Archdeacon Julian’s Pastoral Letter - February 2019
During the vacancy for bishop of Stafford, archdeacons write:
Lent is a time for self-examination. The absence of flowers in church, the more sombre tone of hymns and liturgy, changes in the colour of vestments and altar frontals, our commitments to pray, fast and read the bible more diligently, all serve to create a space for thoughtful consideration of what our faith is calling forth from us in these present times. In what ways are we seeking to share the good news more deliberately, to join hands with others and roll up our sleeves for the good of our communities and to be good neighbours in order that as a nation we may discover a deeper mutuality and common cause?
This year on the First Sunday of Lent the set gospel reading is the story of the testing in the wilderness in Matthew chapter 4 verses1-11. Reading it, I am struck by the fact that the passage opens and closes with two strong pointers that we might want to take as ‘bookends’ to frame our Lenten journeying. The first is the role of the Holy Spirit and the second is the ministry of angels.
In verse 1 Matthew writes that Jesus was “led up by the Spirit” into the wilderness, that is, ‘up’ into the Judean hills. The suggestion is that his wilderness encounter is not only to be testing and demanding but ‘a time of the Spirit’. What we witness is the Spirit empowering Jesus to deepen and refine his sense of calling and mission just at the point where he faces very sharp challenges from the wiles of the devil. In the same way, as we seek to turn aside from the pressures of day to day life and the challenges we may face, through the grace and comfort of the Holy Spirit we can discover a space to think and ponder and wait upon God with renewed expectation and delight. Our Lenten reflections and activities are thus a time when the insight, encouragement, empowerment and comfort of the Spirit can touch us and refresh us deeply. It is a time when ‘the still small voice’ can speak to us – remembering that when God spoke to Elijah in this way (1 Kings 19 v.12), it was at a time for him of great vulnerability and deep discouragement. The Spirit overshadows us not only when we have the wind in our sails, but when life is at its most problematic. Paul encouraged the Christian community in Rome when he wrote that ‘the Spirit intercedes (for the saints) with sighs too deep for words’ (Romans 8 v.26). This is nowhere more so than in this time of seeking a closer walk with Christ in the wilderness, stress and distress of our lives.
On Ash Wednesday we are invited into the ‘keeping of a holy Lent’ and Lent is indeed given as a time for ‘holiness’, thus for the making-whole of relationships, situations, our communities and nation and our own selves before God. This emphasis comes out in the closing words of the passage, for when the devil left Jesus, ‘angels came and ministered unto him’. The angels signify the wholeness or making-whole-ness of the wilderness journey. They remind us that something holy and whole-making is being undertaken and it will be blessed and honoured. My own instinct is that the angels were always there, ministering to our Lord – which is the strong impression gained in Mark’s account of the testing. The fact that Matthew marks their impact as being at the end, may indicate that only at the end of the testing does their presence becomes apparent. It is often only when we look back that we see how we have been upheld. Either way, that angels ministered to Jesus as he was being prepared for what was to come, points us to the fact that our own preparations for the joy of Eastertide are likewise times when God’s messengers and messages are pressing to wing their way into our hearts and lives. Ours is only that we should open our hearts! Lent is a time to receive the ministry of angels – some of whom may be nearer to us than we might suppose or have noticed.
I hope and pray that this season of Lent may indeed be a time for you and your communities of deepening wholeness through the power and refreshment of the Spirit and because of the ministry of angels.
Ven Julian Francis
Archdeacon of Walsall