Monday, 29 February 2016

A Sermon for St David's Day

To be preached at Leighton tomorrow . . .

A few years ago I was given a copy of Michael Palin's book about the nations of new Europe, which he wrote to accompany a TV travel series, describing a journey that began in Slovenia, a place I’ve always wanted to visit, but haven’t managed yet. Palin went on from Slovenia to visit Moldova, Estonia and Slovakia among others. All of these are nations that did not appear in my school atlas. Some of them are quite small, and have been formed when bigger nations broke up; indeed, some of them show distinct signs of breaking up further into smaller nations still. Moldova, for example, which nestles between Romania and the Ukraine if I’ve got my geography right, contains two more or less autonomous republics neither of which pays much allegiance to the Moldovan government.

One thing Michael Palin discovered was that each of the small nations he visited had a strong sense of its own national identity, and religious faith was often an important factor in that. Even Albania, for many long years a Stalinist regime in which all religion was banned and churches and mosques were knocked down, seems to be rediscovering its faith, and within that faith its national patron saints.

Saints come in many shapes and sizes, but the patron saint we honour today was at least born and raised in the land of which he is patron. That’s not the case elsewhere in these islands: George of England was a native of Capadoccia in modern Turkey;  Andrew of Scotland was one of the Twelve apostles of Jesus; and even Patrick of Ireland was almost certainly either a Welshman or a Cumbrian. David certainly was a Welshman, though perhaps he himself would have preferred the title Briton. He was born of a Welsh mother, and schooled in the Welsh monastic tradition. And if we take the story of his life at face value he became nothing less than Archbishop of Wales.

How much of the story of David can be taken at face value is another matter, and the answer is probably not all that much.  David died in the year 601, and the very earliest written evidence about him comes from a hundred or so years after he died. And that does little more than mention him by name, though it does clearly inform us that he was a bishop. But by about the year 800 March 1st was being kept as David's feast day, and by the 12th century he was regarded as patron saint of all of Wales. The oldest sites linked with David are in fact all in the south of Wales, though. He's also claimed as a founder of the monastery at Glastonbury. To what degree was the real David ever a saint for Gogledd Cymru?

The problem with saints, and David is no exception, is that most of the good stories we have come from long after their own time. It's hard to give them much credence. So what do we really know about David? Probably he and his monks followed a strictly vegetarian diet, and it may well be true that David drank only water, so that he was known as Aquaticus. He seems to have based the monastic rule of life he established on that of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity.

We can also be fairly sure that David did attend the Synod of Brevi in around 560. The story goes that his preaching there met with such acclaim that he was made archbishop, and his monastery at Menevia (or St David's as we now know it) became the metropolitan centre for the Welsh Church; but that story is much less likely. The legends go on to say that David in fact travelled to Jerusalem to be consecrated there as bishop. Frankly that is extremely unlikely to be true. And of course, there is the famous story of how at Brevi the ground rose up in a miraculous way beneath David as he was preaching, so that all the crowd could see him. Suffice to say, the first record of that story comes from hundreds of years later.

But, as I’ve said, by the 12th century David had become the patron saint of this land; and in fact two pilgrimages to St David's were regarded as equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome.  Among the many people of note and standing who made the pilgrimage to St David's was one William of Normandy, better known as William the Conqueror. Make of that what you will.

But why do we acclaim David as a saint when we know so little for sure about him? Well, the first thing to say is that he was celebrated very soon after his death, and that in itself indicates that this was a man who shone with the light of Christ in a specially attractive way. That's why people remembered David, and it’s also why they were drawn to compose stories about him that we may find a little hard to credit; behind those stories is the simple fact that this man had been what all Christians should aspire to be: a faithful witness to our Lord Jesus Christ, bearing his name and his cross.

So this man is a saint; but we also celebrate David as the patron saint of Wales. To do that says something about identity, tradition and rootedness. In this secular age, surveys continue to indicate that most people in Britain regard traditional values, including religious faith, as in some way important to them. A sense of national identity is part of this, by which I don’t mean the yah-boo nationalism that says 'We're great and you're rubbish', but simply a sense of who and what we are and where we stand and belong, our responsibilities as citizens and our responsibility as a nation. When nationalism is turned into fascism or extremism it becomes something poisonous and deadly, but nationalism doesn’t have to be like that. To know who we are and where we belong can help us build a stable and compassionate society.  For the people of Wales to take pride in who they are, what better base could we have but a man renowned for his service, simplicity and faith?

St David's Day this year falls further into Lent than usual, but it usually coincides with this time when our thoughts turn to discipline, prayer, and the forty days our Lord spent in the desert. Saints help provide a bridge to Jesus; David is said to have founded ten monasteries, and all of them would have used a regime of study and work, and of simplicity and acts of mercy to draw people closer to the example of Christ. A patron saint is not simply a badge to wear, a lucky charm behind which to seek protection. In David we find someone we can look to with pride and aspire to follow; a man who offered others a way to Jesus through an example of sacrifice and service.

Jesus said: To follow me you must renounce yourself and take up your cross. Whether in the former Soviet bloc or on the Celtic fringe, it may be that the small nations of Europe have a stronger sense than most of the cross, from their own histories of hardship, struggle and foreign domination. But what does it mean today for us to bear the cross of Christ?  David was first and foremost a missionary, a man who lived and shared his faith. That has to be our task too. May we be ready as David was to bear the cross, to offer ourselves in the service of our Lord, and to be together a holy nation sharing a call to live lives that make a difference, lives of mercy, compassion and care.

Friday, 26 February 2016

Seek the Lord

A sermon prepared for the coming Sunday, Lent 3, on the set readings for the day . . .

Seek the Lord while he may be found;  call upon him while he is near.

We live in an unsatisfactory world. We'd like to be healthy, but viruses and bacteria may have other plans for us; we'd like to be always surrounded by friends, but the realities of our human chemistry means life's not always that easy; we may dream of peace and plenty, but our dreams are often dashed by the tough realities of the world around us.  In such a world the way good and bad get apportioned out may often seem unfair. It would be great if only good things happened to good people, and only bad things to bad people. Even the opposite way round, while it might not be so nice, at least it would be consistent, I suppose. But it doesn’t work like that; it's a lottery out there.

People trying to get their children into the best schools, and people hoping to get the right treatment when they’re ill, can face what the papers call the postcode lottery. In one case a year or two back, Brighton and Hove City Council literally drew names out of a hat to decide which children went to which school - claiming that that was the fairest way. People who’d deliberately moved to up-market addresses in order to get the right post-code were outraged, of course. But that’s life; unfair, unsatisfactory. You can work and plan and prepare, you can even connive and cheat, but even then things may not go the way you hope they will. None of us can guarantee our future.

The Gospel reading today mentions people caught up in recent tragedies. On one occasion the Roman governor had instructed his soldiers to mingle in disguise among a mob who’d gathered to protest at plans to divert money from the Temple tribute to provide a new water supply for the city. The soldiers were supposed to disperse the mob, which they did so energetically that several people died.
And on another occasion people had been killed when a tower collapsed upon them. These were probably Jewish workers employed by the Roman governor on one of his construction projects, and some righteous Jews saw what happened as God’s just and righteous punishment for their collusion with the enemy.

Jesus told the people not to think like that. The fact that tragedy had befallen those people didn't mean they'd been worse sinners than anyone else. But he followed that with one of his hard sayings: "Not one of you deserves any better, unless you repent and turn from your sin."

Jesus tells us not to judge one another. When we do, and when I say, as I might, that "I'm better than him (or her)" I can end up thinking that I'm just as good as I need to be. Jesus told his disciples that they’d only one benchmark to aim at, and that was perfection. "You must be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect," was what he said, and that’s another really hard saying. For it's an impossible task; not even the saintliest follower of Jesus can manage to equal the example set us by our Lord. And until we grasp that, we’ll begin to understand what's truly distinctive and special about our Christian faith.

But here, in ten words, is what’s special about our faith: "Only by the grace of God can we be saved." And what that means is this: our sin is a permanent stain upon us that only God can wash away. Our sin! Most of us aren’t that bad, and in fact most of the time we're even quite good. But the truth about sin is that even the littlest bit of it taints us fatally. There aren’t big sins and little sins, there’s just sin: breaking God’s laws, going against what he wants from us. And none of us is so free from sin that we qualify on our own merits to escape destruction. But God remains patient with our weakness, and his grace washes that sin away.

The Gospel we believe as Christians is the Gospel of the second chance. It's not always an easy one to take hold of and live up to, so far as our own witness is concerned. We might find it quite hard to accept that someone who's tried and failed, and maybe caused harm and damage, still deserves to try again. Especially if it's us that got hurt or let down or abandoned; especially when the reason they failed seems to be that they didn’t try. Let’s think about a prisoner who’s served his time, and while in prison come to Christian faith as some do. Would we welcome him into our Sunday fellowship? Maybe we would. Would we let him count the collection after church? Or might we be tempted to doubt the truth of his conversion?  But God offers all of this to each one of us; as we read the Gospels we realise that God’s word to us when we fail, when we fall short, when we let him down, is that we still have a place, and we can still try again. When we come to our senses. When we know what we’ve done and feel the hurt of it. When we turn back, like the Prodigal Son, and head for home.

That brings me to the unfruitful fig tree in the story Jesus told. You’d plant a fig tree in a vineyard to provide shelter and wind-break for the delicate vines. But you'd want more than that of it, you’d like some fruit. This unfruitful tree was using up good soil to no great effect. In my garden my instinct is always to leave in place plants that aren't doing well, in the hope that with a bit of care they’ll do better.

And that's what the vine-dresser does in this story. It only goes so far, of course, this support for the unfruitful tree; if the fig tree continues to be useless then it won’t be kept. But for now there’s a second chance, and we discover that God is happy to use failures in his service.  Unlike, say, Louis van Gaal, he's ready to give another run-out to the team that messed up last time. The vine-dressers even prepared to improve the growing conditions, manuring, digging round and improving the drainage.

Grace is about real second chances, in which we're not just abandoned, or too readily rooted out. In Jewish thought, if someone was doing well and had a measure of success that showed God's favour upon them, it proved they must be doing what was right in his eyes. Someone in that happy state might well look across at less fortunate folk and say: "Things aren’t going well for them, so clearly God’s not pleased with them." This parable addresses that point of view: Jesus tells us, "Just because God is patient with you, don't assume he's happy with how you’re living."

Judgement is never far away in the stories Jesus tells. He promises a Gospel of the second chance, he speaks about the Father who goes on loving us, and deals with us graciously. But alongside the promise of the second chance is the threat of the last chance. If we go on ignoring God's call to us to be fruitful in his service, we risk cutting ourselves off from his grace. So the fig tree is offered, not unlimited chances to be fruitful, but one season more: one more chance to be fruitful, one more chance to multiply God's blessings. Rejoice in the grace of God, for without that grace we are lost. But don’t let that gift of grace go to waste - seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near. Amen.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Lizard and the Fly

Previously posted I think, but I've repeated it as I've submitted it to the "Loneliness Project".

Adrift from the normal flow of things
he is watching the progress of a lizard
across the window pane.  Someone is speaking
as others listen, but he can find no way
to become part of their conversation.  Time
is running at a different pace in his mind,
in his heart,
and the essential geography is all askew.

The lizard (“Is it a gecko?” some part of him wonders)
is on the outside of the glass,
and on the inside there is a fly.
The lizard is stalking the fly, but cannot catch it,
cannot touch it, cannot understand why;  while the fly on its part
seems oblivious to the lizard.

The fly continues to buzz against the pane,
the lizard continues not to catch it.
People continue to speak.  And so the morning progresses,
this meeting at which he has to be present, even though
he cannot truly attend.  Only a fraction of his self
is even attending to the comic drama of gecko and fly,
which at least has the virtue of novelty.
“What is wrong with me?” he wonders.

What is wrong with me
is that I am still on the wrong side of the glass;
nothing I see is able to catch me, for I am not really here.
I left too much behind;
the beating heart of me is elsewhere, on some other continent.
I remain out of reach
and out of touch.


Walking down to town around dusk last night, I heard my first singing blackbird of the season, which for me is always a sign, maybe the definitive sign, of spring. It may still be cold and even wintry, but if the blackbirds think it's spring, that's good enough for me. Further down I heard a song thrush, too. These are both wonderful singers, by I think the song thrush is too repetitive, and  too fond of short bursts of stuff - the blackbird is a masterly singer, very inventive, and with a resonance and tone few other birds can match, probably none among our resident species.

The dusk chorus is almost as significant as the one at dawn, though less noticed. But I noted that the dawn chorus, although as yet a poor reflection of what will be happening come April and May, is getting loud enough to penetrate our double glazing, though happily no earlier than about a quarter to seven as yet. And the blackbird is, so far, its most mellifluous participant.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Cold As Ice

A poem from a few years ago, which I submitted today to the "Loneliness Project" . . .

Sunshine and traffic noises,
the world waking up from winter,
and I am cold as ice.
In a moment I shall go walking
among the celandines and primroses,
and I shall hope not to meet too many people.
So much brightness, so many smiles!
And I am cold as ice.
I have begun to run out
of jobs to do, of tasks to perform,
of helpful, mindless bits of therapy;
I shall have to start to think again soon.
That’s hard:  thinking takes energy
and I am cold as ice.
So I watch the tree-creeper
winding mouselike up the rutted trunk
of the pine across the yard from my window;
the bird flips back down,
a quick flurry of wings,
to begin again his climb.
I also have to begin again,
having come down so very suddenly
to the place where I now sit.
I also have to begin again,

but I am cold as ice.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

February Morning

Grim, schoolmasterly herons are standing, regularly spaced,
in the tussocky field above the canal,
where there are usually sheep, but not today.
I am walking the towpath on a grey February morning.
I pause to watch, while the herons ignore my presence. I am too far away
to concern them; they have their assembly to attend to, as,
furling their dusty academic robes behind them,
they study the ground with the same fixed attention
as did my old teachers during prayers.
I suppose on this damp morning they may have some hope of worms,
maybe even a frog or two; a heron must take his pickings where he can.
I linger a moment more, listening to the early season’s birdsong
from the nearby wood - great tit and robin, mistle thrush,
still the winter singers at work, and
not yet the blackbird whose song always begins my spring.
I start, as the loud crack of a gun shatters the serenity, while from the tree tops
pigeons scatter, as well they might. And across in the field I see first one,
then all the herons lift into the still and drizzly air;
assembly is over - time, I suppose, for lessons. Well,
there are ducks at the lock, and I have some grain to throw,
so I go too.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

Cross-shaped (2)

A few words prepared for this afternoon's baptisms at Leighton :-

There’ll be many a shepherd scanning the weather reports over the coming weeks, as lambing time continues, and as upland flocks lamb out on the hills. They’ll be hoping for a dryer spell of weather, after a winter that’s had a deal more rain than we’ve wanted. Where fields and fells are soaked and sodden, lambs are hard pressed to find any dry ground to lie on.

Sheep need to be marked of course, especially where flocks mingle on the open fells. Smit marks identify a beast as being part of a particular flock, belonging to a particular farmer. Sheep and shepherds turn up a lot in the Bible, and Jesus called himself the good shepherd, the shepherd who will give even his own life to protect his flock. One thing that’s done when a child is baptized is that he or she is given a smit mark that shows this child now belongs to Jesus. The sign of a cross is marked on each child who comes for baptism.

The proprietary marking fluids used on sheep come in a variety of bright colours; but the cross marked on us when we’re Christened is invisible. No-one can see it; it’s as if it wasn’t there. It becomes visible only when we make it visible.

We herd our sheep or drive them. We may use dogs or quad bikes, or a combination of the two. Last Sunday I saw a flock being moved very efficiently using children, which saves on dog food. In the Middle East, and certainly at the time of Jesus, sheep are led not driven; they hear their master’s voice, and follow. And it’s when we do that that the mark of the cross on us can be seen: when we listen, and hear, and follow.

When, in fact, we live cross-shaped lives, by which I mean lives that reach upwards like the upright of the cross, acknowledging God’s love for us and offering our love in return - and praying to God through our Lord Jesus Christ; and reach outward like the arms of the cross, where we love our neighbour, where we care for those around us, where we are there for others as needed.

How do we learn to live cross-shaped lives? We always learn best from example. Parents and godparents make promises when they bring a child to be baptized, and the heart of those promises is that they’ll set their child, their god-child an example of love and care, and of following Jesus. But all of us who say we’re Christian have a share in that promise. It’s our calling as Christ’s folk to make clear to those around us just whose mark we bear: a cross-shaped mark made visible in cross-shaped living, in the way of life that Jesus summed up like this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”

Saturday, 20 February 2016

Cross-shaped (1)

My sermon for tomorrow, Lent 2, to be preached on the set New Testament readings (Phil 3.17-4.1 and Luke 13.31-35) :-

“For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ”: words of St Paul from our first reading. Scholars suggest that Paul had a special affection for the Church he founded at Philippi, to whose members he wrote this letter. He knew they shared many of the problems and afflictions he was facing, he admired their resilience and endurance, and valued their love and support for him. Now he writes to them, from his own imprisonment, in terms of affection and fellow-feeling.

Philippi was a city of some importance, in Greek Macedonia, which is a part of the Roman world Paul had felt specially called to as a missionary. The small Christian church there was formed mostly out of the poorer folk of the city, and yet the people of that church had shown themselves to be both firm in their faith and open-handed in their generosity.

But they are surrounded by opposition; and we might well feel we’re in much the same boat when Paul uses words like “Their end is destruction; their god is the belly, and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” Their end is destruction - I find my thoughts drawn to our sisters and brothers in the embattled Christian communities of the Middle East, and especially to the many Christian refugees fleeing from Isis and other hard-line Muslim forces. Their god is their belly - I find my thoughts drawn to secular society in which we have to be constantly entertained, in which the highest aim can seem to be to grab as much as you can get, and in which consumption and celebrity are prized and applauded.

Having said that, Paul was writing to a small new church surrounded by the pagan religions that dominated the Roman Empire of his day. There are similarities to our situation, but some big differences too, which I’ll come to later. But what Paul writes next is surely as appropriate to us as it was to the Philippians to whom he was writing: for he tells them that we are already citizens of heaven.

In saying that, what he means is that whatever other powers or authorities or cultural norms may seek to govern and direct our lives within the world in which we live, we are to be kingdom people, who always find our example for living in our Lord Jesus Christ, and take our instruction and command from God. Jesus spoke a lot about the kingdom: not as a far-off piece of wishful thinking but as something that was already present wherever he was preaching and teaching and healing. When Jesus talks about the kingdom it isn’t an area of land with geographical borders. Kingdom is what happens when we serve God as our King, when we think of ourselves as belonging to him. Where there’s love in action, changing and restoring lives, the kingdom is being lived it is present among us.

The kingdom is both present reality and future hope, as we read Paul and visit the Gospel stories of our Lord, there is always a sense of “now but not yet”. The kingdom is present among us when people are living and working and loving as disciples of Jesus; but the kingdom will not be fully established until, as Paul writes to the Philippians, Christ returns from heaven to make all things subject to his rule.

For now “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ”: now the Church is surrounded by people who challenge what we believe. In some places Christians are openly persecuted: they need our prayer and our practical support. Here we probably won’t face anything worse than ridicule or argument, or more likely, most of the time, simply apathy. “You live your way, we’ll live ours,” people say, in today’s pick-and-mix western society. Churches are mostly surrounded by people who think quite fondly of us in fact. People are generally happy to support us and even come along to the odd event. Maybe church is thought of as dated and quaint, not the sort of thing younger folk would want to be part of; but it’s nice that it’s still around, for all that.

But that could be the most insidious threat of all; and it points up the main difference between the church of today and the young church at Philippi to whom Paul was writing. They were young and unknown, and there was nothing of the status quo about them. Whereas we bear the weight of generations of faith and service and witness, and people have expectations and make assumptions when they look at the church, as to what it should be doing, and what role it should be playing.

A supportive one mostly; an institution of the establishment, and part of the fabric of society. Bishops sit in the House of Lords, and ‘living a good Christian life’ is thought of as much the same as being nice, a good neighbour, and a loyal and law-abiding citizen. When people tell me, as they do, that they don’t have to come to church to be a good Christian, that’s probably the definition of Christian they mean.

I’m sure all of us here can tick that box. For the most part we’re nice, we’re good neighbours and law-abiding citizens. But Paul would not have recognized that description as an adequate description of the Christian faith he taught. “Our citizenship is in heaven” he told the Philippians. Good citizens we may be, but Christians can never be uncritical citizens: our first allegiance is to our Lord, and we judge in his light what earthly powers require of us.

Our Gospel reading shows us Jesus setting his feet on the road to Jerusalem - not in order to take part in its government or to support those who do, but to face the death that is their only answer to his message. The way of God often runs counter to the way of the world; as we follow Christ, his cross is both our salvation and our example. He calls us to live cross-shaped lives, by which I mean lives shaped by the cross, and all that our Lord has won for us, and lives that, whatever the world decides or determines, reach upwards into fellowship with God, and outward into fellowship with our neighbour.

In his letter to the Philippians Paul is bold enough to offer himself as an example to them of what cross-shaped living is like. “Be like me,” he dares to say. In their lives, Paul and his companions have done their best to model Christ - in love, in self-giving and self-offering, in their endurance of all kinds of disappointment and opposition: in a fundamental change of mindset in which Christ is given in their lives the dominion they pray he will come to have on earth.

The easiest thing for the church to do in a society like ours is to be quiet and nice and unobtrusive. Church can then become just one more community activity among the many that people might choose to do. It’s a safe and comfortable place to be, but it would never have been enough for Paul. He urges the Philippian church to dare to live in a way that is new and different and truly Christ- and cross-centred. In him we find the truth we need, the sense we need of purpose and identity. “Life is ours to lose in the service of others,” someone once said. Paul would have okayed that, I think: Christlike, cross-shaped living. His message to us, as to those at Philippi, is this: we are citizens of heaven already - practise for heaven by living better lives on earth.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Robins and Dunnocks

My most recent Nature Notes article . . .

It’s quite enjoyable watching the antics of the various visitors to our bird feeders, and trying to work out the pecking order.  Larger birds take precedence, by and large, and obviously the sudden arrival of a magpie or even a wood pigeon will send everything else scattering, until they realise it’s not a sparrow hawk or anything else too threatening. Even magpies can only peck around underneath our feeders, though I have on occasions had jackdaws using them - in a rather ungainly way, but they manage it. The great spotted woodpecker is the largest bird that regularly uses our feeders, and no-one argues with her.

Of the smaller birds, the one at the top of the pecking order is clearly the nuthatch. Even the greenfinches give way, and they’re usually the big boys. Of the finches, chaffinches come bottom of the pecking order, partly because they are clumsier than most others; siskins are much smaller, but they are so acrobatic they can out-manoeuvre a chaffinch any time.

We had a blackcap that was very combative a couple of winters ago, but this year’s birds are content just to muck along with the other birds. Coal tits are definitely at the bottom of the pile, and don’t even try to compete, just making a quick dash to the feeder and back when opportunity arises, though they’ll stay longer if no other birds are around. They will take seeds and secrete them for later use, which is a good strategy if you’re where they are in the pecking order. They are also probably the main reason why sunflowers keep coming up in our hanging baskets!

Robins are always combative, feisty little birds, though some throw their weight around more than others. We have one currently that will perch on top of the feeders and face up to anything else that comes along. But he’s not so good at actually using the feeder, so once a mob of, say, greenfinches comes along he has to retire. Anyway, robins save most of their aggression for other robins, in winter holding solo territories (two overlap in our garden, which makes for some great robin fights). By this time they’ve paired up, so we now have two regulars who seem to be getting on all right - plus an interloper who stirs things up from time to time.

I’ve noticed, though, that at least one of our robins will fly the width of our garden to attack and see off a dunnock (or hedgesparrow). Postings on the net suggest that lots of other people have observed this antipathy between robins and dunnocks, but not much has been posted by way of explanation. Our garden can be full of other birds, but the robin will ignore them to focus on the dunnocks. They are of course a similar size and shape, so it may be that the robin is motivated by that - though of course dunnocks don’t have the red breast which is what stirs up robin on robin fights. Both species are mostly ground feeders, so I suppose there is a direct competition between them for food. Our local dunnocks always give in to robin attacks, but come straight back as soon as their attacker’s back is turned!

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Lenten Thoughts

Lent is the season of forty days beginning on Ash Wednesday and lasting till Easter Eve or Holy Saturday. That's forty-six days really, but we don’t count the Sundays. The name Lent comes from the Old English word 'lencten', meaning spring, or literally the lengthening of the days.

Lent is a fast, whose origin lies with new Christians preparing themselves to be baptized on Easter Day. Still today some Christian sects baptize all their new members on Easter Day. Candidates for baptism would have fasted for a period, but probably of two or three days fasting rather than forty - reflecting the three days our Lord was in the tomb, rather than the forty in the desert.

The earliest mention of a forty day fast comes in the Canons of Nicea from 325 AD, reflecting our Lord's fast, and the fasts of Moses and Elijah. Forty is a special number in Scripture, often representing a period of temptation or suffering, or a time of being laid waste. The people of Israel took forty long years to journey to the Promised Land.

Lent for Christians is a time when we conscientiously imitate our Lord’s preparation in the wilderness. What sort of a fast should we keep? Centuries ago the Lenten fast was much stricter than it is now. Only one meal a day was allowed, to be taken towards evening.  The meal eaten would not include meat or fish, and usually also eggs and lacticinia (milk, cheese and so forth) would be excluded.  This is quite like the strict Muslim fast of Ramadan, when nothing is eaten or drunk by the faithful until the sun sets.

But those rules were slackened. By the 9th century the hour for breaking the fast had moved to three in the afternoon, at least for ordinary folk, and by the 15th century even monks and nuns usually broke their fast at noon, when the evening office of Vespers was specially said much earlier than at other seasons.

From the middle ages fish became regarded as a vegetable, and could therefore be eaten on Fridays through the year and generally during Lent. That’s why monasteries generally had large carp ponds. In time dairy products began to be permitted as well.

But why fast anyway? For Jesus this was so he could concentrate his mind on his Father’s will. But for us Lent became a time of penance in which to do something about what the Prayer Book calls “our manifold sins and wickedness.” In the early Church there was much debate about those who had fallen from faith in times of persecution, and who now wanted to return. Even if they were to be allowed back into church, clearly they couldn't just come straight back. So for them Lent was a time for making penance, and appealing for forgiveness. But it’s a time we all need; we all fall short, no-one is sinless.

And fasting isn't just giving things up, but also taking things on.  So Lent included extra times of prayer, extra times of study, perhaps even extra times of mortification. Pilgrimages might be made in Lent. When these days we think of Lent only in terms of giving things up, and often even then with our physical health in mind, rather than thinking about what might help us serve God better, we miss the point of the fast. Lent is a time to give up things that get too important in our lives, because and obscure the call of God; and to put in place things that are spiritually good and useful.

We do still use Lent as a time for studying and learning, but sadly most Lent courses are attended by only a minority of church members - it would be great if more came, and it would be great if those who didn’t some were reading improving books at home. In the past, candidates for baptism would learn what the Church taught about Jesus, about the cross, about the sacraments - so that at Easter they could say with confidence: 'Jesus is my Lord' and be baptized.

Lent used to begin today, on a Sunday. In medieval times it was extended back to Ash Wednesday to make up the full forty days, Sundays excluded. The ashes on Ash Wednesday come by tradition from last year's Palm Crosses. And ash is marked on the foreheads of the faithful with the words 'Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Repent, and believe the Gospel'. In those words at the start of Lent we are reminded that we can't do this on our own. We need what our Lord has done for us, and we need to dedicate ourselves to him.

Before Ash Wednesday we have some days called Ante-Lent. Ante with an e meaning before, but it could easily have an i meaning against, because with the coming fast in mind the last days before it began had an element of revel, over-consumption and misrule about them. Shrove Tuesday was a day like that, even though the word Shrove means penitence. Mardi Gras means Fat Tuesday, probably a better title; pancakes used up the butter and eggs in the house, making for a bit of a feast. Mardi Gras elsewhere in the world became a time of carnival and procession. Some local customs still exist that allow folk to go a bit mad on Shrove Tuesday. The children of a village might be given free reign to go through the streets extorting money, cakes and goodies from the residents; and some wild and  fearsome football matches still happen, like the one in Ashbourne that seems to involve virtually the whole town.

Many such customs had all but vanished in Britain by the end of the 18th century, but, sadly, so had the keeping of Lent in any really organised and sincere sense. But in the 19th century two things happened more or less at the same time: people rediscovered and sometimes invented local traditions; and the new Anglo-Catholic movement in the Church revived the keeping of fasts and festivals of all kinds, especially encouraging a more zealous keeping of Lent.

So that brings us to where we are today. My dictionary of the Christian Church tells me that 'Lent is now widely kept'. But it’s the 1957 edition, and our keeping of Lent is now much weaker. I’m sad about that. I’d like us to revive some of the old Lent customs and maybe to look at some new ideas, like pilgrimages with prayers and activities using sites within the church building (or Christian labyrinths as they’re sometimes called - something I tried in a previous parish). If Jesus needed time to prepare and to get right with his Father, so do we. So maybe it’s time for a new revival of Lent. Maybe that would make our churches holier places, more in tune with what God wants from us; maybe that would make God’s people more fit for service and witness to a world that needs all that we can give it in terms of prayer, holiness, generosity of spirit, Godly peace, and - with a nod towards today which is the Feast of St Valentine - simple old-fashioned love.