O-week, Lent, and the Gift of Time

[extracted from a Sermon for Commencement Evensong, Feb 28 2010]

There is something painfully awkward about the fact that in our hemisphere Lent, a time of fasting, penitence and self-denial for Christians, tends to coincide with the commencement of the academic year. Sure enough, the first week of Lent this year was also O-week, not a time renowned for restraint or abstinence. However much you have been told about the importance of academics, well-being and proper conduct, I suspect the importance of mortifying the flesh has not been uppermost on your minds!

But O-week has not all been a time of euphoria and self-indulgence. All of you have learned new things, some of them challenging. Some of you are missing friends and family, however welcomed you feel in College. Others may not have felt completely included or absolutely comfortable with everything you have experienced, and are working out how say so. So there is a time of testing here along with the fun, that makes the conjunction of these seasons a bit less bizarre.

Others, however, have faced even harder challenges this past week.

On Wednesday night at a College not far from here, a young man died. Jarrad, a student at Glenn College at La Trobe University and until recently at Gippsland Grammar School, was a friend and schoolmate of people here this evening, some of whom feel his loss keenly. By all accounts Jarrad was bright, outgoing, well liked, and eager to engage with his chosen field of animal science. And his time has come and gone.

Jarrad’s death is a tragedy all the more shocking because of it happening now, when we are celebrating new beginnings; it seems to exacerbate this contradiction of what the present time means.

On a Thursday night many years ago, and much further away, another young man faced death:

He came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. When he reached the place, he said to them, ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’ Then he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’

Jesus was about the age of many resident tutors in our Colleges; not old enough to have fleshed out his CV properly, let along to have fulfilled the career potential of a major religious leader that others foresaw for him.

He realized however that, in his unique circumstances, the most life-affirming and world-changing thing he could do was to offer his life completely and fully to people who would not honour the gift, but abuse it. And we do not judge his achievement or the gift he was to us by the length of his years, but by the character with which he lived, and died.

This is the story at the heart of Lent. Lent certainly focuses on the difficult aspects of human existence—suffering, mortality itself—because it is a time for Christians to enter into the story of that young man facing death. We seek to do so partly because of the significance his death, as well as his life, have for us, as the epitome of a life lived fully for others, and which brings life to us all; but we do so mindful of our death, asking what difference it makes to our life now.

So Lent and O-week do have this much in common at least – that they place before us the challenge and opportunity of just how we want to live this time we are given.

Life is a gift every day. The value of what we will do with the gift does not depend on the amount of time we have spent, but on how we spend whatever time we are given.  So we should live not merely with a view to future opportunities for achievement or fulfilment of ambitions, however worthy; today, now, is the time when we must learn to be who we really are.