Ash Wednesday falls on the 1st of March and those who choose to observe Lent, through to its culmination in Holy Week, as a time of preparation for Easter may do so in different ways and for different purposes. For example, people may choose to pray through a daily Lenten calendar, such as the one issued by Christian Aid, give additional money to charity, or read a specially published Lent book. There are two excellent and very different books available for this last purpose.
The first is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Book for Lent 2017. It is entitled Dethroning Mammon: Making money serve grace. Unusually for the books in this series, it has been written by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, Justin Welby. Writing the introduction, Jean Vanier, the founder of L’Arche, writes of Lent as not only a time of preparation but of compassion and liberation and in this light he indicates that this book is about addressing some of the barriers that divide us, here the barriers around poverty. There are six chapters in the book, one for each week of Lent. Each chapter is written around a key New Testament passage. The chapter titles are: What we see we value [the death of Lazarus]; What we measure controls us [Zacchaeus the tax collector]; What we have we hold [Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus]; What we receive we treat as ours [Jesus washes the disciples’ feet]; What we give we gain [the Burial of Jesus]; and What we master brings us joy [the Message to Laodicea and the Fall of Babylon, from the Book of Revelation]. Interspersed throughout each chapter are boxed questions.
The second, and very different book, is the Mowbray Lent Book for 2017, and is by the late David Bryant, a clergyman who wrote the book while looking back on his life having received a terminal diagnosis. The book, called Glimpses of Glory, was published after his death earlier in 2016. His words in the introduction indicate both the tenor and the depths of the book: 'As I look back over the years, various themes have stood out as milestones on my spiritual journey, and I have given them a [sometimes radical] theological slant. Biblical verses have often triggered my thinking. It is not my intention to convert the reader to a specific set of thought-forms, but I hope that it will encourage spiritual exploration and discovery’.
There are 40 short chapters, one for each week-day in Lent. Each chapter has a short title [for example, Names, Ladders, Tragedy, Laughter, Loneliness, Escape, Prayer, Ethics, Fear, Music, Darkness and Light, Resurrection] with a connected Biblical passage referred to at the head of each chapter. The author also draws widely on poetry and literature.
The chapters, individually and collectively, are moving, thought-provoking, challenging, stimulating and full of insight. We should not lose sight of the title of the book which is returned to in chapter 33: ’Part of life’s excitement is the search for the divine. I never tire of it, and time and again I thrill at finding glimpses of His glory’.
There are two publications that I should like to recommend for your observance of Advent.
They serve different purposes.
First, Reflections for Advent is ‘designed to enhance [our] spiritual journey through the season of Advent’ from Advent Sunday to Christmas Eve. [ISBN 978 0 7151 4741 2; Church House Publishing; price £ 2.99; available as a Kindle eBook].
Only the references to the set Scripture readings for each day, excluding Sundays, are provided so you will need a Bible to read them. The references are followed by a short comment or reflection on one of the readings, and by the Collect of the day. At the end of the booklet, you will find a simple form of Common Worship Morning Prayer for Advent and also Compline. The booklet thus serves as a ‘prayer companion’ for Advent.
In the Introductory section there are three very short articles, one, by the Reverend Sam Wells, specifically focused on Advent, the other two being more general. These are on the importance of daily prayer and on one reflective approach to reading the Bible.
At the beginning of Advent, we return to Year A, where the readings are taken primarily from St Matthew’s Gospel. The second book ties in with this: it is entitled Advent for Everyone: A Journey through Matthew and it is written by Tom Wright. [ISBN 978 0 281 07621 5; SPCK; price £ 8.99]. Each week of Advent is dedicated to a major theme of the season: a time to watch, a time to repent, a time to heal and a time to love.
Depending on what day of the week Christmas Day falls, Advent can last from 22 to 28 days. This year Advent lasts 28 days and this gives us full opportunity to prepare for the ‘wonder and joy’ of Christmas.
For those of you who want to do some extra reading
in Lent, here is some information that you may find helpful. The books
mentioned here are very different from each other, but I hope that there is at
least one book here that catches your heart, mind and soul if you want to
observe Lent this way. Two of the books [by Morley and by
James] may give you the idea, not to read but to think your own way
through Lent with the material of your own life’s companions and/or favourite
We begin with the Mowbray Book for Lent 2016. It is written by Canon Patrick Woodhouse and is entitled: Life in the Psalms, contemporary meaning in ancient texts [2015, available in paperback, ePDF and ePub.].
The book begins with three chapters entitled Why the Psalms?, What are the Psalms? and Praying the Psalms. These introductory chapters should ideally be read during the first few days of Lent in preparation for consideration of the featured Psalms. There are 30 of them [counting three chosen sections of Psalm 119 separately] and each one has its own chapter. There is thus a Psalm for each weekday in Lent, beginning with the Monday in the first week of Lent [this year the 15th of February] and ending with Good Friday [the 25th of March].
Each chapter provides the text of the Psalm followed by a reflection, including questions and recommendations. The aim of the reflections is to enable these Psalms to be heard afresh. The themes for each week are in turn: Pilgrimage and Journeying; Prayer; Wonder; the Way of Faith; Hope; and Loss and Suffering. Through these themes the author seeks to engage with the relevance of the chosen Psalms to contemporary issues, such as the environment, the ‘consumer society’, celebrity and the digital era, as well as with their relevance to individual emotions such as grief and anxiety.
To take the chapter on the third week [Wonder] as an illustration: the five Psalms considered are 8 [Infants and stars], 104 [Wonder and protest], 19 [A theatre of glory], 139 [The uttermost parts of the sea] and 103 [Forget not].
The book is an invitation to engage with the chosen Psalms through prayer, reflection and careful reading [or listening] so that they ‘can speak more fully to us to-day’.
There are two other recently published books which may be of value during Lent.
The first is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Book for Lent 2016. It is written by the Reverend Kathryn Greene-McCreight, it is entitled I am with you and it is also available in the three published formats. In it the author takes us into the Biblical theme of God’s presence among us as light in darkness, through a consideration of the seven days of creation. The chapter titles [which work through the monastic hours of prayer, beginning and ending with morning] are : God’s Presence in the Beginning; God’s Presence in Angels of Light; God’s Presence in the Divine Name; God’s presence in the Name of Jesus; God’s questions, our answers; God’s Presence when all is dark; Dawn; and New Creation. Each chapter concludes with questions for further reflection.
Secondly, Rowan Williams has published a book on St Paul called Meeting God in Paul. It consists of three chapters on Outsiders and Insiders: Paul’s social world; The Universal welcome: Paul’s disturbing idea; and The new creation: Paul’s Christian Universe. Each chapter has a series of questions intended for either group discussion or individual response. The book is very accessible as well as profound. At the end of the book there is a Lenten reading guide. For each week-day throughout Lent, the guide provides daily references to Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul’s letters, followed by a Sunday reflection and a prayer.
All the above have been published recently. There are some other excellent Lent books from previous years which should still be easily available [new or second hand] and are well worth reading. I recommended two of these to you last year: see the link to Lent reading 2015. These are the books by Graham James [The Lent Factor: Forty Companions for the Forty Days of Lent] and Janet Morley [The heart’s time: A poem a day for Lent and Easter]. The value and the importance of both these books remain unaffected by the passage of time. Instead of re-reading these books you may think it worthwhile to prepare your own list of 40 Lent companions, those people in the public eye or known to you personally who have influenced your faith journey; or select a handful of poems that you want to revisit during Lent as part of your Lenten observance.
There are two other earlier books you may find of interest. They are very different in style and substance and are equally important books. Andrew Rumsey’s book Strangely warmed: Reflections on God, Life and Bric-a-Brac was the 2010 Mowbray Book for Lent. This is a book written with a delightfully light, indeed wry, touch that takes us into what Tom Wright calls ‘a refreshingly different spirituality’. Rumsey looks at how the ordinary things of life can bring us closer to God. Let a flavour of his chapter titles serve as an invitation; this is one book to read if you want to be challenged to express your faith through the ‘jumble’ of daily living. The 40 chapters include: It’s trad, dad; I’m loathin’ it; the pigeon of peace; disorganised religion; enjoy God responsibly; and sanctimonious drivel.
A Season for the Spirit written by Martin L Smith was Archbishop Runcie’s Book for Lent in 1991. It is now regarded as something of a classic and has been republished over the years, most recently in 2013. This is a very different book from Rumsey’s. It consists of a daily reflection on the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of Christ, followed by a prayer and references to Scripture [and other material] for further meditation. It is deservedly a classic.
Some of you like to undertake appropriate extra reading in Lent. I list here four books and two web links which may be of interest.
(1) Archbishop Desmond Tutu, In God’s Hands. This is the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lent Book for 2015. The chapters of the book are entitled: The Subversiveness of the Bible; We are created for Complementarity, for Togetherness, for Family; The Biased God; You are loved; It’s all of Grace; and In the beginning God, At the end God. The book ends with a chapter entitled: ‘Arch’ in conversation: A Spiritual retrospective. Archbishop Justin Welby in his Foreword writes of the author that he has written a book ‘in which his own, very distinctive voice is heard clearly. We are drawn in to his story through testimony and narrative; we are drawn in to reflection through comment and humour and passionate declamation. This is a book of transparency about its author. We live the life alongside the author; and the voice we hear, even if we might disagree with some of what he says, challenges us to hear the voice of Christ’ (p 4).
(2) Bishop Graham James, The Lent Factor: Forty Companions for the Forty Days of Lent. This is the Mowbray Lent Book for 2015. In this book, the author, the Bishop of Norwich, chooses forty ‘travelling companions’ for Lent, all of whom have played a part in the Bishop’s ‘spiritual formation’. The people are living or dead, well known or unknown. Each person is used to illustrate a passage of Scripture and each chapter ends with a prayer. Some of the known individuals include John Everett Millais, Eva Peron, Charles Wesley, Kathleen Ferrier and Edith Cavell. The author identifies each individual’s ‘X factor’ and, as the blurb says, ‘uses their stories to reflect on the connection between faith and character’.
(3) Janet Morley, The Heart’s Time: A Poem a Day for Lent and Easter. This book was published in 2011 but the author’s choice of poems and also her rich commentary upon them make this book widely recommended. It is a companion book to her subsequent book on poems for Advent and Epiphany: Haphazard by Starlight. The poets represented in The Heart’s Desire include Charles Causley, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, George Herbert, Roger McGough, R. S. Thomas and Rowan Williams. The weeks of Lent and the first week of Easter all have a particular theme: for example, Expressing our longings, Struggle, Being where we are, Altered perspectives and Never turning away again.
(4) In a different tradition from that followed in our three Churches, but one which you may wish to explore in Lent, especially Holy Week, is Timothy Radcliffe’s Stations of the Cross (2015). The book is illustrated by the art of Martin Erspamer OSB. Timothy Radcliffe OP is a very eminent writer and his works include the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Book for Lent in 2009: Why go to Church?
Two other resources for Lent may be preferred or followed in addition to the above. The first web link is to the Christian Aid Lent calendar for 2015 called Count your blessings. The second link is to a paper on Developing Discipleship to be discussed by the Church of England’s General Synod during 2015.
The Christian Aid Lent Calendar, Count your blessings, may be found here:
The paper on Developing Discipleship may be found here: