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Lent is a chance to take stock and imagine a changed world

Wednesday 22nd February 2012

This article, published in the Guardian, was written by Jane Williams, tutor in theology at the St Paul's Theological Centre, St Mellitus College, and a visiting lecturer at Kings College, London. Jane is married to Archbishop Rowan Williams.

Lent isn’t really about a private spiritual discipline, it’s about the transformation of the earth.

Lent begins with a man in a desert. This man has extraordinary powers and knows himself to be of special importance to his God. In the desert, he is facing choices about what that means for the rest of his life. He is alone, and in a semi-starved, almost hallucinatory condition, but the choices he makes here will not be dismissed when he returns to ‘normal’ life. He chooses not to use his power for his own gratification. Instead, he chooses to put himself and his power at the disposal of God, for the use of others. He faces three temptations, like in all the best stories. The first is to turn stones into bread, to satisfy his gnawing hunger. The second is to get power over people, and the third is to make himself invulnerable. All of these things, he rejects. Later on in life, we see the consequences of these choices. Jesus can produce miraculous food – but for others, not himself. He can influence people, but only if they choose to believe in him; and he accepts the death on the cross that brings the presence of God into all those situations of unavoidable human vulnerability.

This is how the New Testament tells it, and that’s why Jesus’ followers ‘do’ Lent. For a few weeks, we try to see that the world doesn’t crumble if we don’t have everything we want; we try to make ourselves and our resources that little bit more available for ends other than our own.

Whether you’re a Christian or not, this choice that Jesus makes in the desert has to be made. Are we going to live our lives simply trying to get as much of what we want as we possibly can, whatever the cost to others, or are we going to imagine a different way? It’s a particularly apposite question at the moment, when we hear daily about people who are ‘giving things up’ because they have no choice: parents giving up meals so that their children can eat, for example.

These hard times are going to last much longer than Lent, but this is a chance to take stock and imagine a changed world, in which, perhaps, the rich can actually manage with far less than they thought they needed; in which, perhaps, poverty is not treated as a misdemeanour on the part of the poor, but as a failure of society, to be remedied by all of us.

Jesus’ decision in the desert led him into several years of working with and speaking out for the people his society – and ours -  thought unimportant: sick people, foreigners, poor people, women, children. The people in power didn’t like to be challenged in Jesus’ day, any more than they do now, and so Jesus faced scorn, derision and, ultimately, death, for his choice to live by different rules.

That’s a far cry from giving up chocolate or coffee for Lent, but there is really no point at all in a Lenten discipline that isn’t about reimagining the world so that it revolves less about our own desires and more about the good of all. When Lent ends, that vision of the world doesn’t. It’s a world that is less about what I want, and more about what we all need, in which the good life for me is unimaginable unless it is also the good life for you.

© Jane Williams

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