The pilgrim people called Christians have just entered into their holiest season, that of Lent & Easter. Ash Wednesday is traditionally when Lent begins, but the preparation for Lent occurs the day before, on Shrove Tuesday or pancake day, or carnival. This is the day when all the rich foods in the larder are consumed in a frenzied feast of gluttony before the fast begins.
I made pancakes for my family, only to have just one at the very end – not much of a feast for the cook! Shrove Tuesday is so-called because it is derived from the old English verb to shrive which means to confess. It was tradition that those who wanted to enter into a holy Lent needed to confess their sins and receive absolution from the Church, the worldly agent of God’s love and forgiveness. Confession was absolutely critical in order to sustain moral standards and provide common endeavours. Lent exposed the impact of sin upon the individual and the community.
For us today, this talk of sin and all of the customs and traditions associated with it including confession and absolution, might appear to be quite perplexing and confusing. Although it is fascinating to delve into the past and understand how people, the church and society worked, it might well appear less than relevant today.
Yet how many times have we battled in recent years over divisive moral and ethical issues over vast areas of human life such as abortion, climate change, knife control, Brexit, housing and social care. It seems to me that we are still in need of some sort of mechanism which enables us to say sorry for past mistakes and an opportunity to re-write the script, to make life better not only for ourselves but for others too. Lent is designed to do just that. We are even given tools to help our progress. One of these tools that we will be using at St Michael’s in Summertown is the labyrinth.
Labyrinths have been used to exercise a form of holiness on these islands even before Christianity washed up here. Labyrinths are structures which the pilgrim people use to pray, to wonder, to contemplate. Ultimately the pilgrim is looking to walk with God. They might look like a maze but they are quite different. Mazes are designed to help you get lost! I remember taking my children to Blenheim Palace when they were quite small. They were desperate to run around in the maze. They wanted to see if they could get out on their own. Rather anxiously, I waited outside while they scrambled around into dead ends, retracing their route until finally they made it out! They would go back time after time trying to record a quicker exit, no doubt flinging people out of their path.
Labyrinths are different. The pathway is designed to promote stillness and calm. You cannot get lost in a labyrinth, there is no right or wrong way, it only has one path and that path leads to the centre. You can bring anything with you on this pilgrimage – your hopes, fears, questions, hurts, thanksgivings. It is a good exercise to do in Lent because it helps to open the mind and enlarge the heart. Its path is full of purpose and meaning as the pilgrim begins to become aware of their own journey.
We are going to walk the labyrinth at St Michael’s at our 10am All Age service this Sunday. The children as well as adults will be invited to share this Lenten experience of walking closely with God. We are also inviting anyone who wants to discover more about labyrinths to join us at anytime next Saturday (7th March). The doors will be open from 10.30am. I hope that people do come and experience this ancient pathway. It might help us all realise that we can benefit from ancient traditions and customs.
My reflection upon walking the labyrinth was that God is not interested in our sin (and for sin I mean the things we do which hurt us as well as others). God is far more invested in our fulfilment, especially our collective fulfilment as a much-cherished created order. God takes our confession and provides us with his forgiveness and peace. So come, bring a friend, take your time and experience the grace and beauty of this pilgrim pathway.
8am Holy Eucharist; 10am Parish Eucharist; 6.30pm Taizé Prayer. Find out more about what’s going on and press this link: https://www.stmichaels-summertown.org.uk