After the pancakes are eaten on Shrove Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent. I am guessing that, not having brought up in Catholic homes, most of our members, your minister included, do not have a strong tradition of observance. Even among those who take Lent very seriously, there is a range of understanding about what this 40-day period before Easter means, and what one should do about it.
This article from Baylor University will bring greater understanding about Lent’s origin; however, it doesn’t help us decide what should be done about it.
Over the years, I have used Lent as an excuse to involve people in a Bible study, playing on the notion that it should be viewed as a period of preparation for Easter. Of course, Bible study should be a year-long endeavour, so for what else might Lent be special? As I ponder this question, I have a hard time finding anything that one should do in Lent that should not be done every day of the year. Perhaps this idea of doing something for Lent, such as giving up chocolate or whatever, is misplaced. Is it any more special than any other time in the church calendar?
Ah, the church calendar! You will be familiar with the changing of liturgical colours of the lectern and communion table drapes and the minister’s stoles. As they change they remind us we have just crossed a border from one season to another. The colours themselves are guides to the attitude to be taken: click here for a bit more information.
I find it helpful to view the liturgical year as a guide to my inner journey. The purpose of Lent can’t be described in isolation from its part in the whole inner journey that begins in Advent, with its emphasis on God’s coming into the world. It is a time to reflect on one’s needs, i.e. where help from God is required. Advent is a time for hope to be born, but hope must be paired with the patience necessary for perseverance in one’s hoping. Advent recognises the fact that, before any growth can occur, it is necessary to acknowledge that something is lacking, and then imagine something better.
Christmas marks the incarnation of God. In the outer world, this incarnation has its locus in Jesus, but the nativity story is also a story of God’s birth in you and me. The twelve days of Christmas are about recognising, nurturing and protecting the emerging God in me.
Epiphany, the season of light, tells the story of seeing the emerging God and bringing knowledge about how God is working in my life. As in Jesus’ life, it is not all plain sailing. God is revealed, goodness is revealed, but enemies emerge.
Lent is a battleground. The human condition exerts its power, and we are faced with the choice between taking the narrow road or the broad way, sacrificing self or protecting self. In practice, Lent is a time of self-examination that exposes where my choices have gone the wrong way, and recommiting to ‘the road less travelled’.
Good Friday is the celebration of my victories on the Lenten battleground, i.e. where I have given myself to ‘the Way’, and Easter symbolises the life that has emerged in these victories. The season of Easter that follows is a time of appropriating the victory, culminating in Pentecost, which reminds me I am not alone; I am part of something much bigger. Then the long season of ordinary time is a working out of how I can make God real in practical ways in the things I do and say every day.
The year ends on Christ the King Sunday, as it brings attention to both the ways in which I have ceded my life to God over the past year and the future expectation that God will take over my whole life; thus, I am pointed to Advent to begin the cycle over again.
As I relate the role of the church year, I am struck by the fact it is not an agenda for my month by month spiritual life; rather it is a cycle that plays out, not over the course of a year, but day by day, week by week. The liturgical year describes the cycle, and helps us to celebrate each stage in turn, but it is really telling a story of the process that goes on constantly. God is always yearning to be incarnated in us and asking us to break down the walls we erect against divine intrusion.
Of late, there has been much talk in the media and in political discourse about whether or not January 26th is an appropriate date for celebrating a national day, given that, for our Aboriginal brothers and sisters, it marks the day that the invasion of their land was begun by the British. As a third of Australians do not even know why we celebrate Australia Day on this date, and most don’t really care one way or the other, it would seem there is ‘room to move’ on this issue.
The question I face is this: Should we bring Australia Day into Sunday worship? On one hand, there are worthy principles associated with this day that are worth celebrating; for example, in the words of the editor of The Age (20 Jan. 2108), “It symbolises how we see ourselves as a nation. It speaks to our pride in what we have achieved, and what we hope to become. Ideally, it should speak to our unity as a nation as well.” I would have no trouble merging Australian ideals with the teachings of Jesus as a theme for a Sunday service. I can imagine that many of the people in the church would welcome such a theme.
On the other hand, Australia Day is a secular holiday. Any theological association I could imagine would be forced and artificial. I have regularly avoided Mothers’ Day themes at church for the same reason. Whilst most people welcome a sermon on Mothers’ Day, it is simply not the reason we gather to worship.
Another reason for not making Australia Day the subject of a worship service is that it would be hypocritical. Uniting Church services are begun with an acknowledgment of the original caretakers of the land as a mark of respect to the aboriginal people. How could we, then, celebrate an occasion that, for them, is a reminder that their land was stolen, beginning on the very date we are celebrating?
Yet, I am going to bring Australia Day into worship on Australia Day weekend, even if briefly. What the nation has achieved, and what could be achieved as its ideals are pursued, is worthy, not only to be mentioned, but to be celebrated. I think Jesus would join in the celebration gladly. More importantly, it is useful to highlight on Australia Day the work that yet needs to be done in pursuit of Australian ideals and Christian principles. We still have refugees wasting away in concentration camps (yes, let’s ‘call a spade a spade’). The spectre of racism continues to cast a shadow over our relationship with those of us who are not of Anglo-Saxon heritage or of Christian upbringing. The gap between rich and poor continues to widen. The health of the planet continues to suffer, with Australians the worst per capita contributors to climate change.
It is also a good time to remind ourselves, even as we celebrate, that January 26th is not the appropriate day on which to mark our nationhood. It is not the birthday of our nation, as some people are wont to argue, for it celebrates the beginning of the colonisation of Australia. Who wants to celebrate colonisation? The majority of countries have a national day that marks their independence from a colonial power, e.g. July 4th in the USA, i.e., it usually marks the end of subjugation, not the beginning of it. All but a handful of countries have a national day that commemorates either their independence or the unification of smaller states to form the nation, as with Italy.
No other country celebrates the beginning of its rule by another country, so why should we? Quite apart from offending the original occupants who were invaded and conquered, it is just perverse. If it is desirable to celebrate Australia, then Federation Day is the obvious and consistent choice, but given that January 1st is already taken by the New Year festivities, how about Banjo Pattersons’s birthday (Feb. 17th) Or Eureka Stockade Day (Dec, 3rd)? Then there is March 3rd, the day in 1986 that Australia finally become completely free of British rule.
Come on, folks, use some imagination, and let’s find a day in which all Australians can revel, and in which we Christians can take pride. And we, the people, are the ones who must force a change, because governments simply aren’t very good with issues of morality. Then Jesus will really celebrate with us.