel of the Lord appeared to him in the shape of a flame of fire.”
My second image is from the book of Exodus. Early in Lent we hear of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush (Exodus 3:1 -- 20). This always strikes me forcefully and is an image I carry with me for the rest of Lent. There are several things in it that help me and challenge me as I prepare for Easter. The first is that Moses has no control over this encounter. God initiates it, breaking into the pattern of Moses’ daily routine, and God directs the whole encounter. God can also break into the pattern of my daily life, disrupting my plans and leading me in new and unexpected directions. Like Moses I am called to step aside from my daily activities, however important I think they are, to listen and respond to God's call.
“The place on which you stand is holy ground.”
"Take off your shoes" God tells Moses "for the place on which you stand is holy ground." Hearing this I am reminded that I, like Moses, stand on holy ground. Whatever I do, whatever relationship I'm involved in, whatever work I'm engaged in I stand in the presence of the living God at all times. Lent calls me to reflect on what it means to stand on holy ground in the 21st century. How does it affect, the way I live, the way I work and the way I relate to other people?
God offers Moses a promise and a challenge. God promises to be with him however difficult things get and however desperate he feels. God also promises to be with me. Lent gives me the Image opportunity to reconnect with that promise. It allows me to deepen my awareness of God's presence sustaining me in every situation.
God challenges Moses to go beyond his comfort zone in ways that he would never have dreamt of. Like Moses, I am challenged by God to move beyond my comfort zone. Lent is a time for me to examine my boundaries and to go beyond them in reaching out to others in love and service. I am challenged to put my own will and concerns aside for the good of others in big things and small. I am challenged to look around me to see where I can lighten the burdens of the people I meet.
The English word "Lent" comes from the Anglo-Saxon for "to lengthen". It is a time for spiritual "lengthening", a time to allow myself to be stretched by God, a time for new growth and new life. Each year my hope for Lent is that it will stretch and challenge me, drawing me into new life so that I will be able to embrace the presence of the Risen Christ in the great feast of Easter.
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Sr Judith has been a member of the Benedictine community at Turvey Abbey for 20 years. She leads retreats and offers spiritual direction. She is interested in Benedictine spirituality, praying with scripture, creativity and prayer, ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. She enjoys cycling and messing around with a camera
Her community follow the Rule of St Benedict and has a particular interest in Liturgy and Ecumenism.“The focus of our life is to seek God in all things,” Judith explains, “We live Gospel values in love and service, open always to the needs of the world. Our lives are based on prayer and this affects every aspect of our lives and work. By developing an awareness of the presence of God in daily life we seek to radiate God’s life and peace to all those we encounter. People of every faith and spiritual tradition, all who “truly seek God” (Rule of St Benedict), are warmly welcome to join us in prayer.”
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