Fr. Patrick: A journey through Lent

Theme: Forty days’ walk to the Father’s House

INTRODUCTION

 Lent is here again; 40 days to renew and deepen our encounter with the Lord through a prayerful meditation on the suffering, death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. These forty days of Lent reminisces, with the same spiritual depth and importance, some of the many mention of the phrase, ‘forty days and forty nights’ in the Bible. While it is closely linked to the ‘forty days and forty nights’ fast of Jesus in the wilderness (Mtt.4:2, Lk 4:2), Lent also has strong links with the forty days  and nights Moses remained in the presence of God on the top of mount Sinai, during which time he was able to write the Commandments on stone tablets ( Exod. 24:18; 34:28). Equally, the spirituality of Lent resonates with the forty days Moses laid prostrate before God in prayer for the forgiveness of his people after God had threatened to destroy them (Deut.9:25). There is also in Lent, a strong allusion to the forty days and forty nights long journey embarked upon by prophet Elijah, from Beersheba to Mount Horeb, while escaping from the death threat of King Ahab and Jezebel (1Kings 19:8). In Lent too can be found a striking similarity with the efforts of the people of Nineveh to restore their relationship with God and thus avoid the forty days threat of destruction from God that laid over their head (Jonah 3:4). Their efforts were marked with prayer, fasting and repentance. Taking a cue from all these and many more instances in the scripture, but also going beyond them, the Church presents us with this unique moment of grace and invites each and every one of us to make these forty days long spiritual journey of repentance and return to our Father’s house through prayers, fasting and almsgiving. In the next forty days the Church will wake us up every morning and during each eucharistic celebration, nourish us with the ‘word of life’ and ‘bread of life’ to guide and strengthen us on this spiritual journey. In the reflections that follow, I shall try to raise up from the daily readings of the Mass, areas of interest that could act as milestones and signposts to help us trace our path with relative ease. They would also provide ‘food for thought’ to occupy our minds and keep us focused on this path of spiritual renewal. Besides renewing and deepening our personal relationship with God, during this time, we can also pray for the forgiveness of our sins and the sins of others, thereby averting the wrath and punishment of God.  The mood is generally a sad one depicting our inner sorrow for our sins, and resolve not to sin again. The purple /violet vestments and altar cloth typify this sorrowful mood of the Church. Alleluia as a note of joy and the Gloria would be suspended during this period too. The stations of the Cross would serve to remind us that Jesus died to take away our sins, and if we too die to sin, we shall rise to new life of grace as God’s children. It is advisable that we take time to read through the various readings even while meditating on the themes of these reflections.

 

DAY ONE – 26 February 2020 – Ash Wednesday.

First Reading: Joel 2: 12-18
Responsorial Psalm:
Psalms 51: 3-4, 5-6ab, 12-13, 14 and 17
Second Reading:
2 Corinthians 5: 20 – 6:2
Gospel:
Matthew 6: 1-6,16-1

Topic: Identity, Location and Destination

 Ash Wednesday begins the Lenten season. On this first day of our journey, it is important to put into proper perspective the fundamental questions of our identity, location and destination as far as our relationship with God is concerned. In other words, who are we?  What is our present location? Where are we going to? What is the purpose of our journey?  What is the best route and means to get to our destination? Perhaps this resonates well with the African proverb which says that, ‘a man who does not know where he is from, may never know where he is going’. But the question of where one is at any moment also implies a prior knowledge of who one is. Our identity is clearly emphasized in the readings of today. Joel’s repeated use of phrases like ‘thy people, thine inheritance, ‘their God’ show that we are God’s children and we belong to Him (2:17). The psalmist speaks with the same note of personal intimacy and relationship with God by his repeated use of the personal pronoun ‘I’, ‘me’, ‘my’, in addressing God. The second reading, from the onset, calls us God’s ambassadors (trusted companions and emissaries), while the repeated use of the phrase ‘your father in heaven’, in the Gospel defines us as God’s children.

In terms of where we are, it is also clear that our present location is not where we are supposed to be in relation to God our father. We are far away from our father’s house. There seems to be an obvious rift and dislocation in our relationship with Him. What is also obvious is that this break in relationship is to our own detriment and doom. Our sins have separated us from God and kept us where we are, in a precarious position. The readings express passionate requests and admonition for conversion, return to God and reconciliation with Him on our part. There is also a strong appeal to God to forgive and return to us. We see also a strong faith and hope that as a God of mercy and compassion, He would forgive us.

 In terms of our destination, God’s house, His waiting hands of embrace and His love is where we are heading. This is where we belong and He wants us back. The purpose of our journey is to be reconciled with Him, to seek and gain His forgiveness, to restore our relationship with Him, to enjoy his love and care. By our sins we offended Him. Now is the time to return to Him.

Repentance, sought through sorrow for our sins, fasting, prayers and almsgiving, is the prescribed route and means of our journey to God’s house. The admonitions in the first reading and the Gospel show that something is fundamentally lacking in the way we try to go about our quest for intimacy with God. Sometimes we might become hypocritical while applying these means or while following this laid out path. Concentrating on external adherence to the rubrics of the seasons or taking path in the activities just to be admired or seen to have done so; these would merit us nothing. A broken heart and a contrite spirit; this is the right path. Fasting, Prayer and Almsgiving that have God as the only focus; these are the right means. 

The ashes today, the fasting, prayers and almsgiving are external signs of repentance and humility before God. However, wearing these ashes on our foreheads and merely taking part in these activities, is not enough. We must accompany these external actions with interior penitence and sincere desire to return to God. The ashes also remind us of both the inevitability of our physical death and the possibility of our spiritual (and ultimately eternal) death. Whereas the former is our common destiny as mortal beings created from the dust of the earth, spiritual death on the other hand, happens only to those who live in habitual mortal sin. When unrepented of, spiritual death can pave the way to eternal death (eternal separation from God after one’s departure from this world). Being reminded today of these realities is a way of calling us back to our senses and making us see the urgent need to begin immediately to retrace our steps, wake up from our sinfulness and return to God. The Church says to each one of us, ‘Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation’, (2Cor.6:2), ‘Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning. And rend your hearts, and not your garments, and turn to the Lord your God: for he is gracious and merciful, patient and rich in mercy, and ready to repent of the evil (Joel 2:12-13).

Activity.- For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me (Psalm 51:5)

1.      Take stock of all you have done against God in the last couple of days or months judging from the last time you went for confession

2.      Take stock of all those who have hurt you recently and you are finding difficult to forgive

3.      Take stock of all those you have hurt and have not sincerely asked for forgiveness.

4.      Imagine that these things you have mentioned above are hindering your progress on this spiritual journey

5.      What tools do you have at your disposal to remove these obstacles?

6.      Are you ready to sincerely make use of them?

7.      Confess your sins and be sorry for them. Take the initiative and forgive your offenders. Be humble enough to ask for forgiveness from those you have hurt.


DAY 2: 27th February: Thursday after Ash Wednesday

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30: 15-20
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 1: 1-2, 3, 4 and 6
Gospel: Luke 9: 22-25

Topic: To be or not to be: the choice is yours.

Every day we wade through a labyrinth of choices; choices of what to eat, what to wear, where to go to, what to do with our time, who to include into or exclude from our circles of friends, who to vote for, which insurance company to use etc. This ability to choose is ingrained in our nature and the choices we make help define us and mould who we are or who we become. Sometimes our choices make us healthy and hearty, sometimes they leave us sick, sad and silly. But amidst life’s passing choices, we are also confronted with the most fundamental and ultimate choice; the choice between life and death. Shakespeare’s Hamlet captures this well in his soliloquy; “to be or not to be, that is the question”. Whereas the choice between life and death could be easily appreciated at the physical and biological sense, the emphasis in our context is the choice between life and death at the moral, transcendental, and spiritual sense. Both in its physical and spiritual senses, this ultimate choice is surrounded, influenced by and perhaps determined by other smaller related choices we make on daily basis.

In today’s readings, God presents us with this ultimate choice in the spiritual sense, together with all the implications and the consequences of whatever we decide to choose. While the first reading is very explicit on this: ‘Consider that I have set before thee this day life and good, and on the other hand death and evil’(Deut.30:15), the Responsorial Psalm (psalm 1) identifies and differentiates between one who has chosen life and the one who has chosen death. It calls the former the ‘just man’ while the later is identified as the ‘wicked’. On its part, the gospel also speaks of choosing between life and death but in a paradoxical manner. Jesus says, ‘those who choose to preserve their lives in this world will lose it, while those who choose to lose their lives for the sake of God will preserve it’(Lk 9:24).

In the first reading and in the psalm, to choose life implies that we obey God and keep his commandments. This is what makes us just and righteous. The consequence of this is that God blesses us with both material and spiritual blessings. While the material blessings enhance our physical life, the spiritual blessings prepare us for a blissful eternal life in His kingdom. On the contrary, if who choose death, it shows in our disobedience of God’s commandments. This choice designates us as the wicked. The consequences are that we are deprived of God’s physical and spiritual blessings, ultimately, we are deprived of eternal life in his Kingdom.

In the Gospel, choosing life in the spiritual sense implies self-abnegation for divine purposes even to the point of physical death. It is expressed through bearing one’s cross – the many hardships that come our way in the course of trying to do God’s work or maintaining good relationship with Him. Jesus has set the pace in this regard and he wants us to follow in his footsteps. The reward is that, God raises us up and grants us eternal life in his kingdom. What God has done for Jesus He would do for all who follow in his footsteps. The path of Jesus even when it passes through the cross is the path that leads to life. I have come that they may have life and have it to the full (John 10:10), I am the way, the truth and the Life (John 14: 6).  On the contrary choosing physical life through self-indulgence and aggrandizement leads to spiritual death and ultimately, eternal death, that is, being separated eternally from God.

The season of Lent affords us the favourable time to ascertain whether through our actions in the course of the year(s) we have chosen life or death? While the former is expressed through the good life we live with God and with our neighbours, and brings good reward from God, the latter, is expressed through the bad life we live and it brings punishment. The good thing is that, in this self-evaluation, Lent assures us that, we can still make amends; we can reverse our decision to choose death instead of life.  Lent also assures us that God is ready to forgive us if we abandon our wrong choices, if we begin to choose life instead of death. Throughout these 40 days, we can start all over, identify and do away with the wrong choices we have made over time; choices which have together characterized us as bad people before God and our neighbours. We can also begin to daily make right choices by practising love, mercy, goodness and humility before God and towards our neighbours.

 

Activity – O Lord, you have searched me and known me (Psalm 139:1)

1.       List all the pro-life choices you have made in recent times- all the good things you have done

2.       List all the anti-life choices you have also made recently- all the evil you have done

3.       What is your attitude towards the pains and hardships that you have to endure in doing God’s work?

4.       Have you aided anybody to make pro-life or anti-life decisions in recent times?

5.       Are you ready and resolved to turn a new leaf as you realize that you have made wrong decisions in the past?


DAY THREE: 28TH FEBRUARY, FRIDAY AFTER ASH WEDNESDAY

First: Isaiah 58: 1-9a
Psalm: Psalms 51: 3-4, 5-6ab, 18-19
Gospel: Matthew 9: 14-15

TOPIC: Fasting through Forgiveness and Charity

Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are the three acts of piety that usually characterize the Lenten season. While preparing to celebrate and re-enact the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are called to deny ourselves or cut down on even our legitimate material needs and bodily comfort, engage in deeper and more fervent prayers and give charitably to the poor and needy. One reason behind all these acts, is to express sorrow for our sins and to ask for forgiveness from God while also trying to forgive those who have hurt us in any way. There are many scriptural allusions to the fact that at various times, Jesus engaged in these three acts as a way of showing us the means to strengthen our relationship with God. He fasted for forty days and night (Mtt.4). He also would spend most nights alone in prayer (Lk 6:12). He came to the help of the needy- the sick, the hungry, the dejected and sorrowful (Mtt. 9:36, 14:13-21). Though Jesus had no sin to repent of, he was setting an example for us.

The Readings of today give us the divine endorsement of these three religious acts from the biblical perspective. The Gospel reading presents Jesus as not just endorsing fasting but giving us the right time to fast: ‘a time will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, that time they will fast’ (Mtt. 9:15). Here Jesus is not only referring to the historical moment of his departure from his disciples, he is also alluding to every moment when through our sins, we are deprived of the sanctifying grace of God and His divine presence and blessings in our lives. These are the right moments to fast.

In a way, the psalmist catches in on this idea of the appropriate time to fast. This psalm is called the psalm of David. Here he expresses deep sorrow for sins and begs for divine mercy and forgiveness. It is a psalm of repentance: “Wash me yet more from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me” (Psalm 51:4-5). The aura of sorrow, lamentation and regret surrounding the psalm suggests that it could have been accompanied by fasting and prayer: “A sacrifice to God is an afflicted spirit: a contrite and humbled heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (51:19). It is on record that David fasted and prayed when the child born to him through his adultery and murder became sick (2Sam.12:16).

The first Reading however, gives us another dimension of fasting that though is integrally linked with the plea for divine forgiveness, is often neglected by us. This is the need to forgive others, to be reconciled with those who have hurt us, promote justice, equality, freedom and brotherhood. Fasting is not all about restoring our relationship with God, it is also about restoring our relationship with our neighbours. As a matter of fact, we cannot hope to obtain forgiveness from God through our fast when at the same time we are harbouring grudges against others. A Lenten fast that does not open us up to seek and grant forgiveness is useless. A Lenten fast that does not challenge us to build a better society is useless. Fasting is not only about obtaining from God, it is also about being ready to share with needy, to be responsive to the needs of the poor; “ the fast that pleases me is to…deal thy bread to the hungry, and bring the needy and the harbourless into thy house: when thou shalt see one naked, cover him, and despise not thy own flesh” ( Isaiah 58:7).

Activity

1.      Cut down on your daily ration of food, drink, clothes, other purchases, phone calls and even travels. Save the excess or the money accruing from that and use it as charity.

2.      Reach out to those you have hurt or those who have hurt you and make peace.

3.      Be just and fair in your dealings with people.

4.      Join hands with others and work to make society a better place.

5.      Read up and take note of what James says about the true acts of worship acceptable to God (James 1:27). 


DAY FOUR .29 February 2020, Saturday after Ash Wednesday

First: Isaiah 58: 9b-14
Psalm:
Psalms 86: 1-2, 3-4, 5-6
Gospel:
Luke 5: 27-32

TOPIC: Between Hypocrisy, self-condemnation and genuine repentance

We are often much more comfortable associating with our partners in the same crime than we often are to people who commit other crimes. While we very readily would brand them ‘sinners’ who need to be dealt with, repudiated, avoided and perhaps killed, we are often very fast to excuse ourselves and our partners. While we are often very fast and strict when it comes to judging others and condemning them for their faults, we often trivialize and are a bit slow in judging ourselves even for the same mistakes we have condemned in others. Matthew and his fellow colleagues in the tax office are stigmatized and despised as sinners among the Jews. The Pharisees will not have anything to do with people like this.  Even civil or cordial words are not uttered to them or one risked being contaminated by them. It is as bad as that. That is why there are indignant to see Jesus not just mingling with them but enjoying conviviality with them through table fellowship.  In this context, as far as the Pharisees are concerned, it is either they themselves are sinless or they do not consider their own faults weighty enough to be considered sinful.

 Jesus tries to make clear certain things in the Gospel today. Firstly, he wants to teach the Pharisees the real purpose of his mission- the salvation of sinners through their reconciliation with God. Secondly, he ironically exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees when he says, “I have not come to call the virtuous but sinners”. In truth, are the Pharisees really virtuous, impeccable and sinless? Your guess is as good as mine. If they are, then they do not need God’s salvation. If they are not, then they have no right to judge Matthew and his colleagues nor to prevent Jesus from associating with them. By exposing them Jesus indirectly reveals that we are all in need of his salvation. Yes, all of us.

Thirdly, Jesus openly declares that all those who humbly accept their shortcomings and are ready to repent in humility before God, have a place in God’s heart. These are the people capable of receiving God’s mercy.

 Fourthly, even if the Pharisees are themselves sinless and holy, it is not their place to decide what God is to do with the sinful Matthew and his fellow tax collectors. As a matter of fact, since their religion teaches that God is full of mercy and compassion, then it is to be expected that God will forgive these people, except of course, the Pharisees prefer that He should not forgive them. In my opinion the Pharisees either think that these people are outside the circle of those God can forgive, or they do not want God to forgive them. In either case, they are wrong. This is what Jesus tries to correct. They should have been merciful and forgiving to the tax collectors and sinners, but they were not and wanted to drag Jesus into their own unforgiving attitude. The first reading also harps on this show of mercy, kindness and charity towards others.

 Fifthly, since God has not condemned us, we have no right to condemn ourselves. God prefers repentance to self-condemnation. Matthew and his friends were bold enough to understand this and made use of the opportunity to be forgiven. It is not advisable to wallow in self-pity, guilt and condemnation. What we should do when we realize our faults is to approach God for forgiveness and be responsive to His Love.

Activity. “For thou, O Lord, art sweet and mild: and plenteous in mercy to all that call upon thee” Psalm 86:5

1.      Do you understand that God is merciful?

2.      Do you believe you are a sinner also in need of God’s mercy?

3.       Have you had a personal experience of God’s mercy?

4.      Do you want this mercy to be extended to others and to be for you alone?

5.      Have you ever led somebody to experience the mercy of God? Or discouraged anybody from approaching God’s mercy?

6.      What is your attitude towards other sinners? Do you forgive the and also pray for their repentance and ultimate forgiveness or do you want to see them suffer for their offenses?

7.      Try and forgive God for forgiving that enemy of yours or that notorious sinner you wanted punished.

8.      When last did you wallow in self-reproach and self-condemnation. Did you approach the throne of grace for mercy?