It is interesting to find that while our festival of All Saints rejoices in the gathering of those who have died in the faith, and is a festival of and for the church as a whole, our observation of All Souls is far more personal and reflective as we remember those who were close to us, whether as family or as friends, and who have died in their faith.
But in the same way, our observation of Advent is a time of preparation as we think of the coming again of Jesus Christ, this time in glory. This is a time for the church as a whole to reflect on the meaning of the Kingdom of God, and to look with expectancy on how the coming of Jesus will draw it to its fulfilment and completion.
Yet Lent is a much more personal observance. It is a time for personal reflection on the nature and quality of our lives as we try to measure them against the glory of God. It is a time for reflecting on our priorities, our preoccupations, our relationships – and indeed on those areas where we know that we fall short of the glory of the Kingdom. These are days when we may reflect on our own sense of Christian discipleship – and how we are to allow it to affect all that we are and do. It will penetrate our inward-most thoughts and test them against the person and the life of Jesus Christ.
This may all look rather sombre but there is another way of looking at it, for we are not called to condemnation but to repentance and renewal, and it is towards the joy and glory of God in Jesus that we should be directing our thoughts and efforts. This is a far cry from the modern need to condemn others who are not of our outlook and social circle. We have no need to look for opportunities to be offended, and to be defined by our own sense of grievance can only undermine what we are and more importantly, what we are to become.
To love is not to be offended by the other but rather to seek to understand what is driving that other person. The one who most persistently goads and criticises us is the one who has already established their need for our prayers. Indeed, love has nothing to do with self – it is always about the other and it is therefore not going to be driven by sentiment or emotion. Rather, it will see the need of the other and strive to meet it, so far as this is possible. And yes, it starts with those who are closest to us: family, colleagues, those we encounter in the street and the shops. It has to start there, with those we can see, before taking up the causes of those far away and on different continents.
There will be times when we think that we are overcome – by circumstances, by needs, by emotions and indeed by self-rejection. If these were simple matters they would be remedied speedily, but for many they are not. On the other hand, even these probe us and test us, and do so in ways that we may find deeply challenging. Yet even here we are not separated from the love of God in Jesus Christ – and we remain free to draw close to Him, even in the simplest of prayers. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner” is a good place to start.