Today is Ash Wednesday and the first day of the season of Lent. Lent, as everybody knows, is forty days long, only if you count the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Saturday on a calendar you will find there are actually forty six. The difference is the Sundays in Lent, which are not counted, on the basis that every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection and therefore a mini-Easter.
At least that is the case in the Western Church. Yesterday at an interfaith meeting I found myself sitting next to our local Greek Orthodox priest, the Very Revd Archimandrite Ephrem Lash, who I assisted in a search for sandwiches suitable for the Lenten fast that he had begun on Monday – the Eastern Church evidently has a different way of calculating Lent. Father Ephrem told me that the first three days of the Orthodox Lent are particularly solemn. If he was back in his monastery, the fast includes no talking – “and that’s very difficult for Greek monks”.
Methodism generally observes Lent Light. For most of us Methodists, attendance at a Lent course or study group is about as far as we go. However I have noticed increasing interest in our evening Ash Wednesday service, which includes the imposition of ashes and the celebration of Holy Communion. There we will be encouraged to mark the forty days of Lent as a time for reflection, prayer, Bible study and self-denial.
Last Sunday I observed a very different forty days. I had been asked to lead prayers at the home of Mary Ann’s cousin Ariel and his wife Rowena. Forty days previously their baby Angel had, tragically, been stillborn. As is the tradition in the Philippines, the fortieth day after a death was to be a day of prayer.
En route to Ariel and Rowena’s home in west London I asked Mary Ann the significance of the forty day prayers. She didn’t know – and neither did her cousin Alvin who was with us. It’s just tradition. I presume that it derives from a pre-Christian belief about the soul wandering for so many days, which has been absorbed into folk Catholicism. (Fr Ephrem told me that there is a similar custom among the Greek Cypriots in his parish.)
I had prepared a very simple time of prayer. We lit the candle that had last been lit at Angel’s funeral service. We continued with silence, the reading of Psalm 139, extempore prayer and a blessing. But I began by remarking on the significance of forty days. The number forty occurs time and time again in the Bible: Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai in the presence of God; Elijah and Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness. The Israelites took forty years to reach the Promised Land.
Forty days represents a time of struggle, growth and self-discovery. A time for ‘back to basics’, being aware of our mortality and our dependence on God. And whatever the origin of the forty day prayers for the dead, that had surely been the experience of Ariel and Rowena, their children and their wider family. Those past forty days had been a time for journeying together in the face of death, for accepting with heartfelt appreciation the love and care of family and friends and for learning what it means to lean on the everlasting arms of God. A time for raw emotions and heartfelt questions. For those of us gathered to mark those forty days this was our Lent, as we drew close to the cross and the mystery of death and life.