One day a teacher asked the pupils what colour is an apple – some  said red, others green, others golden. One little boy said white. The teacher said no. “But it is”, said the little boy,” it’s white inside.” And that is what Lent is about, it is about what is inside.

The word “Lent” has gone into general use. To describe something as Lenten means that it is spartan and difficult. In the Catholic Church in the past, the traditional image of the Lenten observance was spartan without a doubt. Lent was about doing penance and in particular, fasting.  Like Jesus in the desert, we had to fast for 40 days, and the Lenten fast was imposed under the pain of serious sin.

Lent was also a sombre time. All the statues and pictures in the church were covered with purple cloth. There were no flowers and an alleluia or Gloria would not be heard again until Easter. What was the underlying message in all of this? Without a doubt, the love of God for humanity was part of the message, in that He was willing to suffer and die for us. But there was an over-riding emphasis on our sin, in particular personal sin. We were led to believe that we were miserable creatures, steeped in evil and sin. Of course, there is some truth in all of this, but it led to the damaging assumption that the forgiveness and mercy of God were not generously given, and in fact would only be offered to a few. Many people became over-cautious and careful in their lives and the message of Jesus that He came that we might have life and have it to the full did not get much of an airing.

When we study the Bible, we see that the Scriptural idea of Lent and of salvation in general was much more positive, with the emphasis more on life than on death, on salvation rather than damnation.

One of the great Scriptural texts that touches the heart of Lent is from the prophet Joel. We hear it in the first reading of Ash Wednesday.

Joel 2 :12   Return to the Lord, your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents  from punishing.

The text refers to the direction our life is taking and to the values and attitudes by which we live. It is about living more than anything else. In fact, many of the Lenten texts are about living with courage and enthusiasm. And that is the part  of Lent we missed out on in the past.

We are invited to try to re-discover this more positive Lenten message. Or course that does not mean that we give up totally on penance and fasting. The fundamental idea of Lent, as I understand it, is to try to live our lives in a new way and to repent of our past failures and inadequacies, so that we can live the fullness of life that Jesus came to bring us.

The classic statement of repentance is Psalm 50. It is worth spending time over it…

Psalm 50

Have mercy on me, God in your kindness. In your compassion wash out my offence. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin.

My offences truly I know them, my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned; what is evil in your sight I have done.

A pure heart create for me O God, put a steadfast spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, nor deprive me of your Holy Spirit.

Give me again the joy of your help; with a spirit of fervour sustain me. O Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.

                                                                                                          B. O’ S.

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