How to Spend It: Sexagesima

You may by now have taken part in annual rituals signaling a change of season, such as complaining how early the hot cross buns appeared in Sainsbury's, and you will have seen signs of change in nature, “lilies of the field” appearing hopefully, crocuses and now daffodils - but even if not, the pew leaflet today is clear enough, it’s almost Lent. These are among the reminders that you don’t want to wake up with a pancake hangover on Ash Wednesday wondering what to do - what to give up, to add on, or as it may be.

The Gospel today offers a sort of paradoxical challenge - don't worry, Jesus says, about what you will eat or drink or wear - but our problem is that anxiety about these things is our normality, too deeply embedded to require self-consciousness, too normal to feel always like anxiety. We actually do need to stop and, if not worry, then at least think about what we eat and wear in order to glimpse that freedom that is part of striving for the reign of God.

Jesus says "Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” Yet the Financial Times for this weekend offers the edifying supplement called “How to Spend it” - depicting that anxiety on every glossy page, drawing a veil of pretended ease over a culture hell-bent on appropriation while more and more struggle just to survive, and creation itself groans under our clumsy steps.

So, what will you do for Lent?

Why, some may ask, not go past the prosaic traditions of giving something material up, and fast from immaterial things like bad thoughts and words - even Pope Francis has said something similar. There are a few reasons, but here’s one: it’s easier to stop having a glass of wine than to stop being a flawed person. Trying to be good may be a worthy aim, but it’s often desperately hard to get a handle on. Lenten discipline is not meant to be the transformation of ourselves from bad to good in 40 days, which would certainly be cause for anxiety; rather it's meant to be a way of reminding ourselves of our need to do so, and of our hope that God is doing so bit by bit.

Looking around, even secular culture has some intuitive appreciation for renunciation and for adjusting consumption - as the recent "Veganuary" reminds us, along with every fitness regime or diet fad. Fasting and abstinence are not just religious pursuits; across traditions and cultures, they hold up a mirror to our habits and supposed needs, reminding us that our bodies really are the means by which we shape and show ourselves, whether by abstinence or by working out “how to spend it."

So the purpose of a Lenten discipline is not necessarily to make us more holy or "spiritual." Remember I said that, when after two weeks without coffee in mid-March you are being thoroughly annoying to all those near and dear to you. The nagging reality of embodiment will poke its way through our good intentions and make its own point; that may not make you a better person, but it will put a mirror to your habits, force the question of “your life” into view. The question is the same one Jesus implies in the Gospel, that of embodied existence - what are you going to do about living in this beautiful, fragile, imperfect, powerful body?

Our embodiment plainly frightens us at times, and well it might; our bodies are as fearful as lovely, to ourselves and others; our bodies and those of others are the means we hurt and heal alike. But we will not fulfill Jesus' challenge by avoiding the question. And we also cannot do it alone, because our embodied choices - what to eat, and what to wear - are choices about relationships as well. Our food and clothing is grown and made, the wealth we are anxious about represents the needs of all. “How to spend it” is the right question; but there are lots of bad answers.

A few weeks ago the Bishops of the Church of England issued a statement about bodies, in fact about civil partnerships, which in its desire to stay on the rails of traditional teaching managed to go off the rails of thoughtful or helpful support for those who are same-sex attracted in particular.[1] But the failures of the Church historically have been more deep-seated. We do need norms and even rules to express the opportunities and dangers of our embodied existence; but the challenge of life in faith is more than rule-keeping.

The relationships we have been given - of varying kinds, indeed - are all opportunities or challenges to live into the reality of embodied loving encounter - and while there are ways we can harm one another by irresponsible embodied action, the Gospel question is not first “why must I not do” but “what must I do?" How am I called to existence in my own body relative to those of others - our intimates, and family, but also our neighbors, those sleeping rough - and also those living on islands disappearing under rising seas, or like my own being consumed by fires.

For the wider world is part of this challenge to embodiment. Perhaps one of the dangers of traditional approaches to fasting and abstinence is that in religious settings, not just in the FT, it can be narcissistic, or at least self-focussed to a fault.

As we heard in the Letter to the Romans however, St Paul draws an extraordinary picture of the world itself as an animated body: it waits “with eager longing,” “groaning in the pangs of childbirth.” And he offers this as something organic, relative to our own bodies: “we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait.. the redemption of our bodies.” Paul understands remarkably well, from two thousand years ago, our participation in the creation, groaning now also under the weight of a collective anxiety about what to wear and what to eat, without concomitant concern for how we threaten the carefree lilies of the field, birds of the air, and ourselves. Creation’s signs of vulnerability however are, as Paul says, calls to look for the reign of God too.

So the question Jesus asks, and that Lent will ask, is about the formation of our selves through our bodies, but is also about embodied existence in the world, in community and in nature. This is no small matter, but consider starting with small things; you will not change the world this Lent, but you may begin to change yourself, or at least find a place in your embodied life where God’s invitation to change is being made. "How to spend it?" Give something up; something that will make you stop and think about your dependence on others and on the world and its gifts. May we and creation thus find ourselves waiting, not in despair but in hope.

[Sermon for the Second Sunday before Lent/Sexagesima at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, Feb 16 2020]

[1] See the thoughtful response from Judith Maltby and Helen King here.


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