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‘Giving It Up’: Maggi Dawn

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The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes

Marcel Proust

Of all the traditions associated with Lent, probably the best-known is the practice of giving something up for the six and a half weeks from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday…but why do we give things up? Where did the tradition begin, and what is it supposed to achieve?

There’s clear evidence that for at least 1500 years the Church has kept a period of fasting during the weeks before Easter, and it’s thought that it may date even further back to the very early Church. The word ‘Lent’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word Lencten, from which we get out word ‘lengthen’ and it referred simply to the fact that the weeks leading up to Easter were the early spring days that were lengthening after the winter solstice. The oldest traditions of Lent are interwoven with the idea of spring. Greek Orthodox communities treat the first day of Lent as a celebration of the first outdoor day of the new year: spring is the beginning of new life after the death that came with winter, and so we should go outside to greet it.

In medieval Europe, fasting and abstinence were not restricted to Lent. Eating meat was prohibited by the Church at least one day in every week of the year, and Friday continued to be a ‘fish day’ until late into the 20th century as a reminder that it was on Friday that Christ died…the fast has several purposes. It’s supposed to remind us daily that we depend upon God for everything, to draw us closer to God in prayer, to reconnect us to the idea of community, and to help us follow Christ’s journey through the wilderness and on to Jerusalem. It’s all too easy, though, simply to give up some treat or other…and not really engage with the deeper meaning of Lent.

…As we walk through Lent this year, we can explore the idea that there is another kind of ‘giving up’ that we could do. If we’re to draw closer to God, we need to be willing to give up some of our entrenched ideas about God in order to see him more clearly. It’s not so much giving up ‘false gods’; it’s more about identifying false or blurred images of God that have been picked up from the surrounding culture or from our imagination, and allowing them to be replaced. We need to allow the light to be shed on those places where our idea of God is too harsh too weak, too small, too fragile, too stern.

We’ll begin this Lenten journey, then, by looking at the traditions of Lent to gain a clearer picture of what they are for, and what biblical imagery they reflect. Then we’ll see what Jesus said about fasting and what he gave up when he fasted in the wilderness. We’ll look at the way some Old Testament characters traded in their old idea of God for a true encounter, and see how different the real God was from their expectations. Then we’ll see how Jesus turned people’s ideas about God upside down. Finally, in Holy Week we’ll follow some of the events of the last week in Jesus’ life and discover how different he was from the Messiah people were expecting. In the process, we may find that our own preconceived notions of what God ‘ought’ to be like come in for some re-examination.

This Lent, then, whether or not you’re giving up chocolate or anything else, I invite you to take a journey with me through biblical tales of fasts and wildernesses to seek a clearer vision of God. As we travel, let’s pray for grace to be flexible enough in our thinking to allow God to reveal himself to us. As I’ve been writing this book, I’ve been surprised at the way in which my own ideas have been changed all over again. To see God more clearly almost certainly means being surprised at what we discover.

Let’s take the prayer of St Richard of Chichester (1197-1253) as our daily prayer:

Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
For all the benefits thou hast won for me,
For all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me.
O most merciful Redeemer, Friend and Brother,
May I know thee more clearly,
Love thee more dearly,
And follow thee more nearly,
Day by day.

Giving it Up
Daily Bible readings from Ash Wednesday to Easter Day

Maggi Dawn


The idea of ‘giving something up for Lent’ is widely known and discussed today – yet how many know that the ancient discipline of the Lenten fast had several purposes? It was designed as a reminder of our daily dependence on God for all our needs, to draw us closer to God in prayer, to reconnect with the idea of community, and to help us follow Christ’s journey through the wilderness and on to Jerusalem. How many of us simply abstain from some treat or other for a few weeks and fail to engage with this deeper meaning of Lent?

This book shows how Lent can be a time for exploring a different kind of ‘giving up’, one that can transform our lives. If we are to draw closer to God, we have to be willing to give up some of our entrenched ideas about him, in order to see him more clearly. In a series of daily studies, Maggi Dawn shows how, throughout Scripture, people were radically changed by encountering the true God. If we follow their examples, we can allow the Holy Spirit to shed his light on our ideas of God that are too harsh, too small, too fragile, or too stern. Then God will graciously reveal himself to us and bring us to an Easter joy that is richer and more profound than ever before.

Contents include:

Section 1: Giving up (Ash Wednesday to Saturday)
Section 2: Jesus in the wilderness and beyond (First week of Lent)
Section 3: Other wildernesses (Second week of Lent)
Section 4: Changing perceptions (Third week of Lent)
Section 5: Changing communities (Fourth week of Lent)
Section 6: Changing your mind (Fifth week of Lent)
Sections 7: ‘The end of all our exploring’ (Holy Week)
Easter Sunday

“Beginnings And Endings [and what happens in between]”: Maggi Dawn

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Advent marks the beginning of the Church year and a time of preparation for the celebration of the coming of Christ into the world. It marks the beginning of the Christian era in the birth of Christ, and it looks further back to ancient roots in the lives of the patriarchs, in the earliest human stories of Adam and Eve, and into the timeless eternity of our beginnings in God. So there is an obvious connection between Advent and beginnings.

Advent is also about endings, though, because it anticipates the second coming of Christ. In Christian belief, this idea symbolises the end of the present era and the fulfilment of the kingdom of God. It’s a clearly held hope within the Christian faith, yet at the same time, like all future hopes, it is shrouded in mystery because precisely what the hope means in reality is as yet hidden from us. Here, too, the Bible tantalises us with promises that cannot be fully understood.

The biblical accounts of beginnings and endings are incomplete, and don’t give us the crystal clarity of factual evidence that we would sometimes like the Bible to deliver. But this does not indicate that they have no meaning for us. Even science and rational thought, in which we invest so much trust, cannot give us a full account of our beginnings, and the prediction of the end is even more a matter of conjecture and likelihood. The Bible is neither a scientific manual, nor a magical book of fortune-telling. It does not aim to explain science or to predict the future; rather, it give us stories, histories, songs, experience and spiritual meditations to aid us as we make sense of the lives we live and the world we inhabit.

The biblical accounts of beginnings and endings tell us that the Christian faith is a journey that starts somewhere and goes somewhere. It’s a journey that develops through time, rather than simply going round and round in an endlessly repeating cycle. The season of Advent, too, reminds us that we come from somewhere and we are going somewhere, and thinking about beginnings and endings helps us to rediscover meaning and purpose as we live in these times that are ‘in between’.

There have been periods in history when the Christian hope of a second coming and an afterlife has been used to mollify people instead of addressing issues of justice, or even to frighten Christians into submission. It is healthier to understand our faith as an anchor to the present and a way of discovering the possibility of living in freedom and enjoying depth and abundance in our life now. We do not live in the past and neither do we want to hasten our own end.

The opening section of this book deals with ‘beginnings’, looking at how the Gospel writers and the writers of the Genesis accounts reveal their ideas about where our story begins. The following sections touch on each of the themes symbolised by the candles of an Advent wreath—the patriarchs, the prophets, John the Baptist and Mary, the mother of Jesus. Each of these themes marks a stage, a new beginning, in the story of salvation, and each of these looks toward the ending in a fresh way.

In between, we shall pause to consider ‘angels and announcements’. The nativity stories are renowned for the appearance of angels announcing new beginnings. This section connects these up with some older stories about angels and offers  some meditations on how we hear God’s voice and how we respond to the call to new beginnings in our own lives.

The holy family themselves become the focus of our readings in the first week of Christmas. As we look back on their story, we see how it dramatically marks the end of one era and the beginning of another. Yet, as they themselves lived through it, it was as much a time in-between as our  lives  are now. This family has much to teach us about the meeting of heaven and earth, the extraordinary and the ordinary, within everyday life.

Finally we will look at endings in the Bible, although (and I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler!) we shall discover that as the Christian faith is built on the hope of resurrection, endings are always new beginnings.

I invite you to join me in this meditation on Beginnings and Endings this Advent. It has been a real  pleasure to write on a theme that seems to open up new depths every year, and I hope that you will enjoy these meditations as much as I have enjoyed writing them. I wish you a happy Advent.

Yes I know. Tomorrow is the second Sunday before Advent. But I wanted to put this up in plenty of time to allow you to take the first step in accepting  this invitation from the Revd Maggi Dawn, that is to say buying her book. If you think the paper version may not reach you in time, there is also a PDF which you can download. Pam Webster is hosting an online Advent book club to discuss ‘Beginnings and Endings’. Sara Batts, one of my fellow judges at #cnmac13, is joining in, as is the Revd Claire Maxim. And I hope readers of Lay Anglicana will also want to contribute. There is a Facebook page, which Pam has just started. See you there?

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