My father, who came over from Australia to stay with me for Christmas and much of January, found the dark evenings very disorientating. He had come from the brightness of a subtropical summer, arriving in England close to the shortest day of the year. It took most of his stay to get himself orientated to the time of day. He was never convinced when I told him that the days were lengthening – to him they were alike – grey days with VERY long nights.
But we, who live here, are very aware of the increase of day light. It might only change by minutes each day but we are conscious that there is more daytime very quickly. Light comes into our world and we look forwards, knowing that spring is on its way. Then the first snow drops appear, followed by aconites, and we are confident that there will be an end to winter – even if we know we still have bad weather to endure. Increasing daylight and the first flowers do not bring a promise of lovely weather, what they give is hope that the bitterness of winter will not last forever.
The cycle of the Christian year also brings us immense hope. We know that there are very dark periods in our lives that we have to endure. Lent is part of the winter season for the church. It is the time when we, through acts of self denial and discipline, draw closer to the pain both of Christ, as he turned his face towards Jerusalem and death, and the world. We touch on the darkness of grief and the loss that so many people have to face. But we do so with the hope and promise of Easter and resurrection. As we look around at the appalling acts of terrorism and violence that are committed in our world, the suffering of vulnerable people in many places, we grieve with God and feel the chill of winter. But the Easter story and the Christian year tells us that there is hope. We believe that we have a God of love who will not leave us in winter forever but will bring his light and joy into the dark places of the world. We have a God whose power raised Jesus from the dead. He will bring healing to the broken world and joy where there is now pain. We don’t know how it will happen, or when, but we know that he will. Just as seeing the increasing daylight tells us that one day it will be summer again, so does the season of Lent. We know that it will come to an end and we will be met by the risen Christ on Easter morning. So our Christian hope is that one day God will make all things new. As Julian of Norwich said, ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.’
Do not lose hope. As Christmas gives way to Lent and Lent to Easter, God is promising us that pain and darkness will give way to joy and redemption. Just keep trusting.
I am suffering – suffering badly – although by the time this is in print the memory of the pain I’m in will have faded completely. You see, I have spent an hour or so in the church yard this morning helping to maintain the grave yard. Today that has entailed clearing away brambles and nettles, and in the way of these ubiquitous and mean spirited plants, I have been prickled and stung in all manner of places. Why is it that although I wear long sleeves, thick trousers and gardening gloves the stinging plants always find the exposed bits of flesh and use their prickles and stings to great effect?
Forgive me, I am both exaggerating and whinging.
Our churchyard is an open churchyard which, of course, means that residents of our community can be buried in it. It also means that the responsibility of maintaining it falls on the church community and isn’t undertaken by the parish council. So I need lots of volunteers to help with mowing and clearing. I need families who have loved ones buried in the churchyard to take responsibility for maintaining and caring for graves. And sometimes I need to get in and help with the clean up process too.
Back to the brambles. There were times this morning that I had brambles trailing around my ankles and attaching themselves to my arms. At one point they were even attached to my face. I felt confined by their vicious thorns. It felt, at times, overwhelming and even frightening. But they also made me reflect on other things in life that entangle us and restrict us in unpleasant ways.
Low self image can be as painful and restricting as any hedge of wild brambles. The desire for things that others have and that we don’t possess – covetousness – can be even more damaging. Anger, selfishness, greed, possessiveness, unforgiveness can all be thorns that dig into the flesh and stop us from growing and moving in freedom.
In the wonderful letter to the Hebrews, whose author we don’t know but whose words have resonated through the centuries, we read ‘let us throw off everything that hinders us and the sin that entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race that is marked out before us…’ Chapter 12:1
Sin does entangle us, just as easily as the brambles entangled me today, and the result is far more painful.
With the brambles all I needed to do was use my secateurs judiciously and I was free. When I was really stuck then someone came to my rescue and gently freed me from the thorns. Getting free from the hindering, entangling power of sin isn’t so easy. Sin is pervasive and has a profound grip on our lives before we are aware of what is happening. The brambles made me sore for a few hours, nothing more. Sin can destroy our lives, the lives of others and ultimately lead us to death.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that we need to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.’ Jesus gives us the courage and strength to shake off the entangling sin and to put aside all that hinders us. He saw us all struggling with the destructive tendencies and emotions of sin. He saw the lethal damage that they were doing to us and he reached through with his love and cut us free. His cross is the secateurs that will free us and allow us to be the people we are meant to be. All we have to do is ask for his help.