Lent is that time when we prepare to remember again the events of the first Good Friday and Easter.
It is also often associated with self-denial.
The passage usually read on this first Sunday of Lent is the story about the temptations of Jesus: how he went into the wilderness, and fasted for 40 days. He denied himself.
And at the end of Lent, on Maundy Thursday night, we remember how Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane that he might escape the cross. But he ended his prayer, 'But not what I will, what you will'.
And Jesus said, 'If anyone would follow me he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me' (Mark 8:34)
Of course, self denial is not exclusive to Christianity
The bride on a diet will deny the emptiness in her stomach and the craving for food in order to squeeze into that wedding dress
The athlete will deny the screams of agony from their muscles in order to get their body into as good a shape as possible for the race
The soldier about to go to Afghanistan will deny themselves all kinds of comfort in order to train. They know that their life and the lives of their comrades depends on them knowing what they need to do.
To deny ourself is to choose to take the hard road for the sake of a greater gain.
But there is a false kind of Christian self-denial. It is the sort of attitude which says, 'I am going to deny myself now so that, in the future, I will be bigger'.
This is the kind of self-denial when we screw ourselves up and say, "I'm going to fast; I'm going to give up stuff; I'm going to mortify the body; I'm going to spend more time in prayer; I'm going to make more effort to get to church, in order to make myself more worthy, more acceptable God, and to prove myself to myself, to other believers, to God, and to become more spiritually powerful and significant."
There is a real danger with that.
It often leads to exhaustion and burn out. Instead of becoming more loving, we become more crabby and angry.
We often fail, and that leads to a sense of crushing worthlessness
If we succeed, it leads to pride. We become hard. Either we end up saying, 'I did it, and therefore I deserve my reward' (in other words, 'what is mine is mine by right'), or we end up saying of others, 'I did it. Why can't they?' And we become judgemental; we look down on other people from our lofty moral mountain.
The desert fathers used to say that if you fast from food, you must break your fast on one or two occasions. Otherwise it leads to pride. And Jesus rebuked the religious leaders of his time who, he said, fasted in order that other people would say, 'What wonderfully spiritual people they are'.
That is not the sort of self-denial that Jesus is asking for. He is asking not asking us to deny ourselves so that we become bigger. That is not really self-denial. Instead he is asking us to deny ourselves so that we become smaller and HE becomes bigger.
The temptation that we face, day in and day out, is the temptation to believe that we are gods and that we can somehow save ourselves. And Christian self-denial is about denying ourselves in order to make us realise that we are not god, that all things come from him, that we cannot save ourselves and that we are dependent on God for everything.
And so we abstain from food in order to make ourselves weaker, and to realise that our dependence, our life comes from God alone.
The words of Panis Angelicus, which you have just sung, are helpful here:
That becomes the bread for all mankind; [Jesus said, 'I am the bread of life']
Bread from the angelic host
That is the end of all imaginings; [all our hopes and dreams meet their fulfilment in him]
Oh, miraculous thing!
This body of God will nourish
Even the poorest, the most humble of servants.
We fast from food in order to discover again that although our physical bodies need physical food, our real life, the life that ultimately matters, is not dependent on material food. For real life, at the deepest level of our existence, we need God, and we need the word of God.
Jesus, after he had fasted for 40 days, was 'hungry'. It is one of the great understatements of the Bible. But when tempted to produce bread from rock, he was able to say to Satan, 'Man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God' (Matthew 4:4)
We fast from alcohol or from sexual intimacy or from chocolate in order to remember that these are not ours by right but God given gifts to us. And they are not here to rule or control us. Life is not ultimately about alcohol or sex, or even - and I realise this is controversial - about chocolate. We can actually live without them. And God has given very clear guidelines about how we should use the gift of sex and the gift of alcohol. There probably should also be guidelines about how to use the gift of chocolate or the game of angry birds or football manager. And if our fasting does not lead us to having a greater recognition that they are gifts from God - not a right - and if it does not lead us to a greater thankfulness, and to use those gifts in a way which honours God, then it is fasting in vain.
Or we can fast from the television, in order for a while to turn off from the voice of the world, which is always telling us how we can become more significant people by becoming more successful, more capable, richer, more beautiful and more powerful. It is a voice which is not true and it ultimately leads to the pit. Prayer of a teenage girl, written on a prayer wall - and you can hear the desperate plea in this - 'God make me beautiful'.
And so instead we can open our bibles and we begin to hear another voice which tells us that we are sinners who are powerless to prove anything, but that we are also deeply and profoundly beloved by God, that he has a purpose for us and a destiny for us - even if, in this world, we are to be considered scum.
John Chryssavgis, 'In the Heart of the Desert' writes of the message of the Desert fathers and mothers, "Their suggestion is not so much: “I’m OK and you’re OK.” On a much deeper level, it is their awareness and admission that: “I’m not OK; and you’re not OK.” Yet, this recognition is also their reassurance; for, they know that: “That’s OK!”
And we get up earlier to pray not in order to prove to ourself or to others how spiritual we are, but because we are beginning to realise just how much we really need God. I read an interview with the Bishop of London in which he was asked about his prayer life. He answered, 'I get up at 5:30, say the morning office for half an hour and then spend a further hour in prayer'. And he went on, 'I have discovered that I cannot survive without that time with God'.
Lent begins with Jesus' fasting in the wilderness. It ends with him being crucified on the cross.
And true Christian self-denial will lead us to the cross. It will lead me to that point where I know that I cannot rely on myself, but that I can only put my trust in Jesus, crucified for me. I end up rejecting my own abilities, my own strength, my own good inclinations, my own spiritual endeavours, my own understanding, my own love or lack of love. Instead I put my trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, 'who loved me and gave himself for me'.
It is that deep spirituality which resounds through many of the words of those pieces of music that we have heard this evening:
Ave Verum Corpus
Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary,
who having truly suffered,
was sacrificed on the cross for mankind,
whose pierced side flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet] in the trial of death.
Oh sweet Jesus, Oh pious Jesus, Oh Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.
We adore Thee, O Christ,
And we bless Thee,
Who by Thy Holy Cross
hath redeemed the world.
You suffered death for us,
O Lord, O Lord, have mercy on us.
How do you know that you are beloved of God? You have a choice. You can look to your own abilities and achievements and good works, you can look at the way that your life has panned out, the lot that has been given to you - or you can look to the cross, and believe that the one who went there, went there because of love: "God showed his love for us in this: it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us" (Romans 5:8)
How do you know that you are forgiven? You can look to your own efforts to punish yourself, or to make good yourself - or you can look to the cross, and believe that because he took that punishment onto himself and that he died there, the price is paid and you are forgiven.
How do you know that you are significant? In a world of so much suffering, which tells you that you are simply a product of blind forces set in operation at the big bang, an accident who is the product of two other accidents who had an accident, and you may also have had an accident with another accident and produced a further accident - how do you know that you matter?
How do you know that you have an eternal purpose, when the probable destiny which awaits each one of us is that of growing old and having everything stripped from us, and the certain destiny which awaits each one of us is death? Do we look to our status and achievements (I'm vicar of St Mary's), and try to make ourselves a big fish even if it means we live in a very little pond? Or do we look to the cross, and believe that the one who died there also rose again and has conquered death, and that together with him we have an eternal destiny?
Lent is a time for self-denial. But it is not a time for self-denial now in order to make ourselves spiritual super-heroes then.
It is a time for self-denial so that, stripping away all the things that this world offers - food, comfort, immediate satisfaction - we discover that those things are not ours by right but are GIFT. And as we turn to God we discover - in our brokenness and weakness and emptiness - that our true life, strength, competence and our ultimate joy is Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.