Joel 2:12-18. Joel urges the Israelites to repent sincerely of their sins, both individually and in a community liturgy – something like what we are celebrating here and now.
2 Cor 5:20-6:2. If Christ has reconciled the world with God, each Christian must seek to become worthy of the grace of Christ by a personal conversion.
Matt 6:1-6, 16-18. Jesus encourages his hearers to perform the traditional pious exercises of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. The aim in this must be to please God, and God alone.
Many may wish to encourage their congregations to undertake some works of prayer and penance at the outset of Lent. I think it is good to underline the meaning of penance as renewal, rather than admonishing people to feats of endurance during the seven weeks. The New Testament notion of penance involves a whole change of outlook on life and a turning away from our selfishness, an outward-looking attitude. So often penance has been preached as something that is “my” achievement. Much more positive is a preaching that encourages the Christian community to try to limit the influences within themselves that hinder their love for God and neighbour. Penance is the negative side of love, acknowledging our inability to love adequately and our mate selfishness. In our sinful world penance is part of our opening out to the fulness of God’s love.
Under this aspect the preacher may wish to allude to Baptism as a sharing in the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Our lives have been sealed by the cross and all our growth towards God has a side of dying to self and another grace-filled aspect of rising to God’s new life of love. The seed of this movement is planted in us when we were first reconciled to God in the sacrament of our rebirth.
This reconciliation with God means a coming to terms with the ground of all reality. Growing towards him involves a right attitude to created goods, not despising them and not treating them as ends in themselves. The goodness of created reality is proposed clearly in the first reading. Perhaps in appreciating created reality in a proportionate way we are called to a continuous repentance and to a practical living out of our Baptism. Lent can be proposed as a season when we are challenged anew to measuring up to the call of God in these various aspects of life and we are invited to open ourselves to the power of new life that is available to us in the Paschal mystery.
Lent,Condition and Season
The distance that develops between ourselves and somebody else can so easily happen with Our Lord. He’s there in our lives already but too much in the background, like a statue in the gallery of a Church. It’s a distance he feels and that he wants us to close: “Come-to me, all you who labour and are overburdened” (Mt 11:28); “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you refused” (Mt 23:3 7). Because he hates the distance between us and because he is Our Lord, it is imperative that we be close to him. He craves our love, needs our commitment, works through us in his mission. It is imperative that we be close to him because we need his love, his truth, his guidance, his salvation, his meaning.
Somebody said that Christianity is not so much a religion as a relationship. The relationship has to be there. In his book The Eternal Year Karl Rahner says that, for modern people, Lent begins long before Ash Wednesday and goes on long after Easter Sunday. Lent is not so much a season as a condition. A condition in which modern people suffer – because God seems far away. Distance again. So let’s try during this Lenten season to narrow the distance if only a little – to inch closer to Christ in our thought, our prayer and our love. I said to you a moment ago that Lent is Christ made real. I say to you now with even greater emphasis that Lent is Christ made near. Think about it. If each of us can draw closer to him during the coming weeks, then this little reflection will have been well worthwhile. Lent will have been a real springtime in our lives.
The Irish Potato Famine was such a terrible experience that the memory of it still appals us after more than a century and a half. One day in December 1846, when the Famine was at its worst, a Mr Richard Inglis paid a visit to Skibbereen in County Cork. As he made his way into the town, he saw three dead bodies lying in the street. He buried them with the help of the local constabulary. The figures for Skibbereen at that time make grim reading: nearly two hundred people died in the workhouse during the previous six weeks and another hundred had been found dead in the derelict cabins or laneways of the town. Four days later, a relief inspector included in his report one horrifying sentence: “A woman with a dead child in her arms was begging in the street.”
While such misery is long past in Ireland, for many people in the world, now is like our famine of 1846-47. What our people suffered then is the famine that these people know now. In spite of all scientific and agricultural progress, millions of people are still facing starvation, because the world is still so badly divided. In Africa alone, fifteen million children die each year from hunger and disease. In a remote mountain region of Mexico, ten per cent of the mothers die in childbirth. The nearest hospital is fourteen hours away by car – except that the most common mode of transport in the Sierra Madre is the mule.
Along with the hunger for food and health there is the hunger for education. Half the world’s adult population are illiterate. And illiteracy, it has been said, is a form of starvation too. It starves people of the knowledge and the skills they need to fight physical hunger and build a better world.
What sort of self-denial might we contemplate for this Lent? Not just something to help us lose weight, or to use the occasion to finally quit smoking. Somehow or other we might have the idea that Lent is really only for our own good. While it should certainly do us good, Lent is meant to be a season of sustained self-denial for the sake of Our Lord and his people.
To be frank, we tend to make sacrifices for purely personal reasons. Whether we give up cigarettes or drink, or pay more attention to speed-limits while driving, we may do it merely to lose weight or for health reasons or as an exercise in self-control. What is the point of giving up things unless we also give of ourselves? Do we forget the millions who would gladly fast if they weren’t already starving?
A good Lenten resolution comes through in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “To share your bread with the hungry is the fast that pleases me” (Is 58:6-8). Our Lord went even further by identifying with those in need: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink” (Mt 25:35). Christ suffered and died not just to win for us happiness in heaven but to promote real justice on the earth. During Lent we should indeed prune ourselves through penance and enter into the closest possible union with Our Lord. But we should have justice on our minds as well. By being hard on ourselves we can make it easier for others. Whatever we can spare should find its generous way to those who are in need, not just to keep them alive for another day, but to help them create a better life further on. Our sacrifice should build their future, our Lent can lead to their Easter, our dying to their resurrection.
There is only one family on earth – God’s family. We should do whatever we can to ensure that no mother in any country ever has to beg in the streets of this world’s “Skibbereens” with a dead baby in her arms.
It is interesting to note how much more jejune Mark’s gospel about the fast and the temptation is when compared with the later Gospels. It is not unreasonable to think that the later gospels are theological embroidering on the older tradition. For St. Mark the theme of the story is the close link between the preparation by Jesus in the desert and the start of his preaching. He went forth to tell men and women that the kingdom of God’ love was near (only a few feet above a man’s head as Kerry woman once said)only after he prepared himself by focusing his energies on the work that was ahead. So we who must also tell the world about this kingdom of love use Lent to focus our energies
Once upon a time, not so long ago, the women who were the “leaders” in a certain parish decided that their Lenten project should be something that would benefit the whole parish. They met several time to discuss what each of them thought would be most beneficial project they could sponsor. One woman suggested they have a childrens Easter fashion show. She knew her daughter would love to do something like that. Another woman suggested a “house walk” where some of the owners of the newest and biggest houses in the community could let the rest of the community see how they decorated their houses for Easter.
Several similar ideas were put forth but support for each idea was rather evenly split. Finally, one woman who had been silent during the whole discussion suggested that a Lenten project that would benefit the entire parish might best be one in which everyone in the parish could participate as they lived out the season of preparation for Easter. The other women were a bit surprised at her suggestion. No one had stopped to think “outside the box” of spring fashion shows and hose walks. As they thought about it & discussed what they might do, they came to realize that they had gotten caught up in ideas that didnt really reflect the spirit of Easter. This shared insight helped them focus on ways in which their project would be one that would help the whole community appreciate the spirit of resurrection.
First Reading: Joel 2:12-18
Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God.
Blow the trumpet in Zion; sanctify a fast; call a solemn assembly; gather the people. Sanctify the congregation; assemble the aged; gather the children, even infants at the breast. Let the bridegroom leave his room, and the bride her canopy. Between the vestibule and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep. Let them say, “Spare your people, O Lord, and do not make your heritage a mockery, a byword among the nations. Why should it be said among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”
Then the Lord became jealous for his land, and had pity on his people.
Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2
So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain.
For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!
Gospel: Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Jesus said: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.