Crisps and sackcloth

Presumably Theresa May, our Prime Minister, eats lots of crisps, perhaps as she considers Article 50, her finger hovering gently over the button.  Presumably crisps are the Achilles heel of what appears a well ordered, neat life because we were told last week that the Prime Minister is giving up crisps for Lent.  I was delighted to hear it.  Not that I have anything against crisp eaters (for my American followers I’m talking about chips!). In fact, I love a bag of crisps.  I was fortunate enough growing up in Leicester to be able to go to the Walkers pork shops in the city.  They sold wonderful pork pies but they also sold crisps, Walkers crisps.  Their pork pies haven’t gone global but the crisps have.  Gary Lineker’s family fruit and veg stall was just a short distance in Leicester Market from Walkers’ premier shop.  The queues used to be round the block before Christmas as we queued for a big, family sized pie and presumably some crisps.  So it’s always been good seeing local boy Gary promoting crisp eating as a national pastime!


Queuing for pork pies and maybe crisps in Leicester


Giving up things for Lent is of course an important part of the whole discipline of the season.  Yes, like many priests, I’ve preached about how its important to take things on, have a positive Lent and not see it simply in negative terms. ‘Read the Bible … go walking … help at a project.’ All those things are good but let’s be honest, giving up something we enjoy isn’t easy and maybe there’s some virtue in doing something that does challenge our tendency, my tendency, to self indulgence.  We can only imagine the pain Mrs May is going through as she opens the door to her well-stocked crisp cupboard knowing she can feast her eyes and not her appetite for those greasy slices of deep fried, heavily flavoured potato.

One solution is of course for her to cover the crisp cupboard door in sackcloth.  After all, that’s precisely what we do in church.  The vergers at Southwark Cathedral spent Calop Monday and Shrove Tuesday taking down the altar frontals and hangings and replacing them with ‘Lent array’.  Ours was designed by Sir Ninian Comper, sackcloth on which have been stencilled various symbols, crosses, chi-rho, fleur-de-lis, that kind of thing.  They cover up the more splendid decorations, give a fast to the eyes before Easter comes as the feast for the whole person.  As Passiontide begins on the Fifth Sunday of Lent the statues and the icons will also be covered, obscuring all that is decorative so that our focus is elsewhere.


The Lady Chapel at Southwark Cathedral dressed for Lent


I had an object lesson the other day as to why its important for clergy to wear a clerical collar (a dog collar) in the street.  I was meeting a friend outside one of the many branches of ‘Pret a Manger’ round the Cathedral.  There was a young guy standing there as well, dressed for the office.  ‘Hello Father’ he said, ‘Have you given anything up for Lent?’ ‘I have’ I replied ‘bread and coffee, which makes me wonder why I’m going to this sandwich and coffee place for lunch!’.  He laughed.  ‘What have you given up?’ I asked. ‘Chocolate’ he replied ‘I eat far too much of it.  But Lent’s longer than forty days and forty nights isn’t it?’  A conversation followed about the season.  I didn’t ask him about church – I’m not a very good evangelist, but the conversation was about an outworking of faith and it reminded me how important Lent remains and how the crisp news story might have reminded people of that.

But a good Lent involves both crisps and sackcloth, the discipline and the repentance that in fact that Lent array represents in a visual way.  A good Lent does involve doing good for the poor and the marginalised, the refugee, the oppressed.  A good Lent does involve treading a hard path and occupying something of the wilderness space.  Crisps and sackcloth are only the beginning.

Robert Herrick, a 17th century English poet, reminds us of the truth of all of this in his poem ‘To keep a true Lent’

IS this a fast, to keep
The larder lean ?
And clean
From fat of veals and sheep ?

Is it to quit the dish
Of flesh, yet still
To fill
The platter high with fish ?

Is it to fast an hour,
Or ragg’d to go,
Or show
A downcast look and sour ?

No; ‘tis a fast to dole
Thy sheaf of wheat,
And meat,
Unto the hungry soul.

It is to fast from strife,
From old debate
And hate;
To circumcise thy life.

To show a heart grief-rent;
To starve thy sin,
Not bin;
And that’s to keep thy Lent.

Those words ‘to fast from strife, from old debate and hate’ are the real challenge.  As the debates rage about the implications for our neighbours, colleagues and friends of Brexit, as we seek the restoration of the Dubs amendment so that lone refugee children can be brought to a place of safety, giving up crisps, giving up anything pales into insignificance. For God wants us to keep the true fast, the good Lent and the challenge comes to us from the prophet Isaiah.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly. (Isaiah 58.6-8a)

as I enter the wilderness
and walk with you the path to Calvary
may I keep a true fast
and a good Lent
that lets the oppressed
go free.

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