So here we are, it's Ash Wednesday and smutty comments aside ('Ooh, did you know you have a bit of dirt on your face Vicar?'' and all that sort of thing) it still appears that far too many of us (especially clergy) are in a place of confusion over the observation of Lent.
Viewpoints range from Lent being all about 'giving stuff up' and how it is about denial of self and putting aside the things of the world and the like. The starting point for Lent, which is Ash Wednesday (that's today), is considered by some to be a merely meaningless imposition of dirt and I am reliably told that Anglicans, Roman Catholics and Methodists (although apparently not all) at the three main shareholders in this period of observation.
Yet what I see is a time of reflection and, rather than giving stuff up, is a time of taking stuff on. A time to be thinking about the journey to the cross and preparation of the spiritual room that is ourselves for the coming of Jesus the risen Christ. This is what the two purple periods of the church's liturgical years (Advent and Lent: Christmas and Easter) are all about - self examination and clearing out the remnants, silencing the echoes of things that impede our Christian walk.
It is something of value rather than something imposed and religious. It is the very essence of being authentically Christian rather than submitting to something hollow and worthless; of being 'religious'. Yet there are many who put it down as being exactly that: mere blind, mumbojumbo filled religion!
Conversations regarding Lent not being Biblical, for indeed the word is not in the Bible, are as futile as those which struggle over not finding the word 'Trinity' either, and yet none of those who consider Lent to be wrong deny the Trinity. So once again we encounter those who read, see or believe what they want to see and disregard that which they do not.
As a choirboy in inner city London I was really impressed by the Vicar who used to speak of what I now know to be quadragesima (that weren't what the nine-year old fort he sed - sounded more like something from Hogwarts!) - the forty days of observance that is Lent. We took home our collecting box, which we were encouraged to fill for the 'poor children', and that, other than singing loads of different stuff, was basically it until Good Friday. I never heard anything about giving things up, mind you we were so pretty well skint that there wasn't much to give up (other than Dad's booze that is), and that's how it stayed until I sometime (now clouded in the mist of time) in the eighties.
But the sadness of it all is that those who exclude Lent as an observance or discipline and mission out on something of quite exquisite spiritual value - a call to a self-discipline that opens my mind and heart and takes me onto the road that leads to the Cross - and it is in this that Easter becomes something personal and eschews everything that could be considered religious; after all 'religion' is about rules and restrictions that cause you to fail at every turn. Lent is about winning through regardless!
Oddly, those who effectively ignore the journey to the cross - choosing merely to celebrate the victory of Easter without contemplating the journey that leads to it, the awfulness of betrayal and separation from God that was crucifixion.
It is them who in their triumphalistic stuff are actually I fear being religious!
It is them who in celebrating the victory without the cost, are making something less of Easter and are, alongside those who tell me how we, 'Cannot out Grace God,' are merely worshipping a God who has become little more than some celestial 'do gooding' piggy bank where forgiveness without the cost of commitment and discipline are on offer. freely for who who would wish to make it theirs.
And this is why making for ourselves our own Lenten journey is so important - not because we are handcuffed to some religious self- flagellatory denial or self-imposed meaningless observation of an unbiblical practice - but an taking the time to consider the cost of the cross and in so doing take up our own cross and seek to follow Jesus, the Christ, in right living and thinking.
Something we should be doing every day but brought into sharper focus and full clarity as we head towards the cross and seek to put aside the distractions the world has to offer us.
Now that's surely something worth giving up!