As the season of Epiphany, the time of gifts, moves towards Lent during the month of February, many people in the UK have suffered severe flooding of their homes and communities.
Across the world, extreme weather conditions are affecting millions - from repeated flooding in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Myanmar, to devastating drought in Ethiopia.
And throughout the Middle East and into Europe, millions of refugees escaping from war and destruction are facing the worst of winter conditions with little shelter and less protection.
What all of these people - many of them children, the very elderly and the sick – have in common is the experience of extreme vulnerability and exposure. It does not take too long for the comfort and security of an apparently stable life to be shaken to its foundations by disaster.
It is a kind of wilderness experience, being driven out of the predictability and normality of daily life, into a fearful alternate reality.
‘It does not take long for an apparently stable life to be shaken to its foundations by disaster.'
Traditionally Lent has been observed in Christian churches as the period from Ash Wednesday through to Palm Sunday, remembering the forty days Jesus spent in the desert after his baptism by John in the River Jordan.
It was a time of solitude, fasting and prayer, in preparation for his ministry in Galilee and beyond. It was also a time of temptation, when the allure of worldly power and spiritual glamour assailed a man weakened by hunger, danger and the interior as well as exterior exposure of the desert.
So, Lent has been considered a time when followers of Jesus also practice a measure of interior withdrawal and reflection, in which to look with some honesty at the wilderness places in our hearts and lives, to remember and name our own temptations and frailties and to hear again the call to conversion.
This is a time to reflect on what it means for us to live within limits. This is a time to reflect on what it means for us to let God be God. This is a time to reflect on what it means for us to refuse to let the end justify the means.
Isaiah 58:1-12, which is always read on Ash Wednesday, cuts directly to the heart of the Lent intention. It is a 'no messing about' wake-up call, and its meaning is crystal clear. In it, Isaiah is saying to the people of Israel:
- Your ostentatious self-flagellation is just self-indulgence. It has nothing to do with the true fast the Lord desires
- Sin is not merely a matter of individual culpability, but of profound systemic and structural injustice, in which you are complicit and by which you profit
- Your own salvation, healing and fullness of life are intimately and ultimately connected with the salvation, healing and fullness of life of people who are poor and dispossessed
Across the distance of nearly three thousand years, this passage speaks to us as powerfully and clearly today as when it was first written. It is a challenge not just to individuals but to nations, to examine the extent to which our actions either embody or deny or fatally undermine our intentions and words.
Our Lenten reflection encourages us to solidarity with Jesus in the seasons and stages of his life, not because we can feel what he felt or be who he is, but because the church has always believed that he reveals the pattern of reality for us.
In the desert Jesus experienced a shaking of the foundations, and yet steadfastly refused the satanic lure of spiritual and material glamour and power, the temptation to live in unreality. When all else fell away, his God-groundedness remained, and he remained undivided. May we remain grounded in God as we journey on with Jesus.
Kathy Galloway, Head of Christian Aid Scotland