February moves us on from the Crib, and puts our feet firmly on the Road to the Cross, as Lent begins.
On February 1st, we keep the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple, the encounter between the Christ-Child, Mary and Joseph, with aged Simeon and Anna, as his parents bring him to Jerusalem to offer their thanksgiving. Candlemass Day marks a last fond look towards the Crib, as we turn to the Cross. At 6pm in All Saints we will celebrate that turning with an Evening Service of Light, and the blessing and procession with candles.
Then, as the days lengthen, we look for the signs of early spring, of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils. Then it will only be a few weeks until Easter. Lent prepares us to keep Holy Week and Easter, and begins on Ash Wednesday, 18th February. In the early Church people who wanted to be baptised were expected to undertake an intense period of Christian training at this time, including a programme of regular prayer and fasting, to prepare them for an Easter baptism. Eventually all devout Christians were able to share in the blessings of this time of prayer, almsgiving and fasting every year.
The potential origins for this Spring Fast are fascinating, and reach back to a time before the coming of Christianity. With winter food stores running low, perhaps it would have been necessary to ration the amount people ate in order to avoid starvation. In due course, the day before the Lent Fast began, all surplus luxury foods such as meat, eggs and dairy products had to be consumed so that they wouldn’t be wasted. This festival was known in Britain as “Shrove Tuesday” – named after the private confessions that took place before Lent began. Most of us would know it as Pancake Day, the last day to indulge yourself in rich food. All over the Catholic world there were carnivals celebrating “Mardi Gras”, meaning Fat Tuesday.
On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent, we receive the sign of the Cross, in Ash, on our forehead, as a sign of repentance. The ash reminds us of our mortality, and invites us to turn again to the Lord. Given the sign of the Cross at our baptism, we are re-signed for the journey. Our Lenten worship is less cluttered, we refrain from Alleluia and Gloria, so we can mark their joyful restoration to the Liturgy at Easter. The liturgical colour is purple, the colour of Christ’s pain and our repentance, and a sign of preparation and getting ready. There is an emphasis on prayer, self examination, self denial and almsgiving.
For our own day, it is good to both give up something, and to take on more. Don’t just give up grumbling about that particular person; how can you get to know them, and love them, better? The Lenten disciplines have so much to give us, if only we are willing to allow them.
May God bless us in the keeping of a Holy Lent.