Thursday, 7 February 2008

So, what are you giving up for Lent...?

In case it passed you by - and I guess that for most people, it will have - we are now in Lent. Tuesday was Shrove Tuesday, and yesterday was Ash Wednesday, so now begins the season of 40 days and nights running up to Easter.

Traditionally, this is the period when Christians prepare for Easter by fasting, prayer and acts of penitence, the 40 days replicating the time spent by Christ in the wilderness. (Sundays are not included in the count, as each is regarded as a celebration of the Resurrection in its own right.) In former times, the concept of fasting often reflected the lack of food around anyway at the end of winter. I remember reading that, in mediaeval times, the diet in Somerset at this time of year consisted primarily of salted herrings and conger eel, so no wonder they were happy to fast!

But these days, Lent often seems to have become watered down to simply giving up something we like - chocolate being the classic. A Jewish friend of mine once remarked that, 'when we fast, we do it properly - not just giving up the odd chocolate or two for a few days a week'. He had a point (unless you resemble Dawn French's chocoholic character in the 'Vicar of Dibley'). Shrove Tuesday has become something of a ritual in its own right - we even call it 'Pancake Day' - rather than representing the last decent calorific intake for seven weeks.

In our household, we actually went out for a pint of beer and a curry on Tuesday at the Warwick Arms in Kensington. (You really don't want to eat pancakes if I've been involved in making them, although I'm not as bad as the pancake evening a former boss recounted to me about her student flat sharing days: tossing the pancakes rather energetically, one stuck to the ceiling, and then fell to the floor. It ended up black on both sides, leaving two perfectly pancake-shaped areas of cleanliness on the ceiling and floor respectively). Anyway, my vegetarian thali was lovely - fresh and tasty, and all nice and dry - not swimming in ghee, as some can be. My partner's tandoori chicken was also excellent - freshly cooked and tender. That beats pancakes any day, in my book.

The next issue for me was where to go to church on Ash Wednesday. When in London, I normally go to St Botolph's in Aldgate, a lovely 18th century church with an inclusive worship tradition. However, working in West London meant I would not be able to make their service, which left me looking for something closer to home. My closest church is St Cuthbert's, with its beautiful Victorian arts-and-crafts interior and high Anglo-Catholic ritual. But finding out about service times was difficult - no-one in the office, and no web-site, so instead I took myself off to the grandeur of St Mary Abbots in High Street Kensington for their 7pm Sung Eucharist.

And it was wonderful. I know this may not be the most appropriate reaction to what is supposed to be a penitential service, but there's something about solemn ritual and beautiful music that makes you stop and think about higher things. The choir did an excellent job: a selection of 16th-18th Century devotional music, including 'Lord, for thy tender mercy's sake' by John Hilton, the famous 'Miserere' by Gregorio Allegri, the 'Missa de Angelis' by William Byrd, finishing, appropriately enough, with 'Lord, let me know mine end' by Maurice Greene. The service included the traditional rite of 'Ashing' where ashes made by burning the palm crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are mixed with oil, and daubed on your forehead in the shape of a cross. (Though mine was more of a blob, and got some strange looks from passers-by on my way home).

Perhaps most interesting element was the sermon. (Yes, that's what I said: the sermon.) Focusing on Christ's need to escape into quiet contemplation, particularly during the 40 days and nights spent in the wilderness, the Assistant Priest urged us to use Lent to making time to think and pray deeply about the purpose and direction of our lives, and any specific issues - financial, about a relationship, spiritual, or a direction in work - that were affecting us.

Now, that's got to be more to the point than giving up a few chocolates?

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