I arrived back from New Zealand on Shrove Tuesday and just had time for pancakes and a celebratory drink before Lent dawned. Having been away, I missed the usual journalistic phone calls – from the same scribblers who ask me each January what my New Year’s resolution is – asking what I am giving up for Lent. Their questions are utterly predictable. Upon being told that I am giving up everything to drink except water, the first query is how much weight do I expect to lose and the second is whether I will be giving up the money saved to charity.
When I explain that the objective is neither to lose weight nor to save money but simply to perform penance, there is always a baffled silence. The word is barely still in the lexicon. Invited to expand, I talk about the imminence of Calvary and the ultimate penance, or about the 40 days in the desert, at which point they draw the conversation to a polite end. Yet there was a time not that long ago when even non-believers observed Lent to the extent of giving something up and the question “What are you giving up for Lent?” produced the usual sacrifice of chocolate, puddings or alcohol.
Today Lent has become the almost exclusive preserve of practising Christians and is but poorly understood by the populace at large. The concept of penance has narrowed to mean imposed penance through the penal system rather than a voluntary act of self-denial or atonement. Yet, as I explore in my book Sackcloth and Ashes, there is still a subconscious need for penance.
Take the student on a gap year. Many young people will spend months working on some Third World aid project in rotten conditions, plagued by mosquitoes and using primitive sanitation. Of course there is the lure of travel but essentially the reasoning of such a youngster will be that the world is an unjust and selfish place with a huge gap between rich and poor countries; that the world should not be thus; that he or she is blessed to be born into a wealthy country; that therefore they should put themselves to discomfort and possibly risk in order to help the poorest.
In short, they are conscious of sin, repent it and feel the need to make some atonement for it even though the sin is not personal to them. That effectively is penance, but to suggest that would be to invite incredulity.
The other aspect of Lent with which the modern world has lost touch is forgiveness. Penance is the prelude to forgiveness, but that is in pretty short supply in modern Britain. Last week I gave an interview on the subject for a local radio station which featured a moving interview with a woman who had forgiven her boyfriend’s killer. The interviewer could not understand why forgiveness was even desirable in such a situation. Well, I suggested, what about the killer who came round from an alcoholic haze to find he had killed his friend? How must he feel every day? The response was that he deserved to suffer every day until he died. Lock him up and throw away the key has become a mantra.
Yet when Britain was still a Christian country and “as we forgive them who trespass against us” was still a daily utterance the attitude was quite the reverse and forgiveness was expected, even if people understood those who could not offer it in difficult circumstances. A third aspect is patience, again an increasingly alien concept in a society addicted to instant solutions where a variety of medicines and cosmetics promises instant relief, instant cure and instant youth, and credit cards take the waiting out of wanting. Without patience, penance is impossible with its concepts of endurance and hardship.
Few Christians find Lent easy and of course the whole idea is that we shouldn’t, but a glance at history suggests we might give thanks for modern penance. The Holy Roman Emperor, Henry IV, stood bare-headed for three days in the snow to persuade an angry pope to reverse his excommunication. A century later Henry II walked to Canterbury in sackcloth and ashes to be beaten by monks as a penance for the death of Thomas Becket. Our ancestors were comfortable with penance, but now it seems remarkable when somebody gives up chocolate for six weeks.
I think we should talk very loudly about Lent and make some effort to reintroduce it to national consciousness. Meanwhile, exhausted from my journey, I slept through Ash Wednesday and so missed the service. Thus I wasn’t walking about with a smudge on my forehead – another activity that raises eyebrows!
Sackcloth and Ashes by Ann Widdecombe is a Bloomsbury Lent Book
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