Every month a member of the clergy writes a letter to help us reflect upon a contemporary issue of the day from a Christian and biblical perspective. For February, its Andy’s turn, and he focuses upon death and love particularly as Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day this year!
It is a strange irony that whilst the past few decades have seen a rise in secularism (society functioning with no apparent acknowledgement of God, faith, spirituality, or concern for the afterlife), there has been an explosion in all things supernatural in book, tv programme and film. My earliest memory of a ‘supernatural’ film was watching Christopher Lee play Dracula, probably having a crucifix pressed onto his forehead by Van Helsing (played by Peter Cushing) and thus spoiling his day. Since then we have been offered all manner of spiritual and supernatural entertainment on our screens involving ghosts, monsters, angels, demons, zombies, spirits, vampires, witches and wizards and so on. Whatever gains secularism has made in marginalising faith, or trivialising the belief in things ‘other-worldly’, the entertainment industry has flourished in the field of the supernatural. Could it be that the entertainment industry is succeeding in keeping alive the notion of a world or realm beyond the material, succeeding perhaps where the church is struggling? Well, there may be a grain of truth in that question somewhere, but whatever the hopes of secularism in trying to diminish spirituality, it is doomed to fail. People are inherently spiritual! The interest in things spiritual and spirituality itself is flourishing, whether it be people on a personal journey of seeking spiritual experiences, an interest in the cinematic and television entertainment of that genre, or a simple open-mindedness to the idea of a reality beyond the seen world; for people of all ages and beliefs, spirituality is alive snd relevant. What an opportunity for the church to harness that spiritual hunger, not with dry religiosity, but with the message of the gospel that a loving ‘supernatural’ God who miraculously brought the whole universe and all life (both physical and spiritual) into existence, wants to be in a relationship with us and for us to know him. This God who sent his son Jesus into our ‘natural’ world, and made the supernatural ‘natural’ during his life on earth, is the same Jesus who is with us today by the Holy Spirit. God is spirit, and all who worship him do so in sprit and in truth. Whilst the notion of zombies, ghouls, and vampires remain fiction (although angels and demons do exist), we can take comfort that God is real, unseen, yet knowable, all-powerful, yet loving and gentle, and has all things material and spiritual in his hands. Peoples search for spiritual experiences need to be channelled in the right direction. The fact remains, if people seek spiritual truth, they will find Jesus, and the church itself is the spiritual signpost to Jesus, and his spiritual body on earth.
This month sees us enter Lent where we observe a time of penitence, reflective soul-searching, and self-examination. And before the rigours of Lent set in, there is the opportunity for a small treat; namely a pre-Lent blow-out on Shrove Tuesday with the eating of pancakes. The roots of this tradition, historically called ‘Shrovetide’, permit the indulgence of soon to be sacrificed fatty foods before commencing the fasting and religious obligations of Lent. The pancake represents a final tasty treat before a time of gastric austerity!
The expression ‘Shrove Tuesday’ comes from the word ‘shrive’ which means to absolve, which in turn means to be declared free from guilt, blame or sin, taken from the Latin word absolvere which means to ‘set free or acquit’. As Christians enter Lent therefore, what we might call ‘Absolution Tuesday’ is a reminder that right from day one (Ash Wednesday) we carry the love of God and his desire to free us from guilt and sin through Lent. Though historically Lent is a period of penitential reflection, it is underpinned by God’s promise of forgiveness and liberation from guilt and shame. We should not emerge from Lent feeling beat up and spiritually morose, but instead, more aware of our frailty, and more aware of God’s deep affection for us, and his power to forgive. Indeed Lent should help us to bring our true selves closer to God, and be more attentive to him.
Back to the pancakes!....Perhaps a lesser known fact is that in Christianity, pancakes have a spiritual and symbolic meaning, referred to as ’the four pillars of the Christian faith’: eggs for creation, flour as the mainstay of the human diet, salt for wholesomeness and milk for purity. So as you tuck into your pancakes, be reminded that God is your creator, and wants to bring about a new creation in you; he provides everything you need for this life (and the next), he seeks to bring you wholeness and a deep sense of well-being, and he wants to purify you from all unrighteousness. So, filled with spiritually symbolic pancakes, followed by a bit of discipline and sacrifice through Lent, may we all grow closer to God, and be open to what he wants to say to us and be ready to receive the gifts he wants to give us, mindful that he has also acquitted us too!