I’ve never been able to empathise with churches which don’t have a strong sense of the liturgical seasons. However, the price we Episcopalians (and all Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Orthodox) pay for having seasons is that, as they come round each year, it gets harder to find anything new to say. So on Wednesday I found myself preaching on the usual things: repentance, intimations of mortality, self-discipline, prayer, reflective reading of Scripture.
Then, as I spoke, it suddenly occurred to me that if we made a list of these activities and left it lying around, someone picking it up, who knew something about Christianity, might well say: ‘Why, these are what we expect from Christians day by day!’
So do the seasons have a value? Yes, because each time they come round we have to face new issues and new challenges. Since last Lent, the world financial structure has collapsed, leading us to reflect on the apparent absence of limits to greed, and on the consequences for the less well-off, who have seen their savings eroded because of reckless behaviour by financial institutions. In the Middle East, there has been a surge in violence and suffering in the last few months, followed by the emergence of a probable right-wing government in Israel. And the Congo and Darfur are still with us. Not to mention the fact that the danger to our civil liberties in the UK is more acute than this time last year.
I must admit to struggling, every Ash Wednesday, with the apparent contradiction between be-smudging our foreheads and the gospel injunction not to make a public show of penitence. But if Christians are to contribute to the world’s healing, our day-to-day living has to be seen, and seen publicly, to be Lenten – all year round.