The book of Ezra is about the return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to their homeland and the restoration of the temple at Jerusalem as the centre of their faith. The temple is not only restored physically, but temple worship is also restored. The heart of the faith is not just a physical place but the pattern of worship which belongs there.
At the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday, many Christians will attend church for ‘ashing’. A cross will be drawn on their foreheads with ash produced from the burning of palm crosses blessed on Palm Sunday last year. The words that are said will remind us of the cycle of life and death:
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ.
This marks the start of Lent, the season of fasting and penitence Christians undertake to prepare for Holy Week and Easter.
Traditionally we have ‘given things up’ for Lent. Even in this day and age, when organised religion seems to be less and less relevant to most people, there seems to be an instinctive understanding that ‘giving things up’ is a worthwhile discipline. A lot of non-churchgoers I know keep Lent by giving up chocolate, alcohol or other enjoyable but non-essential parts of life.
Interestingly, my Christian friends seem much less sure of themselves about this than the non-Christians! A lot of Christians nowadays opt for ‘taking something up’ for Lent – a good work, or an additional spiritual practice. There’s a clear implication when people do this that ‘giving up’ something isn’t hard enough, we need additional activity as well or even instead of depriving ourselves.
Of those Christians who do ‘give up’ something for Lent, quite a number seem to decide social networking is a worthwhile thing to go without. Quite a few Christians I know ‘sign off’ Twitter and Facebook on Shrove Tuesday, saying they will be back at Easter.
This calls into question how we see social networking – is it a habit, a luxury or a necessity? To me, social networking is about relationships, and ‘giving up’ for few weeks would mean would mean withdrawing myself from those relationships for a period of weeks. Perhaps the intention is to mirror Jesus’ journey alone into the desert. But when my online Christian friends tell me that they are giving up, in effect, their relationship with me for Lent, it can give me the unintentional message that I am not an intrinsic part of the fabric of their lives but something they see – like chocolate or alcohol – as a recreation from the real business of living.
Is what we do online a ‘virtual’ life that can be turned on and off as we turn our devices on and off? Are our online friendships merely ‘virtual’ friendships, shadows of real friendships, which can be given up and taken back up without damage? Or is it real life, real friendship, real commitment, which just happens to be communicated through a new medium?
If we ‘give up’ social networking for Lent, are we exiling ourselves from part of our faith community – or abstaining from something which distracts us from our ‘real’ lives?
Are we ‘giving up’ our social networks for Lent – or opting out?