Assistant Curate, Mariama Ifode-Blease, reflects on Lent and the choices this season of reflection and contemplation offers.
I write this as we listen and hear that war has arrived in Europe once more. This is something that my generation has not known, but we have, of course, studied. This week I have been immersed in a range of emotions, seeing civilians die, and woman and children leave male members of their family behind. One group running away from war and the other running towards it, to fight for what they feel is worth defending.
As a student of the Spanish Civil War, I am incredibly conscious of the fact that armed conflict can be easy to romanticise. We can so comfortably fall into binary categorisations of hero and villain, good and evil, aggressor and victim. Yet, as wars progress, things become much messier and unpredictable, and judgements less black and white. Of course, war is complicated, of course war is messy. But are there some truths we can still hold on to, and some common beliefs that can unite us. My sincere hope that as you read this you will answer, yes. Yes, to these truths of safeguarding human rights, protecting human dignity, working towards peace and safety, and yes to the rule of law.
I cried when I first saw Picasso’s Guernica at the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. I was in my twenties and visited the museum alone though had friends in the city. I don’t know why I cried, but I did. I think it was something about the size and intensity of the piece. I didn’t expect it to be so large. And then there was something about how the accounts I had read of the bombing of Guernica somehow became alive before me, right there and then. For me, each square inch told a story about choices, about the decisions we make when we are at peace and the decisions we are forced to make when we are at war. I stood there transfixed by the humanity of it all. I was overwhelmed by the narrative of suffering and loss.
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent. It is the start of a journey that could so easily overwhelm us. This is the part of the Christian faith that is hardest to understand: the pain, the torment, the anguish and the dying. We receive a cross on our foreheads to remind us that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. We are humbled in the face of all that we do wrong, get wrong, and we are asked to look again at the God who is love and who seeks to transform it all. God looks at us with the sort of loving gaze that makes us squirm because sometimes, frankly, it is just too much. It is just too much to stand there and be seen, and it is just too much to be asked to look at ourselves in the mirror honestly, openly and authentically. We look at God and loves looks back us. While a dictator may never change their spots, we certainly can.
I am quite afraid, if I am honest, of how far this will go, of where this new war will end. I spent a lot of my postgraduate studies reading stories of exiles and their relationship with the notion of home. There were stories of families who died at border crossings, and stories of others who made it to safety only to never unpack because they thought that Franco, leader of the insurrection that began the Spanish Civil War, would soon fall. He didn’t. The Spanish Civil War begin in 1936 and ended in 1939. Franco died in 1975, with the intervening years plunging Spain into one of the longest dictatorships in recent European history.
As we enter Lent, there has to be a reckoning with truth and a call to courage. The truth about our choices and their consequences, be this at a personal, national or international level. The courage to stand for justice and truth, even when it is not about us or for us, because that is where God is, and that is the journey we are on as a people of God. Life gives us the opportunity to develop and find our voice not only for ourselves, but for others. And Lent gives us the focus to try out our voice, like Jesus did in the wilderness, to speak the truth, to speak towards a greater belief of what is possible, to stand for something beyond ourselves, with others, knowing that their humanity is inextricably linked to ours.