Sunday, February 10, 2008

Chocolate ... or not? Janet Partington on the First Sunday in Lent

Part 1 – Chocolate

As the season of Lent, which started last week, approached, I found myself thinking about chocolate. With the shops crammed with a huge array of pink and red boxes ready for Valentine's Day, and many already sporting eggs, bunnies and ducklings on the shelves announcing, rather prematurely, the arrival of Easter, it occurred to me that any resolutions to avoid the stuff over the next 6 weeks would be severely tested.

But a number of conversations at work had convinced me that the practice of denial traditionally followed by Christians at this time has become a well-established ritual for many people who would deny any connection with organised religion. For these people, denying themselves pleasures in life for the few weeks leading up to Easter seems to have become a discipline on a par with New Year's resolutions. Sadly, for many the results seem to be all too similar – fervently made promises, followed quickly by lapses and promises to do better next year.

It is all too easy to look at the people who do this with the eyes of superiority – all too easy to see their promises as shallow, their motives superficial and self-serving, their self-control weak – but how many of us can honestly say that we have never been all of these things ourselves at some time or another? I know I can't.

And that got me to thinking about the meaning of chocolate, and whether sometimes, what it represents in the season of Lent is something different from what we are led to believe.

I'd like to share with you an extract from a favourite film of mine. I'm sure many of you know it: it's called “Chocolat”, and is an adaptation of the book of the same name by Joanne Harris.

For those of you who aren't familiar with the story, or have forgotten, “Chocolat” is set in a small French village in 1959, at the beginning of Lent. The village is very orderly and everyone knows exactly how to behave and what's expected of them. Everyone goes to the village church.

At the head of the village is the Count, whose family have run the village for centuries. He sees it as his duty to set the villagers a good example, and to maintain order by telling them how things should be. His whole life is dedicated to the wellbeing of the village.

Into this orderly and tranquil setting one day comes Vianne, a traveller, and her daughter Anouk. Vianne's presence immediately causes a stir – she's an unmarried mother, she doesn't go to church, and worst of all, she opens a chocolaterie in Lent.

The villagers are tempted. In spite of the Count's warnings of the dangers of eating chocolate in Lent, and the sinful thoughts it will lead to, one by one, they find themselves drawn to the new shop. The Count alone remains firm.

SHOW FILM CLIP from Chocolat

Part 2 - .... or not?

In the film clip we saw how how the different viewpoints began to divide the villagers into those who believed in doing things 'properly' and 'by the book', and those who found following 'the rules' starved them of something important. In spite of the establishment's attempts, more and more villagers find themselves curiously free through their association with Vianne and her chocolaterie. People begin to fulfil their potential, barriers come down, old feuds are healed.Eventually, the Count, who alone has remained untainted, in a fit of despair prays “I feel so lost. Tell me what to do.”

The answer to his prayer is surprising: intent upon destroying the chocolaterie and the evil it represents, he succumbs to temptation and tastes the chocolate.

Is there a 'right' way to behave during Lent?

Should we deny ourselves chocolate, or cakes, or alcohol, and demonstrate the fruit St Paul spoke of, Self-Control?

Or does such denial simply make us feel good about ourselves – our self-discipline, our reducing waistlines, the admiration of others?

What if we were to deny ourselves the luxury of disliking some of our neighbours, or colleagues, or family members?

Could we perhaps take up the challenge of going out of our way to be kind to the people we find difficult?

Should we follow the traditional teaching we receive to the letter?

Or is it right to question, to think for ourselves with the minds God gave us?

Is doubt a sin, a denial of faith?

Or is doubt part of faith itself?

Are we sinning any less by not doing something good than by doing something bad?

At the end of “Chocolat”, the priest sums up what the villagers have learned like this:

“Here's what I think. I think we can't go round measuring our goodness by what we don't do, by what we deny ourselves and who we exclude. I think we've got to measure goodness by what we embrace, what we create and who we include.”

So what does it mean for you?

Chocolate .... or not?

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