Lent. A small enough word but big enough to make people rush around busily giving
up things and make others roll their eyes at all this exterior religion. And it has all
happened rather quickly this year hasn’t it? One minute we’re in the Temple hearing
the praise and prophecies of Simeon and Anna over the baby Jesus, the next minute
here we are in the wilderness, confronting temptations and starting the (long –
especially if you’ve given up chocolate or alcohol) journey to the cross, the tomb and
the death-defeating, life-affirming joy of Easter day.
The proximity of Lent to Candlemas this year reminded me more than ever that the
baby whose birth we celebrate is the man who goes to the cross for us, the man who
defeats death and sin and the man now raised by God’s power, seated in heaven
interceding for us. It reminded me that the incarnation of God is a fundamental sign
of God’s identification with us and for us. That God loves us both at Christmas and
at Easter and throughout the year, time and all eternity.
I was particularly reminded of this by the collect for Ash Wednesday which begins,
“Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing which you have made.” This is
itself an allusion to Wisdom 11:24, “For you love all things that exist, and detest not
one of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you
had hated it.” Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk, wrote, “How good are these words
of Wisdom in a time when on all sides the Lord is thought by men to be a God who
hates.” I read and re-read those words with tears in my eyes, God does not hate
me; sometimes it is easier to assent to that intellectually than emotionally.
Alongside this I’ve been reading Henri Nouwen’s The Return of the Prodigal Son, a
series of reflections based on Rembrandt’s painting. There are some great truths
about homecoming and being welcome into the Father’s house as the child who has
gone away and come back; about being accepted for who and what you are; about
the Father rejoicing over you. It’s great stuff. And then you come to see the elder
son in the story, the one who doesn’t want to participate in the party, who carries
resentment that the Father should love one such as this, jealousy that despite all
their good work and faithfulness they haven’t been shown this appreciation.
And so for the honest bit here, I quite enjoyed reading the prodigal son as the LGBTI
community who God receives into the household of faith and celebrates our
presence, and the elder son as everyone who thinks we don’t belong here. I rejoiced
that God does not hate us, that God puts on the best party for us (no stereotypes
obviously), that God comes out to meet us to bring us home. And in all the
excitement and, if I’m honest, triumphalism I quite overlooked that the Father also
goes out to the elder son and invites him in to the same party. And in the moment I
realised that, I also realised how quickly I can move from prodigal to elder son, from
celebrated, welcome child to resentful and jealous child.
And not just in the area of my sexuality but in every other factor of my life, how easy
it is to resent those who have the ‘wrong’ view of salvation, of who God is, of what
the church is. How can they be blessed and welcome? Because the same God who
doesn’t hate me doesn’t hate them.
Saint Paul reminds us that “if God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). And
yet how often do I define myself more as who I’m against or who is against me? I’m
sure there are a myriad of things that God is against, that he does hate: injustice,
oppression, inequality, hate itself to name a few, all of which mar the image of God in
the other. And I’m equally convinced that God calls us to stand against those and
against some of the other things that he hates but we’re less enthusiastic to tackle:
greed, self-promotion, materialism amongst them.
Which leaves me in a strange place in Lent. Although I am abstaining and fasting
from some things it isn’t those that are defining my Lent. Rather it is the question of
not what have I given up, what am I for but who am I for? If God hates nothing and
no one that he has created, how do I respond to that in a way that affirms that that
equally holds true for me? And if I am at times the elder son, how do I accept the
invitation to come to the party with the person I don’t think deserves to be there?
Who am I for?