Keith tells of his youth and his devlopment into a Licensed Lay reader
Mentally, i seem to start every commentary on anything with the phrase ‘Many years ago . . .’. Well, yet again I start by looking back. In the early 60s after a couple of years of odd jobs (on the farm, selling books and so on) and some years in the regular Army, I went to University to read Mediaeval and Modern History. One of our mediaeval history lecturers was a tiny old lady, who rejoiced in the name of Decima, having 9 older siblings. She came from a devout Catholic family. She seemed to have been at the University for ever. On one occasion, a student who always sat at the back plonked himself in the front row, right in front of her and opened a large note book. During the lecture, he made no notes, simple kept his eyes on his book and kept nodding approvingly. Decima, eventually, could not resist asking him what he was doing and he confirmed that his father’s notes of the same lecture taken 30 years before were excellent.
Every year Decima gave up something for Lent and every year it had to be something different and truly sacrificial. She lived 3 miles from the University and that year she gave up public transport, which meant she had to walk. Within a day or so, it was taking her so long that she was leaving home at 4 or 5 in the morning and not getting back until ver late in the evening. Inevitably within a few days, she was found unconscious (seriously ill) in a ditch. The truly amazing thing was that her mother came up to look after her and we discovered that she was still lecturing on mediaeval history at Oxford – the standing joke was that for her it was obviously Current Affairs!
Most of us are aware that on a random Tuesday in the Spring or late winter, everyone eats pancakes. Several weeks later, there is a Bank Holiday on a Friday (so it is called ‘Good Friday’), which no businesses take any notice of anyway – just the banks and public services. This, in turn, is followed by another holiday on Easter Monday. The whole thing is good to have, but a pain, because the dates go all over the place and no one knows when the school Easter holidays are going to be. In 2011, bizarrely, the Friday after Easter Monday is also going to be a bank holiday because the second in line to the throne is getting married. And that runs straight in to the Spring Bank Holiday on the following Monday.
So my topic is Lent. It is Lent that starts on the day after Shrove (pancake) Tuesday and finishes with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. It is a Christian festival (odd word to use nowadays, but was appropriate when we first started to describe the events/special days/special seasons in the Christian calendar). It is about the chronologically opposite ends of the ministry of Jesus Christ. Lent is our attempt to remember and to emulate the 40 days which Jesus spent on his own, away from home and people, fasting and praying before he commenced the three years of teaching and healing, which culminated in his execution, the event which we remember on Good Friday.
The Christian calendar is organised to start with prophecies of and the prelude to Jesus’ birth at Christmas, followed by remembrances of what little we know of his childhood and then jumping through the preparatory 40 day preparation for ministry and straight on to the execution and resurrection (on Easter Sunday) and then the story of what happened in the 6 weeks after that, leading to the birth of the Christian Church at Pentecost (or Whit Sunday as it has been known in the English Church). All that takes from the beginning of December until May (depending on the date set for Easter). During the rest of the year, we call to mind his ministry.
So Lent is given its real time length of 40 days. Shrove Tuesday is the day immediately before. We eat pancakes as a last fun feast before we dig in for a time of contemplation and moderation – or fasting. ‘Fasting’ means different things to different people, but, normally we don’t mean starvation – it means subsisting on basics. They say that we could very usefully all take one day a week in which we eat nothing and drink only water. This helps to clear the poisons out of our bodily systems – it can do the same for our mental and spiritual state. Decima got hung up on proving that she could give up important things – no doubt very noble of her and definitely properly intentioned, but, I fear, slightly missing the point. We should not be trying to prove a point to anyone. It is a good time for us all to reflect on what we are and to put to one side those things that we allow (indeed enjoy) to distract us – casual indulgence of every type.
You don’t need to be a Christian to find such a discipline good for you, in every possible way. Also you don’t need to wait for Lent to start or finish in order to be healthy in body and mind.
Incidentally, if anyone wants to know how to calculate when Easter is, I will happily let you know – indeed I am quite happy to publish the formulae in The Pump, if there is a real ground swell of urgent interest in the matter. May I say that Christians are running out of feet to shoot, but this sort of nonsense is right there with all the other examples. Whether it made sense in the early centuries of the first millennium AD (or, if you must – CE) to produce these riddles and then to get into a right fiddle-daddle with the Eastern Orthodox churches about it (they still use different formulae!) is a moot point. But it makes no sense now and makes us look silly. I am afraid Decima’s efforts did nothing 50 years ago to endear her church to those of her students (including myself), who found the Church so silly and unreal, as not to warrant serious consideration.
But, what is good (for me anyway) is the annual reminder that for a real period of time (not just a flash day or two) I need to be concerned not for my own comfort and trifling preferences, but for others.