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They were 50,000 strong, coming from 26 dioceses in Germany and beyond, filling all of St. Peter’s Square for an encounter with Pope Francis yesterday. Young altar servers, accompanied by some of their bishops, on a pilgrimage to Rome. To their great surprise Pope Francis addressed them in German. In my translation:
“The words from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians that we heard, make us sit up and listen. The time is right, Paul says. God is serious now. What God has always told the people through the prophets He now shows us with a striking example. God explains us that He is a good father. And how does He do so? By the fact that He made His Son man. Through this concrete human being Jesus we can understand what God really means. He wants human beings, who are free but know themselves always to be secure as children of a good father.
To release this, God needs only a man. He needs a woman, a mother, to bring His Son into the world as a human being. That is the Virgin Mary, whom we honour with these Vespers tonight. She was completely free. In her freedom she has said yes. She has done what is good for all time. That is how she has served God and the people. Let’s keep her example in mind when we want to know what God expects from us as His children.”
After the Vespers, four altar servers asked questions to Pope Francis. The first question was about how young people could play a bigger part in the life of the Church, as suggested by the Holy Father in Evangelii Gaudium, and also what the Church expects from altar servers? The second server asked for advice in how to respond to friends who do not understand why anyone would want to be an altar server at the expense of other passtimes. Question three dealt with freedom, and how to experience, understand it in a life which has so many rules.
Pope Francis answered:
I thank you for this encounter on the occasion of your pilgrimage to Rome and I want to give you some food for thought related to the questions that your representatives have asked me.
You have asked me what you can do to contribute more in the Church and what the Christian community expects from you as altar servers. Let’s first remember that the world needs people who attest to others that God loves us and that He is our father. Everyone in society has the obligation to serve the common good by contributing to what is essential: food, clothing, medical care, education, information, the legal system, and so on. As disciples of the Lord we have an additional task, namely to be the “channels”, the lines which pass the love of Jesus on to others. And in this duty you, youth and young adults, have a special role: You are called to tell your contemporaries about Jesus – not just in the parishes or organisations, but especially outside them. That is a task which has been especially entrusted to you, because with your courage, your enthusiasm, your spontaneity and your sociability it is easier to reach the thoughts and hearts of those who have drifted away from the Lord. Many people of your age have an enormous desire for someone who tells them, with their lives, that Jesus knows us, loves us, forgives us, shares our problems and supports us with His mercy.
But in order to speak with others about Jesus, we must known and love Him, experience Him in prayer and in His Word. You have the advantage in that respect, because of your service in the liturgy, which allows you to be near to Jesus, the Word and the Bread of Life. Let me give you some advice: The Gospel reading you hear in the liturgy, read it again for yourselves, in silence, and apply it to your lives. And with the love of Christ, which you have received in Holy Communion, you will be able to put it into practice. The Lord calls each of you today to work in His field. He calls you to be happy players in His Church, willing to share with your friends what He has shared with your, especially His mercy.
I understand your problems of combining your service at the altar with your other activities, which are necessary for your human development and cultural formation. So you must organise a bit, plan things in a balanced way… but you are German, so that should be easy! Our life consists of time, and that time is a gift from God, so it must be used for good and fruitful things. Perhaps many young people waste too many hours with useless things: chatting on the Internet or on your mobile phone, but also with television programs. The products of technological progress, which should simplify life or increase its quality, are sometimes distractions from what is really important. Among the many things which are part of our daily routine, those that remind us of our Creator, who gives us life, who loves us and accompanies us on our journey through life, should have priority.
Because God has created us in His image we have also received from Him this great gift of freedom. But when we don’t use this freedom properly it can move us away from God, can let us lose that dignity which He has given us. That is why guidance, rules and regulations are necessary – both in society and also in the Church – to help us do the will of God and to live in this way according to our dignity as human beings and children of God. When freedom is not influenced by the Gospel it can turn into slavery, the slavery of sin. Adam and Eve, our first parents, moved away from the will of God and so fell into sin, and also into a bad use of freedom. Dear young friends, do not use your freedom wrongly! Do not waste your great dignity as children of God, which has been given to you. When you follow Jesus and His Gospel, your freedom will bloom like a flower and bear good and rich fruits. You will find true joy, since God wants us to be completely happy and fulfilled. Only when we immerse ourselves in the will of God, we can do what is good and be both the light of the world and the salt of the earth!
The Virgin Mary, who understood herself to be the “handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), is your example in the service of God. She, our mother, will help you, young people full of hope and courage, to be workers for good and labourers for peace in the Church and in society.”
Following recent and fairly sudden signs of increasing antisemitism in both the Netherlands and other western countries, the Dutch bishops have issued a statement condemning any hate against Jewish and other people.
“Both in and beyond our Dutch society there is – as a result of the war between Israel and Hamas – an increase in displays of hatred against Jews. The Catholic bishops of the Netherlands, categorically denouncing hatred against Jews, feel obliged to once again strongly condemn all forms of antisemitism.”
This clearly refers to that shining moment in World War II, when the Dutch bishops stood up against the Nazi treatment of the Jewish inhabitants of the Netherlands. This in turn led , among other things, to the death of Blessed Titus Brandsma (whose feast day we marked last Sunday) in Dachau concentration camp. The bishops continue:
“It cannot be that people who (for many centuries) have been an inalienable part of our society now feel unsafe and unwanted. The incomprehensible and appalling tragedy of the Holocaust in the Second World War has made it more than clear what hate against Jews can lead to.
For us Christians the fact also matters that the Jews are our older brothers and sisters in the faith in the one God, Father and Creator of all men. Our Church’s bond with the Jews and Judaism is unbreakable and can’t be given up. Our Lord Jesus Christ was a Jew and we Christians come forth from the Jewish people. Pope Francis recently said, not without reason, “You can’t be a true Christian without acknowledging your Jewish roots” (interview with Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia).
We acknowledge the rights of both Jewish and Palestinians to live in their own state, safely and in peace. The current war between Hamas and Israel and the Israel-Palestine conflict are very complex matters. We consider it necessary for a lasting peace that those Jews and Palestinians who fight each other or see each other as enemies, end combat and start working together to build up countries which can live in peace with one another, as a blessing for coming generations and the entire world. We pray for peace for the Holy Land, the Middle East and our entire world. We also pray that every person will know he is safe and wanted in both our country and all other countries. After all, we are all – Jews, Christians, Muslims and all people – God’s creatures, called to life by Him out of love, to live together as His children.
On behalf of the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands:
+ Willem Jacobus Cardinal Eijk,
President of the Dutch Bishops’ Conference
+ Hermanus W. Woorts,
Chair of the Bishops’ Conference department for Church and Judaism”
Although this is an issue which, in part, specifically concerns Dutch society, equal condemnation should be given to the even stronger displays of hatred against people for their religion in all parts of the world, not least the Christians in IS-controlled parts of Iraq and Syria, the warring parties in Israel and the Gaza Strip, Muslims and Christians and the Central African republic… I could go on. Where politicians drop the ball, the bishops and all members of Church and society should be ready to pick it up.
Several media reported today that 26 Italian women wrote a letter to Pope Francis asking him to do away with that nasty old rule called celibacy for priests. The reason? They are in love, have been in love, or want to be in love with their parish priest and they can’t do anything because the priest is unavailable because of his vow of celibacy.
This causes suffering, the ladies say. Suffering is bad, so let’s do away with the reason for their pain, they suggest to the Pope.
What immediately sprung to my mind was this question: what if these women had fallen in love with married men? That can happen, after all. Shouldn’t they ask the Pope to get rid of that nasty old sacrament of matrimony? After all, it makes the objects of their affection unattainable. That hurts.
Celibacy and matrimony are of course not completely comparable. The one is a human construct with serious spiritual benefits, the other a sacrament from God that we people are given to accept or not, as we choose. But both are entered into freely and in full knowledge of what they entail (at least, one should seriously hope so!). Both help the persons involved – husband and wife, priest of the Lord – reach their full potential according to what God calls them to.
I’m not denying that the women in question are not suffering. Unrequited love is painful, there is no doubt about that. But we must not forget that there are things that are impossible. That can be a learning process, and looking back later we may find that it was good to go through it. Simply calling whatever stands in their way – in this case celibacy – an obstacle to be removed does a great disservice to all involved.
Bishop Heiner Koch of Dresden-Meiβen suggests we should be like Christ on the road to Emmaus towards the people around us whose hearts do not burn at Easter.
“Did not our hearts burn within us as he talked to us on the road and explained the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32). That is how the disciples asked each other about their encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. Here in Saxony, we live in a land in which Christians find that at Easter the hearts of eighty percent of their neighbours do not burn in the least. They do not want anyone to explain the Scriptures to them. Not that they don’t value the Church and Christians. I am under the impression that they do so more than in the dioceses of former West Germany. But God? “Stay away from me with that phantom”. That makes Easter for them an unrealistic and meaningless history. There is no reason to believe in the Resurrection of Jesus or hope for our own resurrection, but the infinite love of God which leaves no one, not even in the hour of our death, alone. Infinite: even in our death it knows no boundaries. The good-hearted Lord remains true to us. That is the heart of the eve of Easter, without which it becomes crippled, a celebration of hares and hidden eggs.
How happy and grateful should we be when our heart burns at Easter, when we remember the the love of God through the fire of Easter, which does not go out for any of us!
And when we see that for so many people around, there is no spark jumping from the fire, even this Easter, which is for us so important? Than nothing remains but to do as little or as much as Jesus did for the disciples on the road to Emmaus: before he opened the Scriptures for them, he walked with them, listened to them and asked them questions, and he remained with them when they stood in sorrow. Perhaps that is the service of the pascal faith which we are called to perform, today and perhaps even longer, in the name of Jesus, also here in Saxony.
I wish you and all that are yours a happy and blessed Easter,
+ Dr. Heiner Koch
Bishop Johan Bonny of Antwerp considers the Christian faith’s authenticity and the physicality of the Resurrection.
How do you know if someone is sincere? How do you feel if someone is genuine? There is a simple measure: when the body confirms, or even transcends, the language of words. What use do I have for someone who says a lot about solidarity, but never shakes my hand? What use do I have for someone who has good views about the family, but is never home? What use do I have for someone who speaks about human rights, but always eats at the most expensive tables? The proof of the pudding is not in thoughts or words, but in the body. Where you go, from whom you make an effort, with whom your body wears or ages: that is the measure of authenticity. Ordinary people know this all too well.
Christians believe that God’s Word became “man” in Jesus. In the Greek and Latin it actually says that God Word became “flesh”, or took on bodily form, in Jesus. God did not limit Himself to words and promises. He did not get stuck in conversations with His people. Undoubtedly some wished He did: the continuation of a fiery discussion with God, with arguments for and against. God did not walk into that trap. He became man in Jesus, a man of flesh and blood, who embodied what He said. People looked at Jesus and saw that He was sincere: towards them and towards God.
Jesus paid a great price for that. When people could no longer stand His words, He had to go. It wasn’t so much His message that had to be fought or denied. It was God’s “becoming man” in flesh and blood that had to be blocked, if need be with brutal violence. That which made Jesus bodily present, that had to end. Silence fell around Jesus on Good Friday. Nothing had to be said any longer. His dead body on the cross surpassed the words He could have said. By the way, there was no one who wanted to hear them anymore. His body was laid in the tomb.
At Easter we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. In the Creed we will solemnly sing that we believe in “the Resurrection of the body”. That is indeed what Easter is about: about our faith in the resurrection of the body. Jesus is risen completely and forever. Everything in Him has been brought to completion and glory by the Father. Nothing was left behind, least of all the body with which He had confirmed His words and completed His sacrifice. After Easter Jesus carried in His hands and sides the scars from the Cross. Thomas could put his fingers in them. That completed the wonder and joy of the disciples. In Jesus, the Father most certainly made a man of flesh and blood rise from death!
The power of the Resurrection does not hover like cloud above the earth. It enters this world and our loves, into the core of our humanity. And especially: it enters the language of the body. Places where the Resurrection breaks through have everything to do with the proof of the pudding, which has to come from the body. Where strangers shake hands, where a volunteer pushes a wheelchair, where a child is born, where an ill person struggles with pain, where partners remain loyal, where the gun is put down, where a kiss is genuine, where food aid is being distributed, where gossip falls silent, where solidarity can come from gut feeling: that is where the power of the Resurrection breaks through. Where the body can put the signature of God, that is where the world has a future.
I wholeheartedly wish you a happy Easter!”
A short personal note from Bishop Antoon Hurkmans of the Diocese of ‘s Hertogenbosch, in which he encourages us to seek “open encounters” with people, especially those outside the Church.
In a few days Holy Week begins. A “holy time” during which I am happy to meet you through this short letter. I wish you a week full of bountiful mercy and a Blessed Easter.
Allow me to accompany my Easter wishes with a thought.
Personally, my experience is that open encounters are live-giving. You, as priest, deacon, pastoral worker, pastoral assistant, as faithful, as man and woman, are called to encounter one another. Pope Francis ask to find opportunities to encounter people ‘on the periphery’ in Church and society. Our work is often about many official meetings and about organisation. That is hard. For that reason it would be good for us to regularly seek an open encounter with someone. To give concrete expression to our being faithful.
An open encounter
Simplicity, humility, openness. These are important requirements for an open encounter. Give the other first place. To be there for the other. To listen to the other. To very much leave the other free. This places a major demand to the person seeking such an encounter. To not immediately come to the other with a message or with plans. Meet the other from the starting point of prayer. It gives depth. Remain in God. Remain in love. So prepared, go to the other and the rest will follow. The man or woman across from you will often be the first to speak about disappointment, about pain pressing on the heart. He or she will speak about “the others” who make so many mistakes. Sometimes that is all. But you can often hear the hope that lives in the heart. When you can listen deeply, you also hear the desire for repairing broken threads of life.
People who experience that they can be at home with us, will feel that there is room for their life history. When they in turn – who knows when – meet us in Church, they will be able to open up to God who waits for them. They can then experience that they can be a child of God. That God is a merciful Father. That Jesus gives His life on the Cross out of love for all people. To repair the broken threads of life. That the Holy Spirit has lived in them since their Baptism and Confirmation. That Jesus strengthens them at the altar. They will, when the time is there, begin to surmise that God is indeed as great that He made His Son rise from the dead. Step by step, they will open up to the Resurrection and to life after death.
In our time it is more than ever necessary that we present the faith to our fellow men and women with simplicity, humility, along the road of open encounters. By living it ourselves and making witness of it.
I sincerely wish for you to be able to give priority, amid all the work, to open encounters. It will do you good.
I warmly wish you all a Blessed Easter.”
“I will take the children of Israel from among the nations
to which they have come,
and gather them from all sides to bring them back to their land.
I will make them one nation upon the land,
in the mountains of Israel,
and there shall be one prince for them all.
Never again shall they be two nations,
and never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms.”
Ezekiel 37: 21-22
With the news yesterday (both the Pope’s apology and the news about Bishop Gijsen) opinions pop up. Everyone has something to say about what it all means, and how other people are wrong about it. It gets depressing sometimes.
The Word of God often offers inspiration, a new view on things, but also comfort. So today, as I looked for some of that comfort on the readings of today. The first two verses of the first reading, from the Book of Ezekiel, are a potent reminder that in God no division can last. God brings His people back to their own land, to Himself. He unites them again.
If only we would hear Him.
Various bishops have written messages to their faithful on the occasion of Lent. In this post I want to go over six of them, written by bishops in and around the Netherlands. I have been scanning the various diocesan websites for them, and an interesting conclusion from that is that there aren’t a lot. I have found one in the Netherlands, and a few in Belgium and the Nordic countries. Oh, and one from Luxembourg. None from Germany, oddly enough.
Anyway, let’s see what the bishops who did write a message found important to share.
From Utrecht, Cardinal Wim Eijk speaks about charity. He writes:
“For many of us [Lent] is a time of abstinence, a period in which we deny ourselves “the pleasures of life” or at least limit ourselves. Lent is a journey through the darkness to the Light of Easter, a journey through the desert to the Source. And we take the time for that: this is not ‘merely’ a Four-Day March, but one of forty days. We do not fast with an eye on losing weight or adopting a healthier lifestyle – although these can certainly be positive side effects… [...] During Lent we place not ourselves but God and also our neighbours at the centre. It is the we have in mind when we downsize our consumption pattern.”
But the cardinal warns, Lent is not just about saving money to give to some charity. He quotes Pope Francis, who said that if we do not have Christ and the Cross, we are a enthusiastic NGO, but not a Church. In other words, we can’t lose sight of our faith when doing good. In addition to fighting material poverty, we must also fight spiritual poverty.
“[Lent] is after all a time in which we make room to enrich our heart and our spirit, through prayer and reading Scripture, by directing these on what the should be the heart of our existence: our personal relationship with Our Lord Jesus Christ. We remove the frills and side issues from our life to experience that our wellbeing does not depend on them.”
In essence, Cardinal Eijk explains, our charitable actions can not be seen separate from the Eucharist.
“In the sacrament of the Eucharist we come closest to Our Lord Jesus Christ. In receiving the Eucharist we are conformed to Him. This creates obligations and holds an assignment: from now on, try to act in His Spirit.”
He concludes with pointing out several “desert experiences” that deserve our attention: the loneliness of people around us, and the loneliness that we as faithful can sometimes experience.
“We live in a time in which faith has long since ceased to be a matter of course, in which not belonging to a religion is increasingly becoming normative. Going to Church on Sunday has almost become “socially maladjusted behaviour” now that this day is beginning to look more and more like every other day of the week. And then there is the unavoidable fact that several churches will have to be closed in the coming period, churches in which parishioners have often had decades worth of precious experiences and memories. It is clear: a person of faith in the year 2014 must stand firm to continue following Jesus faithfully.
But the person of faith and his faith can also be shaken from within. Every faith life has fruitful and barren periods. Barren periods during which we are locked up in ourselves, imprisoned by doubt and sorrow. Sorrow for the loss of a loved one or the disappearance of what was once familiar. In those dark nights of abandonment it may seems as it of our prayer do not reach beyond that barrier of sorrow, as if they return to us like a boomerang.”
Countering that is the realisation that Christ is with us, even in times of sorrow and suffering, even of sin.
Brussels’ Archbishop André-Joseph Léonard sheds a light on the three constituent elements of Lent – fasting, almsgiving and prayer – and asks his audience some direct questions. About fasting, he writes:
“Properly understood, fasting is an act of love for God. Is it not right to happily deny ourselves something for the people we love the most? [...] The way in which our Muslim brother and sisters practice Ramadan can inspire us in an exemplary manner to be at our most generous in this field.”
About almsgiving, the archbishop explains:
“This is an important aspect of Lent. Brotherly sharing starts at home. With that I mean the sharing of friendship, respect, patience and service.”
Lastly, there is prayer. Archbishop Léonard remind sus that the most important prayer is the Eucharist. About personal prayer, he asks us a question:
“We all know, at least in theory, the importance of prayer. But reality shows that a solid reminder sometimes does wonders! I ask you again: “How much time did we spend on prayer over the past month? Where were we?” Lent is an excellent opportunity to make a new start or, who knows, finally get started. Spending a few minutes a day with the Lord is not to much to ask, is it?”
And prayer is not hard:
“We must at least realise that every one of us can pray, even a longer prayer. Prayer is not reserved to priests and religious. It does not require a diploma or any special talent. The desire for prayer and asking Jesus, like His Apostles did, “Lord, teach us to pray!” (Luke 11:1), is enough. Let su listen to the voice of the Lord, who asks us, “Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side” (Rev. 3:20).”
Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg uses his message to urge the his faithful to devote themselves even more to the practices of Lent and Easter. In order the hear the voice of God, we must be ready to do so, he writes.
“I [...] propose we fast and do abstinence every Friday during this time of preparation for Easter. A simple meal can help us break down barriers in our daily routine and to open ourselves to Christ’s call. It is also a gesture of solidarity with the poor. And it would be good to not do it alone, but to do so in our various communities. Fasting and abstinence open our hearts and make us better able to pray. Would this not be an opportunity to pray more, to maintain dialogue and contact with the living God? Without personal prayer these things elude us!”
Archbishop Hollerich also speaks about almsgiving, about giving something up for the other. And this is also good for ourselves:
“Let’s shake ourselves up during this Lent! Let’s open our hearts to the distress of the world, which also exists in Luxembourg. Only someone who opens their hands to share can receive this gift: the freedom of the children of God.”
The archbishop urges us to celebrate all of Lent, not just Easter, but also Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, in order to encounter Christ fully in our hearts.
Despite the problems the Church faces, and we as individual faithful also, Lent is ultimately a season of hope, and that hope grows the closer we come to the Living Lord.
Bishop Anders Arborelius of Stockholm takes a slightly different approach to his message for Lent, as he does not explicitly discuss what we can and should do during this season. Instead, he begins with the image of a forgotten God, opening his letter with these blunt lines:
“We forget God. We live in age where God has become the forgotten God. Even the one who says, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me” (Isaiah 49:14) has in fact himself forgotten God.”
But God does not forget us, he continues. We can’t imagine how close God is to is, and how much he loves us. It is up to us to remind others that, while they may forget Him, He never forgets them. And that is hard to communicate, but we must remain hopeful.
Forgetting God contains an enormous risk for us, the bishop explains:
“When we forget God, there is a great risk that we also forget man and fail to see him in his dignity of being created in the image of God. When God is forgotten, creation itself is diminished and so are all created beings. In a time and environment where consumerism is paramount, everything – and everybody – is easily reduced to things that can be consumed. When God is out of sight, so is humanity – indeed all of creation is brought down and diminished.”
But God is knowable in His creation, Bishop Arborelius states. “His presence permeates everything”. And when we get to know God, our respect for His creation grows. In Lent, that respect is shown by our refraining from making unnecessary use of created things.
“We eat less. We disengage ourselves from our covetousness. We try to help our neighbour. We meet God in the poor and naked. We forget ourselves so that we can set God in the centre. We serve those who need us. We praise Go for His goodness. We deepen our faith. Lent helps us to seek God with greater eagerness. We are more receptive to God’s will for us.” St. Birgitta likens God to a washerwoman, who constantly washes us clean of our sins and guilt. During Lent we are serious about our conversion. We prepare ourselves for the triumph and joy of Easter through contrition and penance, by receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation and by participating in the Eucharist more often. We unite ourselves to the suffering and crucified Christ so that we can meet Him as the Risen and glorified Lord. The cross always leads us to the joy and peace of Easter.”
During Lent we must make a choice, the bishop insists.
“We must choose sides. We cannot limp on both sides. Mediocrity and half-heartedness must give way to devotion and commitment. We must begin each day anew in the new life of grace. We must seek the face of God each day by praying to Him and serving Him in our neighbour.”
But we need not stand alone in this radical choice. We are part of the community of the Church, which strengthens us, and the saints in heaven support us by their prayer. This is an antidote against selfishness and forgetting God.
Bishop Arborelius concludes his letter by presenting the Blessed Virgin, to whom the bishops of the Nordic countries will consecrate their nations on 22 March in Lund, Sweden, as our great help in heaven. She helps us be more evangelising and a better witness of Christ.
Antwerp’s Bishop Johan Bonny devotes a major part of his message to the Belgian bill which allows euthanasia on minors. He quotes part of the bishops’ response to that immoral piece of legislation, which was sadly signed into law by King Philippe only days ago.
“The bishops agree with all who have expressed themselves unambiguously against this law on the basis of their experience and expertise. They fully support the rights of the child, of which the rights to love and respect are the most fundamental. But the right of a child to request his or her own death is a step too far for them. It is a transgression of the prohibition to kill, which forms the basis of our humane society.”
Following this reminder of the Church’s opposition to the laws of death, Bishop Bonny writes about the two complementary topics of freedom and solidarity.
“From where does our freedom come, and what does it consist of? Where does our solidarity consist of and what does it consist of? In the Christian view of humanity and the world freedom and solidarity are inseparable. They are like twins who belong together and strengthen each other.”
Using the example of St. Damian, Bishop Bonny then asks what connection we still make between freedom and solidarity. Lent leads us to the answer to that question.
“What was Good Friday but the ultimate unity of those two: freedom and solidarity. Why did Jesus end up on a cross? On the one hand because He wanted to be free: free to witness to the truth free to say and do what the Spirit of God inspired Him to do, free to give His life for His friends. On the other hand because He wanted to remain solidary: solidary with poor and broken people, solidary with the martyrs of all times, solidary with a weak and sinful humanity. He did not make a success story out of His life. He lost His trial. He was carried off through the backdoor of society.”
And so we come full circle, as the bishop seems to want to imply a link between the victims of draconian laws and Jesus Christ.
Reykjavík’s Bishop Pétur Bürcher writes about the Year for Consecrated Life that Pope Francis has announced for 2015, and uses the opportunity the address the religious communities in Iceland which, he says, “are a sign of hope for our Church!” The bishop goes on to relate the contributions that the religious communities have made to Catholic Iceland and announces a plan for the future:
“I would like to establish a male monastery, if possible with the Benedictines or Augustinians who in the Middle Ages possessed several monasteries in Iceland. We have already found a large piece of land with houses and a heated church in Úlfljótsvatn. Now we have to find a monastic community! I have undertaken a lot to find it and hope soon for a fulfillment of my dream which has become one of many people in Iceland and abroad!”
Lastly, Bishop Patrick Hoogmartens of Hasselt opens his message by acknowledging that our environment does not make it easy for us to have the right attitude to start Lent.
“There is very little around us which calls us to it. The chocolate Easter eggs are already in the supermarket and commercials and media have always spoken with more easy about carnival, dieting and the Ramadan than about Christian fasting. Lent is apparently considered to be a private matter which we had better not discuss too much.”
But Lent is a precious time of conversion, the bishop says, drawing parallels with Christ’s time in the desert and the forty years that the people of Israel spent in the desert. It is a time of conversion from worldly things, in preparation for the future. And that conversion begins with the person of Jesus. Quoting Pope Francis, Bishop Hoogmartens says we must understand Christ’s deepest ‘being’.
“Jesus reveals Himself, not with worldly power and wealth, both more so in weakness and poverty. He came to us with a love which does not hesitate to sacrifice itself. He became like us in every way, except in sin. He carried our suffering and died on the Cross. It is He who we must open our hearts and lives much more to during Lent. From out of the love of Jesus, out of His mercy as the Christ, we can, as it were, ‘practice’ our witnessing, in honest love for the other, during Lent.”
The bishop emphasises the two sorts of poverty we must address, material and moral. About the latter he says:
“The extreme emphasis on human autonomy, for example, which became to shockingly visible in the recent amendments in Belgium regarding euthanasia, must urge us Christians to even more support care and nearness to suffering people according to the Gospel.”
In the first place, the bishops concludes, we must first make a conversion ourselves, before we can address the various sorts of poverty we see around us, for it is in Jesus that we find the means to fight it.
As many styles as there are bishops. Some offer deep theology, others outline plans for the future, but all offer points that we can keep in mind during Lent.
“He said, ‘The Son of man is destined to suffer grievously, to be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes and to be put to death, and to be raised up on the third day.’
Then, speaking to all, he said, ‘If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me. Anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake, will save it. What benefit is it to anyone to win the whole world and forfeit or lose his very self?”
A rather gloomy prediction of the future we hear today in our reading of the Gospel. Jesus gives a clear image of what His immediate future will hold; an image of pain and suffering, but certainly also of hope. His ressurection on the third day would have reminded his audience of the prophecies regarding the Messiah, even if most did not yet realise that the Messiah was the one telling them this. The rejection that Jesus foretells is by the hand of “the elders and chief priests and scribes”, the very leaders of the religious establishment and community. These are usually the ones that are trusted to do what is right, but their future betrayal of the ultimate truth that is God shows how deeply the salvation the Messiah brings is needed. This is more than the personal sins of individuals, but extends into the very heart of civilisation. Christ’s sacrifice will bring healing to all of society, to its individual members and to the relationships that unite them.
Christ does not only speak about Himself here, but also about us. The decision to follow Him is a big one, and just like His sacrifice and salvation, it reaches down to the very roots of our humanity and society. We must renounce ourselves, which means that we mustachieve a balance between respecting and making use of what has been given to us by God as His creation, and denying what distracts us from Him and His desire to brings us to Him. In other words, do not put yourself first, but always look at yourself as a being created by and wished by God. We must look at ourselves with His eyes, not our own. That is why Jesus speaks about losing our life “for His sake”. Just losing our lives is a shameful waste without any merit. But losing our lives for Him (in other words: handing over our lives to Him) is essentially the opposite of losing it. God gave us life, and He did not do so by accident. He has given us our very self, which is far more than the mere fact of being alive. Life has a greater meaning than that.
We are asked to lose our lives for God, which means we acknowledge the fact that our life, or being, was not ours in the first place. God will not take it and then ignore us. He will accept our very being and lead it on the path to fulfillment, to reach our full potential. And that path is hard. Jesus is the first to go that path, to show us the way. His death and resurrection foreshadows what he asks us to do. To die for ourselves and be reborn in God.
Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.
‘When you are fasting, do not put on a gloomy look as the hypocrites do: they go about looking unsightly to let people know they are fasting. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you fast, put scent on your head and wash your face, so that no one will know you are fasting except your Father who sees all that is done in secret; and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
What better way to start the great season of Lent with some very direct instructions from the Lord Himself? In this passage, Jesus outlines the three main elements of Lent: almsgiving, prayer and fasting. These three are interlinked, as each one bleeds into the others and makes the others more fruitful. That is why it is important that we do not just pick one or two to focus on during Lent.
The general tone of the Gospel passage above is one of modesty and secrecy. Jesus basically tells us not to show off. The reason for this is that we do not fast, pray or give alms for ourselves; we do it for God and our neighbour. The benefit of our actions is theirs. Once we do it for the benefit of our own public image and social standing, the result of Lent will be strictly negative: we become concerned only with ourselves and ignore those around us. We become islands, egotistical human beings who only act for our own benefit, no matter the cost for others.
Christ also links such behaviour directly to our “reward from our Father in heaven”. Prayer, almsgiving and fasting all have their reward in this passage. Jesus mentions it multiple times. He does not say what that reward will be, but we can gather from this that it is directly related to our actions.
Every action has a result or a consequence. When deciding to do something, we are often aware of that consequence, and the same goes for when we decide not to do something. This is a truth independent of our motivations. When we focus solely on ourselves, the consequence will be that we lose sight of others and become egotistical. When we focus on others and on God, the result will be that we grow in our relations with people and with God, and are able to flourish as human beings. We are, after all, not created as solitary creatures. From the very beginning, God created humans as beings in relation to all of Creation and ultimately in relation with each other and with Himself.
Our Lent must be secretive insofar that it must not become a goal in itself. If we make a show of how prayerful, how generous and how hungry we are, we are only seeking adoration for ourselves. Lent is a means to an end, and that end is what matters. God matters, our neighbour matters, and our relationship with both matters. God calls us to Him, and when we say yes to His invitation, we must prepare ourselves to meet Him. And that means striving for the holiness with which He created us in the beginning, a holiness which must not remain locked up in our hearts, but must be set free to create the links that will make all of Creation holy.
Art credit: “The prayer in secret”, by Alexandre Bida.