Ash Wednesday: Joel 2:1-2 & 12-17, 2Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, Matthew 6:1-6 & 16-18

Today the Church celebrates Ash Wednesday, the beginning of her Lenten journey towards the great festival of Easter. The entire Christian community is invited to live this period of forty days as a pilgrimage of repentance, conversion and renewal. 

In the Bible, the number forty is rich in symbolism. It recalls Israel’s journey in the desert: a time of expectation, purification and closeness to the Lord, but also a time of temptation and testing. It also evokes Jesus’ own sojourn in the desert at the beginning of His public ministry. This was a time of profound closeness to the Father in prayer, but also of confrontation with the mystery of evil. 

The Church’s Lenten discipline is meant to help deepen our life of faith and our imitation of Christ in his paschal mystery. In these forty days may we strive to draw nearer to the Lord by meditating on his word and example. We seek to conquer the desert of our spiritual aridity, selfishness and materialism. For the whole Church may this Lent be a time of grace in which God leads us, in union with the crucified and risen Lord, through the experience of the desert to the joy and hope brought by Easter. [1]

Fasting, repentance, prayer, and even the imposition of ashes were not unknown to Jews. That is why we as Christians carry on the tradition such things are wise and beneficial as we enter the desert of Lent. They remind us that, first and foremost, we should recognise our own brokenness, our own sinfulness, and our own turning away from a God of Love and Mercy. While we may admit this, outward signs are not enough. There is nothing that we can do in a solely exterior fashion: ripping our clothes, placing ashes upon our foreheads, which will, in and of itself, make a blind bit of difference. What matters, where it really counts, is on the inside. To rend one’s heart, is to lay ourselves open, to make ourselves vulnerable. It is in this openness and vulnerability, that we let God do His work.

It would be all too easy when faced with today’s Gospel to argue that outward displays of fasting, piety, and penitence, do not matter. But this is not what Jesus is getting at. What He criticises are deeds which are done to comply with the letter but not the spirit of the law. This mechanised approach to piety, a clinging to the external nature of religion, without any concern for its inward spiritual aspect, is where the fault lies. When things are done for show, when our piety is paraded as performance, so that the world may see how good and religious we are, then we are nothing but an empty shell, a whitened sepulchre. The reward that such people receive is likewise an empty one.

Instead, Jesus upholds the standard practice of Judaism, but emphasises that what matters is that what we do outwardly is completely in accordance with our interior life. Our actions are an outward manifestation of our relationship with God and with one another. So Lent is to be a time when we as Christians are to seek to be reconciled with God and each other, and to be in full communion with God and his church. Our outward acts of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving need to be done in tandem with, rather than instead of, paying attention to our interior life: otherwise our efforts are doomed to failure.

The God whom we worship is one of infinite love and mercy. This is demonstrated most fully and perfectly on Good Friday, when we see what that love really means. Then, for our sake, God made Him who was without sin into sin, so that we in Him might share the goodness of God. Or, as St Isaac of Nineveh, a seventh century Syrian saint puts it:

The sum of all is that God the Lord of all, out of fervent love for his creation, handed over his own Son to death on the cross “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son for its sake.”(Jn 3:16) This was not because he could not have saved us in another way, but so that he might thereby the better indicate to us his surpassing love, so that, by the death of his only-begotten Son, he might bring us close to himself. Yes, if he had had anything more precious he would have given it to us so that our race might thereby be recovered. Because of his great love, he did not want to use compulsion on our freedom, although he would have been able to do so; but instead he chose that we should draw near to him freely, by our own mind’s love. [2]

As a handful of sand thrown into the ocean, so are the sins of all flesh as compared with the mind of God.’ [3]

As dreadful as we might be, or think we are, as utterly undeserving of the father’s love, nonetheless, as the parable of the prodigal son shows us, there are no lengths to which God will not go for love of us. The love and mercy which flows from Jesus’ stricken side upon the cross at Calvary are still being poured out over the world, and will continue to be so until all is reconciled in him. In his commission of Peter after his resurrection, Jesus entrusts to His Church the power to forgive sins, to reconcile us to one another and also to God. This reconciliation is manifested by our restoration to fellowship with God and his Church. 

It is not the most comfortable or pleasant thing to see ourselves as we really are. To stand naked in front of a full length mirror is, for most of us, I suspect, not the most pleasant experience. And yet, such a self-examination is as nothing when compared with us completely baring our heart and soul. It is not a pleasant task. But we know that God will judge us in love and mercy. He has taken away our sins on the Cross. So, despite our apprehension, we have nothing to fear. All that awaits us is the embrace of a loving father. No matter how many times we fail, no matter how many times we run away or reject his love, His arms, like those of His Son upon the Cross, remain open to embrace us. To heal all the world of the wounds of sin and division.

Austin Farrer, a twentieth century Anglican theologian wrote:

If there are any of you determined to live a more Christian life, there is one resolution you need to make which is, out of all proportion, more important than the rest. Resolve to pray, to receive the sacraments, to shun besetting sins, to do good works – all excellent resolutions; but more important than any of these is the resolution to repent. The more resolutions you make, the more you will break. But it does not matter how many you break so long as you are resolute not to put off repentance when you break them, but to give yourself up to the mercy which will not despise a broken and a contrite heart. Converted or unconverted, it remains true of you that in you, that is, in your natural being, there dwells no good thing. Saints are not people who store goodness in themselves, they are just a people who do not delay to repent, and whose repentances are honourable. [4]

So then, may this Lent be for us all a time of repentance, a time for us to turn away from all which separates us from God and our neighbours. Let it be a time for reconciliation, for healing and growth. May the faith which we profess grow in our souls and shine forth in our lives to give Glory to God the Father, to whom with God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, be ascribed as is most right and just all Might, Majesty, Glory, Dominion, and Power, now and forever….

[1] H.H. Pope Bendict XVI Catechesis at the General Audience 22.ii.12: http://www.news.va/en/news/pope-conquering-our-spiritual-desert

[2] from The Heart of Compassion: Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria, ed. A.M. Allchin, tr. S. Brock, London, DLT, 1989, 13

[3] from The Heart of Compassion: Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria, ed. A.M. Allchin, tr. S. Brock, London, DLT, 1989, 37

[4] Farrer (1976) The Brink of Mystery (ed. C. Conti), 17, quoted in Harries, R. (ed.) (1987) The One Genius: Readings through the year with Austin Farrer, London: SPCK, 60.

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Augustine Sermon 272: on the Nature of the Sacrament of the Eucharist

What you see on God’s altar, you’ve already observed during the night that has now ended. But you’ve heard nothing about just what it might be, or what it might mean, or what great thing it might be said to symbolize. For what you see is simply bread and a cup – this is the information your eyes report. But your faith demands far subtler insight: the bread is Christ’s body, the cup is Christ’s blood. Faith can grasp the fundamentals quickly, succinctly, yet it hungers for a fuller account of the matter. As the prophet says, “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” [Is. 7.9; Septuagint] So you can say to me, “You urged us to believe; now explain, so we can understand.” Inside each of you, thoughts like these are rising: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, we know the source of his flesh; he took it from the virgin Mary. Like any infant, he was nursed and nourished; he grew; became a youngster; suffered persecution from his own people. To the wood he was nailed; on the wood he died; from the wood, his body was taken down and buried. On the third day (as he willed) he rose; he ascended bodily into heaven whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. There he dwells even now, seated at God’s right. So how can bread be his body? And what about the cup? How can it (or what it contains) be his blood?” My friends, these realities are called sacraments because in them one thing is seen, while another is grasped. What is seen is a mere physical likeness; what is grasped bears spiritual fruit. So now, if you want to understand the body of Christ, listen to the Apostle Paul speaking to the faithful: “You are the body of Christ, member for member.” [1 Cor. 12.27] If you, therefore, are Christ’s body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying “Amen” to what you are: your response is a personal signature, affirming your faith. When you hear “The body of Christ”, you reply “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s body, then, so that your “Amen” may ring true! But what role does the bread play? We have no theory of our own to propose here; listen, instead, to what Paul says about this sacrament: “The bread is one, and we, though many, are one body.” [1 Cor. 10.17] Understand and rejoice: unity, truth, faithfulness, love. “One bread,” he says. What is this one bread? Is it not the “one body,” formed from many? Remember: bread doesn’t come from a single grain, but from many. When you received exorcism, you were “ground.” When you were baptized, you were “leavened.” When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were “baked.” Be what you see; receive what you are. This is what Paul is saying about the bread. So too, what we are to understand about the cup is similar and requires little explanation. In the visible object of bread, many grains are gathered into one just as the faithful (so Scripture says) form “a single heart and mind in God” [Acts 4.32]. And thus it is with the wine. Remember, friends, how wine is made. Individual grapes hang together in a bunch, but the juice from them all is mingled to become a single brew. This is the image chosen by Christ our Lord to show how, at his own table, the mystery of our unity and peace is solemnly consecrated. All who fail to keep the bond of peace after entering this mystery receive not a sacrament that benefits them, but an indictment that condemns them. So let us give God our sincere and deepest gratitude, and, as far as human weakness will permit, let us turn to the Lord with pure hearts. With all our strength, let us seek God’s singular mercy, for then the Divine Goodness will surely hear our prayers. God’s power will drive the Evil One from our acts and thoughts; it will deepen our faith, govern our minds, grant us holy thoughts, and lead us, finally, to share the divine happiness through God’s own son Jesus Christ. Amen!

A though from Teilhard de Chardin

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress that it is made by passing through some stages of instability — and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you; your ideas mature gradually — let them grow, let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on, as though you could be today what time (that is to say, grace and circumstances acting on your own good will) will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself in suspense and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.

A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

The Soul’s Atmosphere

Once our helplessness is rendered up to the power of God, life changes and we become less and less the victims of our moods. Instead of letting the world determine our state of mind, we determine the state of our soul with which the world is to be faced. The earth carries around its atmosphere with it as it revolves about the sun; so can the soul carry the atmosphere of God with it in disregard of turbulent events in the world outside.

Lift up your Heart

A thought for the day from Fulton Sheen

Abandonment to God

We always make the fatal mistake of thinking that it is what we do that matters, when really what matters is what we let God do to us. God sent the angel to Mary, not to ask her to do something, but to let something be done. Since God is a better artisan than you, the more you abandon yourself to him, the happier he can make you.

Seven Words of Jesus and Mary

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Advent I Year B ‘Be on your guard, stay awake, because you never know when the time will come’

There are people who walk around in town centres wearing sandwich boards with the following message on them, ‘the end is nigh: repent and believe the gospel’. Now to many people, they appear as figures of fun, strange religious extremists, but this morning, as we begin the season of Advent, the season of preparation for our yearly Memorial of the Incarnation, I would like to begin by considering such people and their message. Their purpose is genuine, and their message is true, and we as Christians would do well to consider what they say, and how it might affect our lives.
       We, here, this morning, as Christians are living between Christ’s Resurrection and the end of the world, we are to be ready, and to spend our time considering the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. In this morning’s gospel, our Lord tells us to stay awake, to be on our guard, to be prepared, because we do not know the time when our Lord will return in glory to judge both the living and the dead.
       Jesus tells us not to be found asleep, in the sleep of sin, asleep which says ‘I’m alright’, ‘I don’t need God’. It is this sleep which affects many people, those who come to church, and the vast majority who do not. That’s not to say they don’t try and live good Christian lives. We all do, instinctively. And yet any mention of the last things tends to conjure up images of fire and damnation, hell and brimstone preachers, thumping pulpits and putting the fear of God into people. It’s the characterisation of the religious as extremists, which affects our friend with the sandwich boards, whom I mentioned earlier. And yet, they all have a point – their message is true – but I suspect that they put it across in a way which strikes people as unpalatable, and so they switch off and go to sleep.
       And yet, what they say matters, it is true that we could all do with being reminded of it. How we live our lives matters, it affects who and what we are, and the world around us. We have but one life to live on Earth, and we must try, with God’s grace, to do the best we can. We live in a world which does not care about such questions, apparently people’s lives are their own business, and we have no business calling people’s actions into question, but this will not do. Our actions affect us, our character, our lives, and the lives of people around us – our actions have consequences, which is why our lives and how we live them matter. What we do and say matters and the Church exists to call people to repentance – to change the whole of their lives and follow Christ in their thoughts, their words, and their deeds – for the Kingdom of God is close at hand.
       Lest we get too afraid, we can turn in confidence to the words of Isaiah in our first reading this morning. The profit is looking forward to the redemption of Israel, the coming of the Messiah, a new future after exile. Against a picture of human sin, and rebellion against God, there is the implicit possibility of something better. In those times when God can seem absent, there is the possibility that God has a loving parent is giving us space to reflect and repent. Isaiah is convinced both of the power and the love of God, to remake us, and restore us, to enrich us with his grace, as Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, and give us the gifts of his spirit.
       We’re not being left alone in all this. God both tells us the nature and source of the problem, and provides us with a solution. He even helps us along our way: he strengthens and encourages us, to turn our lives around, and follow him. That we be vigilant – and take care of the state of our lives and our souls, and those around us, that we are awake, rather than indulging in the self-satisfied sleep of sin.
For God asks of us – that we, this Advent, turn our own lives around, and prepareourselves to meet our Lord, at Mass, when he meets us at his altar in his body and blood, and in his words proclaimed in Scripture, we also need to look forward to meeting our Lord in the yearly remembrance of His Nativity, and in his coming in glory as our Saviour and our Judge. If we can look beyond the commercialism of a sad, cynical world, we can see that God was prepared to go to any length to meet us, to be with us and heal us. Can we not prepare ourselves, our souls and our lives to meet Him?

Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh on Forgiveness

Judgement would hold nothing but terror for us if we had no sure hope of forgiveness. And the gift of forgiveness itself is implicit in God’s and people’s love. Yet it is not enough to be granted forgiveness, we must be prepared to accept it. We must consent to be forgiven by an act of daring faith and generous hope, welcome the gift humbly, as a miracle which love alone, love human and divine, can work, and forever be grateful for its gratuity, its restoring, healing, reintegrating power. We must never confuse forgiving with forgetting, or imagine that these  two things go together. Not only do they not belong together, they are mutually exclusive. To wipe out the past has little to do with constructive, imaginative, fruitful forgiveness; the only thing that must go, be erased from the past, is its venom; the bitterness, the resentment, the estrangement; but not the memory. 

A thought for the day from Jean-Pierre de Caussade

Endeavour to become humble and simple as a little child for love of the Lord, in imitation of him, and in a spirit of peace and recollection. If God finds this humility in us he will prosper his work in us himself. Persevere in being faithful to grace for the greater glory of God and for the pure love of him. All consists in loving well, and with all your heart and in all your employments, this God of all goodness. When God grants us attractions and sensible devotions let us profit by them to attach ourselves more firmly to him above all his gifts. But in times of dryness let us go on always in the same way, reminding ourselves of our poverty and also thinking that, perhaps, God wishes to prove our love for him by these salutary trials. Let us be humble, occupied in correcting our own faults, without reflecting on those of others. Let us see Jesus Christ in our neighbours, and then we shall have no difficulty in excusing them as well as helping them. Besides, we must bear with ourselves also out of charity.

Abandonment to Divine Providence 2:6

Thought for the Day – Trust in the Slow Work of God

Above all, trust in the slow work of God
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new. And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability and
that it may take a very long time. And so I think it is with you.
your ideas mature gradually – let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste. Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow. Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be. Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you, and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1881-1955)
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 57.