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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.
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.
It’s almost Lent. Snuck up on you, didn’t it? But it’s true, Less than a week away the great time of fasting and penitence will begin and prepare us for Easter.
Time to plan ahead.
For this Lent and Holy Week I want to take the Gospel readings of every day and do some lectio divina with them, a spiritual reading. I’ll be posting the relevant passage every day (well, that’s the plan) and reflect on it. These reflections will be short, as lectio divina is by definition a personal exercise: we prayerfully read a Bible text for ourselves and are open to learn from it. The reflections are therefore what I take from the text: your experience may be a different one, but I hope that comparing what others learn with what you have learned can set you off on new avenues of thought, prayer and discovery.
For those who want to read and reflect in their own time, or if I am unable to post every day, here is a list of the Gospel reading of every day:
Wednesday 5 March (Ash Wednesday): Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18)
- Thursday 6 March: Luke 9: 22-25
- Friday 7 March: Matthew 9:14-15
- Saturday 8 March: Luke 5:27-32
- Sunday 9 March (First Sunday of Lent): Matthew 4:1-11
- Monday 10 March: Matthew 25:31-46
- Tuesday 11 March: Matthew 6:7-15
- Wednesday 12 March: Luke 11:29-32
- Thursday 13 March: Matthew 7:7-12
- Friday 14 March: Matthew 5:20-26
- Saturday 15 March: Matthew 5:43-48
- Sunday 16 March (Second Sunday of Lent): Matthew 17:1-9
- Monday 17 March: Luke 6:36-38
- Tuesday 18 March: Matthew 23:1-12
- Wednesday 19 March (Solemnity of Saint Joseph, Spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary): Matthew 116, 18-21, 24a or Luke 2: 41-51a
- Thursday 20 March: Luke 16:19-31
- Friday 21 March: Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
- Saturday 22 March: Luke 15:1-3, 11-32
- Sunday 23 March (Third Sunday of Lent): John 4:5-42 or John 4:5-15, 19b-26, 39a, 40-42
- Monday 24 March: Luke 4:24-30
- Tuesday 25 March (Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord): Luke 1:26-38
- Wednesday 26 March: Matthew 5:17-19
- Thursday 27 March: Luke 11:14-23
- Friday 28 March: Mark 12:28-34
- Saturday 29 March: Luke 18:9-14
- Sunday 30 March (Fourth Sunday of Lent): John 9:1-41 or John 9:1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38
- Monday 31 March: John 4:43-54
- Tuesday 1 April: John 5:1-16
- Wednesday 2 April: John 5:17-30
- Thursday 3 April: John 5:31-47
- Friday 4 April: John 7:1-2, 10, 25-30
- Saturday 5 April: John 7:40-53
- Sunday 6 April (Fifth Sunday of Lent): John 11:1-45 or John 11:3-7, 20-27, 33b-45
- Monday 7 April: John 8:1-11
- Tuesday 8 April: John 8:21-30
- Wednesday 9 April: John 8:31-42
- Thursday 10 April: John 8:51-59
- Friday 11 April: John 10:31-42
- Saturday 12 April: John 11:45-56
- Sunday 13 April (Palm Sunday): Matthew 26:14-27:66 or Matthew 27:11-54
- Monday 14 April: John 12:1-11
- Tuesday 15 April: John 13:21-33, 36-38
- Wednesday 16 April: Matthew 26:14-25
- Thursday 17 April: John 13:1-15
- Friday 18 April (Good Friday): John 18:1-19:42
- Saturday 19 April (Holy Saturday): Matthew 28:1-10
- Sunday 20 April (Easter Sunday): John 20:1-9
It’s much, to be sure, but it is an investment that’s worth the effort. Lent is especially a time to return to the basis, to the Word, and allow the Lord to join us on our way.
As many will know by now, Pope Francis called for a worldwide day of fasting and prayer for peace in the world, with a special focus on Syria. In last Sunday’s Angelus address he said:
“I have decided to proclaim for the whole Church on 7 September next, the vigil of the birth of Mary, Queen of Peace, a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria, the Middle East, and throughout the world, and I also invite each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will, to participate, in whatever way they can, in this initiative.
On 7 September, in Saint Peter’s Square, here, from 19:00 until 24:00, we will gather in prayer and in a spirit of penance, invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world. Humanity needs to see these gestures of peace and to hear words of hope and peace! I ask all the local churches, in addition to fasting, that they gather to pray for this intention.”
I highlighted two lines which are especially noteworthy or important. In praying for peace we need not hide behind our identity as Catholics. Here we can reach out to and join with all other believers, and even those who do not believe. We are all Gods creation, and we can all turn towards Him, whatever differences may exist between us.
And humanity needs to see and hear the desire for peace, as well as the trust and faith so many have in their Creator. The debates around a possible intervention in Syria tend to limit themselves solely to the political arena, and the human element gets snowed under. But this is not a matter of prestige, political gain or even personal conscience; no, this is about human lives and the future of countless thousands.
As part of Creation, let us display solidarity with another part of that same Creation. Fast, pray, and allow the peace of the Lord to take root and bear fruit in Syria and everywhere in the world.
The Dutch bishops have recommended the following intercessions for tomorrow’s intentions:
“That God, who has said that they who bring peace are called His children, grant us the willingness to work ceaselessly for justice, which is the ony guarantee for a lasting and true peace. Let us pray.
That God, who cares for us like a father, may make us one family in peace, united forever in a spirit of fraternity. Let us pray.”
Photo credit: AP Photo/Michael Sohn
The first stage of the Synod is slowing coming to an end. Wednesday was the last day largely devoted to interventions from the Synod fathers. There will be a final chance to intervene in Friday’s second session, but the time has come to get to work with the contributions made in the interventions and the ensuing discussions.
In yesterday’s morning session 25 Synod fathers and 2 auditors intervened. Here are some notable contributions.
Bishop Charles Drennan, of Palmerston North in New Zealand, outlines four points in which schools are important for the new evangelisation:
1. The encounter with Jesus Christ: befriending the Risen Lord, will see our schools animate with prayer, liturgy, the respect that stems from relating to others as brothers and sisters in Christ, and charitable service.
2. The diakonia of truth: in societies where the winds of relativism and individualism leave the tragic debris of moral confusion and crushed aspiration, our schools stand out as beacons of hope. Knowing the loving truth of Jesus and his Gospel – creative and life-changing, performative not just informative (cf. Spe Salvi, 2) – leads our young to discover the good: the path of inner peace, inner beauty and respect of self and other.
3. The spirit of wisdom: an antidote to the superficiality and triviality which can entrap the young and a foundation from which to strengthen the art of discernment and critique.
4. The sense of belonging to God’s people: identity and conviction are galvanized when the school reverberates with the Church’s ecclesial life of faith. Essential, is a manifest appreciation of the significance of the Day of the Lord and participation at Holy Mass.
These four points are clearly not a reality in many parts of the world, even in Catholic countries and schools, but they point in the right direction of what Catholic schools can be.
George Cardinal Pell, Archbishop of Sydney in Australia, addressed the issue of penance and fasting.
“Recently I hosted a dinner to celebrate the breaking of the Ramadan fast. The Sunni mufti was on my left, the head of the Shiites on my right, with Jewish representatives adjacent. The topic of the night became fasting and penance.
It quickly emerged that the only group who fasted less than our Latin Church was some Protestants. It would be a break from Jewish and Christian tradition if this ancient practice disappeared. I commend the English bishops for reintroducing the traditional Friday abstinence.”
Bishop Raphaël Guilavogui, of N’Zérékoré in Guinea, called for a very practical measure to better facilitate the new evangelisation:
“With the concern for a pastoral of proximity, the Conference of Bishops of Guinea asked the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples for the creation of new dioceses in Guinea.”
Guinea’s Catholics, no more than a quarter of a million, are currently spread out across three dioceses (map at left). With so few faithful it is easy to imagine that it is a challenge for the bishops to be permanently close to their flock.
Archbishop Petro Malchuk, bishop of Kyiv-Zhytomyr in Ukraine, gives the reason to evangelise:
“Here is the reason for being for an evangelizer - to prepare and accompany he who seeks Jesus to the encounter with Him. This is exactly what Andrew did: he immediately led his brother to the Messiah, saying that he had encountered He whom we have awaited for centuries. An encounter with a living God, an entirely original and transforming experience which restores everything to its place, overturns from head to foot. Immediately, there is the need to proclaim a reality, which filled with joy, is liberating and salvific. John the Evangelist will remember about this his first encounter with the Master for his entire life: when he wrote the Gospel he was over ninety years old; this marked the beginning of a new day.”
In the afternoon, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, the general relator of the Synod, read the Relatio post disceptationem, a summary of the points made in the interventions. Seven auditors offered final interventions after this reading.
Francisco Gómez Argüello Wirtz, co-founder of the Neocatechumenal Way, pointed out the responsibility of those who have already been baptised:
“Faith comes from listening and today we find ourselves in a secularized society that has closed its ears.
If we want to evangelize, we need to give the signs that open the ears of contemporary man. But how can a Christian community reach this stature of loving faith in the dimension of the Cross and perfect unity? Here we find the need for the post-baptismal catechumenate to make faith grow.”
Our first motivation to observe Lent is simply because Jesus did it before us. It’s very simple, but w should consider Jesus to be our teacher in everything He did. There are numerous examples in the Gospels of Jesus praying and giving alms, but He also fasted. The best known example of that is of course the forty days He spent in the desert, just before He began His public life.
In the Gospel reading from today’s Mass, St. Mark spends very few words on this undoubtedly important event in Jesus’ life.
“And at once the Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for forty days, and was put to the test by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and the angels looked after him.
After John had been arrested, Jesus went into Galilee. There he proclaimed the gospel from God saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel.’”
Mark 1: 12-15
Four sentences to describe a number of very significant elements. St. Mark is nothing if not succinct. Let’s take a look at some of the elements in this text.
- “And at once the Spirit drove him into the desert and he remained there for forty days”. The Holy Spirit plays a part here. He caused Jesus to go into the desert. We don know if Jesus went willingly or not, but we can conclude that He was inspired to do so. The Holy Spirit inspires us as well, sometimes to do very concrete things. It is because of Him that we have faith, and we sometimes can’t adequately explain the things we do because of faith, although we do know they are the right things to do. And why the desert for forty days. It’s not difficult to be alone and to fast in the desert, and the number forty would indicate a lengthy time, comparable to the forty years that the Jews, led by Moses, wandered the desert. Fasting has no meaning if it is not just for a day and is hard to keep up if you are faced with distraction after distraction.
- “and was put to the test by Satan”. St. Mark does not elaborate here, and without referring to the other Gospels, which do tell us more, we may say that Jesus was tempted by evil. That is certainly not alien to us, and therefore it shouldn’t be for Jesus either. “For the high priest we have is not incapable of feeling our weaknesses with us, but has been put to the test in exactly the same way as ourselves, apart from sin” (Heb 4:15). Jesus is a man just like us. He knows us, our strengths, but certainly also our weaknesses. We are put to the test by Satan, so He needed to have been as well in order to take our trespasses on His own shoulders.
- “He was with the wild animals, and the angels looked after him”. Jesus is God, so it makes sense that all creation, here on earth and in heaven, serves Him. But there’s also an interesting comparison to Adam, who was master of the animals in the garden (cf. Gen. 2:19). Jesus is the new Adam, who came to correct the sin of the first man.
- “Repent, and believe the gospel”. This, in fact, is what Lent is about. If we return to the Gospel, get to know it again, take it seriously and continuously apply it to our own lives, we will be following Christ to the salvation which He brought us. The topic of knowing and understanding the Gospel is a whole topic by itself, so I won’t be discussing that any further here.
Art credit: ’40 Days of Temptation; Jesus Alone’, by Daniel Bonnell
“Sacrifice gives you no pleasure, burnt offering you do not desire.
Sacrifice to God is a broken spirit, a broken, contrite heart you never scorn.”
Two lines from Psalm 51 (16-17) which we will be hearing rather frequently during Lent. In poetic words they indicate what lies at the heart, if you’ll pardon the pun, of our Lenten sacrifice. Not outward signs of piety and sacrifice, but our offering of our broken, contrite hearts. In other words, ourselves.
This goes well with the reading from the Gospel of Matthew (6:1-6,16-18) that we heard on Ash Wednesday. Here too, Jesus tells us not to make a show of your piety: give alms quietly, pray in the privacy of your room, fast with a cheerful face. By actively preventing showing how well we give alms, pray and fast, we are looking inward, confronting ourselves, our “broken, contrite hearts”.
We are what we are. Imperfect people, with all our good or bad intentions, our good or bad tendencies, sins and virtues. And that, however strange it may seem to us, is the offering that God will accept. We give ourselves to Him, willingly, in the knowledge that we are imperfect, and with the desire to change, to better ourselves. And for that, we need the Lord’s help.
Give yourself to God in Lent, so that we may rise with Christ at Easter.
In today’s Office of Readings we find a sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great about some elements of Lent: the forgiveness of sins and the giving of alms:
At every moment the earth is full of the mercy of God, and nature itself is a lesson for all the faithful in the worship of God. The heavens, the sea and all that is in them bear witness to the goodness and omnipotence of their Creator, and the marvellous beauty of the elements as they obey him demands from the intelligent creation a fitting expression of its gratitude. But with the return of that season marked out in a special way by the mystery of our redemption, and of the days that lead up to the paschal feast, we are summoned more urgently to prepare ourselves by a purification of spirit.
The special note of the paschal feast is this: the whole Church rejoices in the forgiveness of sins. It rejoices in the forgiveness not only of those who are then reborn in holy baptism but also of those who are already numbered among God’s adopted children. Initially, men are made new by the rebirth of baptism. Yet there still is required a daily renewal to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature, and whatever degree of progress has been made there is no one who should not be more advanced. All must therefore strive to ensure that on the day of redemption no one may be found in the sins of his former life.
Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.
There is no more profitable practice as a companion to holy and spiritual fasting than that of almsgiving. This embraces under the single name of mercy many excellent works of devotion, so that the good intentions of all the faithful may be of equal value, even where their means are not. The love that we owe both God and man is always free from any obstacle that would prevent us from having a good intention. The angels sang: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to his people on earth. The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace.
The works of mercy are innumerable. Their very variety brings this advantage to those who are true Christians, that in the matter of almsgiving not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts.
St. Leo the Great was pope from 440 to 461, but his words still have meaning for us today. And why would they not, after all? There are two points especially which we should also take to heart in our own practice of Lent; First, the saintly pope speaks of sins that need to be forgiven. He points out that, despite our sins having been forgiven out our baptism, we still need to seek forgiveness ” to repair the shortcomings of our mortal nature”. Mortality and our personal shortcomings are here linked, and the reason for that is easily found: both have their origin in the Fall of Man. In Genesis we read God’s warning to Adam: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat; for, the day you eat of that, you are doomed to die” (2:17). In the following chapter we find that man did not heed this warning, with death as a result. Here we have our mortality. Our broken nature as a consequence of the Fall explains our tendency to sin. We are mortal, and the reason for our mortality requires us to be watchful for our sins and search out God’s forgiveness whenever required. Since Lent is a time of purification and converting, or returning to face Christ (to borrow a quote from a recently heard homily), asking for forgiveness in the sacrament of Confession is an inherent element of this time.
The second point in the above sermon concerns the giving of alms. St. Leo rightly points out that none of us are limited in this, because the word ‘almsgiving’ covers a wide variety of activities. “Not only the rich and affluent but also those of average means and the poor are able to play their part. Those who are unequal in their capacity to give can be equal in the love within their hearts”, he writes. And that’s important to realise. Don’t have the means to donate money to a charity? Don’t worry. You are able to give alms in other ways. “The person who shows love and compassion to those in any kind of affliction is blessed, not only with the virtue of good will but also with the gift of peace”. Be creative this Lent, you are not limited, because the love of God is not limited.
Lastly, I want to end this reflection by focussing on one sentence from Pope St. Leo the Great’s sermon (emphasis mine). It’s worth reminding ourselves of frequently:
Dear friends, what the Christian should be doing at all times should be done now with greater care and devotion, so that the Lenten fast enjoined by the apostles may be fulfilled, not simply by abstinence from food but above all by the renunciation of sin.
As we enter Lent on Ash Wednesday, we are faced with that eternal question: keep it on or rub it off? I am, of course, referring to the ashes we receive on our forehead that “remind us of our insignificance, and command us to soften our hearts” according to Fr. Reginald Martin.
As we are sent into the world as Mass is over, many people rub of their ash cross. Some do it so as not to get strange looks, but others in order to heed the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew:
“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.” (6:16-18)
A warning against outward display in place of true piety and honesty. Many consider this also to disagree with the practice of marking our foreheads with ashes to show that we are starting Lent. Ash Wednesday being a day of fasting (nowadays the only obligatory one, together with Good Friday, during Lent) means that connecting ashes to fasting is a logical step. But is it?
As mentioned above, the ashes have a very specific role. They are sacramentals which aim to ground ourselves in our mortality and so encourage us to enter ever deeply into relations with other people and with God. Fasting serves a similar purpose, as do the other two pillars of Lent; almsgiving and prayer. As Pope Benedict XVI said in his general audience today:
This spiritual journey is traditionally marked by the practice of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. The Fathers of the Church teach that these three pious exercises are closely related: indeed, Saint Augustine calls fasting and almsgiving the “wings of prayer”, since they prepare our hearts to take flight and seek the things of heaven, where Christ has prepared a place for us.
Ashes are therefore not an outward sign of our fasting. They are both means to an end: preparation for our journey to Easter, and an ever deeper bond with the risen Lord.
Bishop Kieran Conry of Arundel and Brighton in the UK, lastly, gives another good reason not to rub off the ashes:
“Please try not to rub off your ashes as soon as you leave church, but take the sign of the cross to all those that you meet – in your school, office, factory, wherever you may be. This might just make people curious and wonder why you would do this. If you explain about Lent and Easter it might just make them think and may even awaken in them the questions that might lead to faith. Many people have a dim awareness of Lent and even ashes. It would be good to make this clear rather than dim.
“Don’t underestimate the power of this simple action and wear your ashes as not only a sign of the beginning of your Lenten journey, but also to witness to your greatest treasure in life. This small step could awaken faith in the hearts of many that you meet in a way that words could never do.”
Lent 2011 is two weeks away – with Ash Wednesday being 9 March this year – so the Vatican has published the Holy Father’s Message for Lent for this year. The pope draws upon the topics of his three previous Lenten messages, in which he focussed on fasting, almsgiving and prayer as the three pillars of the Lenten period, offering a summary and synthesis. He takes us through the Gospel readings of the Sundays of Lent, and links it all back to the Sacrament of Baptism. “The journey of conversion towards Easter leads us to rediscover our Baptism,” he writes.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Max Rossi