I remember my first Lent like it was yesterday. I was 27 when I first joined the Church and had only distant memories of a large grey building at Granny’s where pandrops were dispensed from fur coat pockets and boxed pews kept you firmly ensconced. The joy and riot of colour and drama and smells and sounds of the Episcopal Church were shocking to me, but also familiar. Not familiar in church terms, but made me feel like I was at home. As each season passed I knew that this was where I wanted to stay. This was where I belonged.
And so my first Lent came to pass. I walked in to church and gasped at the beauty and delight of the purpleness. The altar frontal, the burse and veil, the flashes of it around the building, the lack of flowers, the starkness all set the scene. Then there were these unfamiliar Anglican hymns but there was something more. I’m not a musician but even I could tell that the tone was different, the tempo was slower, the words were more poignant. I think it was then that I first realised that hymns were chosen to fit the season, to fit the liturgy and how important that was. The notices told me that Confession was available, something which I had previously thought of as strictly for the Roman Catholics, but then I realised that this was all part of the season of preparation. To turn from sin and seek repentance. To cleanse and purify our hearts. To rouse us to prayer, self-denial and service of neighbour.
I’d never given anything up for Lent before. Of course I’d heard people talk about it – usually chocolate, cigarettes or booze – but I’d never made that kind of commitment before. But I also heard the gospel say that we shouldn’t talk about it, that it should be done in secret with God alone, and that we should oil our faces and keep cheerful. That’s what I heard, that first Lent. But I felt unprepared. I hadn’t had enough time to think about it, to plan it. But I really wanted to take it seriously, to make a promise to God and to keep it. To do something as a sacrifice that would make me a better person because I still didn’t really believe that God loved me as I was.
Nothing prepared me for the powerfulness of that first Ash Wednesday service. Nor for the emotion that would well up when the priest said, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. Repent and turn to Christ.” Tears sprung to my eyes and I really didn’t know why. Perhaps it was the seriousness of it. Perhaps it was the touch on my forehead and the sign of the cross, so recently given to me in oil at my Confirmation. Perhaps it was the purpleness, the solemnity, the music – who knows? All I knew as I walked away from the altar rail and saw that Mr W also had an ash cross, as did Mrs L and Mrs R and all the rest, all much better Christians than I, all who were much further along this path with God, all were marked with the same cross and all reminded of their mortality and the need for repentance. All of us there that night were in it together. And that each year they came back to be reminded again.
I’ll never forget that first Lent. As the drama unfolded over the weeks I couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. It was like finding a favourite series on TV when you can’t wait for the next episode. The following year I thought I would be better prepared and asked in the pub after church one Sunday if there was a book anyone could recommend which would tell me what it all meant. “Yes, there is,” said someone, and I whipped out my filofax to write down its title, “its called the Bible!”
Ever since then I’ve never lost the thrill of the change of seasons in Church and in particular the journey and drama of Lent. Since ordination I’ve wanted every single one of my little flocks to gasp as they walk into church when the seasons change and feel the drama unfold in words and symbols. The signs and symbols work best for me. I know that now. For some its the words and I’ve tried to work with them too. I don’t give up so much these days as try to take something on. I’m afraid there is little sacrifice in saying Morning Prayer with others but I always do that in church each Lent and Advent. But whatever I do, there is nothing that quite compares with that first Lent.