Meditations for Lent 2018
Theme of this 2018 Lent retreat : “Seeking Peace in Prayer”
"In humility and charity, by fasting and giving, by restraining ourselves and pardoning, by paying out good deeds and not paying back bad ones, by turning away from evil and doing good, our prayer seeks peace and obtains it."
- St. Augustine, Sermon 206, 3
WEEK 2: “BY FASTING AND GIVING”
By St Joseph’s Broomhouse’s Parish Priest, Paul Graham O.S.A.
‘I DO NOT ASK MORE BULLOCKS FROM YOUR FARMS…’
February 27, 2018
I know what you are thinking: ‘Why did he choose that daft text?’ Well, God is a ‘God of Surprises’, so we must allow ourselves to be surprised by that which may not be obvious. What my chosen text for today says to me, and it may well not be what the psalmist intended, is that God is not a demanding God. Challenging, yes, but not demanding in the sense that he is always wanting something of us.
I remember befriending a homeless man who used to sit at the back of our church on cold days. He was a man of few words, but I sensed that there may be some spark of religion in him and I thought it might be a good idea to bring up the issue of God. Given that he spent so much time in church, I asked him one day did he ever pray. I got a curt ‘No!’ When I asked him why, he said, ‘He may hear me’. I was a bit taken aback by that, so I asked him what he thought God might say. ‘You’re fired!’ was his startling reply. I assumed, therefore, that he saw God as a demanding god that might sack him like an angry boss. He did go on to say that the reason why God may want to fire him was because, in his own words, ‘He has too many people working for him’. I haven’t fully figured out what he meant by that, but I’ve a funny feeling he was including me in that, and that I should mind my own business and stop pestering him about religion!
But we’re all a bit afraid, let’s face it, that God may demand something of us: ‘more bullocks from your farms’, as the psalmist says. However, as the prophet Isaiah says today, God wants to forgive us: ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow’. Interestingly, on another occasion when I asked my homeless friend if he wanted anything, meaning by it a cup of tea or something to eat, I got a surprising reply: ‘absolution’.
‘GIVE AND THERE WILL BE GIFTS FOR YOU…’
February 26, 2018
Lent, among many other things, is about giving. Life itself is a gift, from God. We don’t earn the right to live. God gives life to us, and our response is one of gratitude. The Eucharist, the Mass, is an act of thanksgiving to God. That’s what ‘eucharist’ means in Greek. Not only do we thank God for life, we thank him for faith, our families, everything we need to live, and, above all, the new life that Christ gave us by means of his death and resurrection. The old life had been marred by the Fall.
But receiving can be difficult, perhaps surprisingly. The reason is we like to be in charge of our lives, in control. And to receive is to cede some of that control to another. It is a form of dependence. We become indebted to the one who gives. Let me give an example. Like most people, I prefer to buy my own clothes, the things I want and like. But as a priest I am often given things: jumpers, socks, shirts, all sorts of things. At first, I found this difficult and embarrassing, annoying even. Then I began to see, perhaps with a nudge or two from the Holy Spirit, that I needed to be more open and accepting of people’s generosity. I needed to give up some of my control and allow others to give. When I started doing that, receiving became a joy, even if many of the things I wear I would not have chosen for myself! That might be a rather silly example, but I hope you get what I mean.
This Lent, therefore, allows God to give us his gifts, and he knows better than we do what we really need. And be prepared to receive those gifts from others. Because God doesn’t zap us from above with a kind of spiritual laser beam. His gifts to us come through others. But as Jesus says in today’s gospel, start by giving to others first, and let God do the rest.
‘MY SOUL IS LONGING FOR THE LORD MORE THAN WATCHMAN FOR DAYBREAK’
February 23, 2018
There’s something very evocative about this line from today’s responsorial psalm. We don’t have watchmen anymore, but if we can use our imaginations to think back to the days when people had to live in walled towns and cities because outside in the dark it was a dangerous and violent place to be.
The job of a watchman was very important, therefore. He had to stay awake and make sure no scoundrel or wild animal crept into the city at night to steal something or create havoc. It must have been a lonely, and boring, job, so it is easy to imagine him yearning for the dawn to come. To the original reader, or more likely, the listener to this psalm, therefore, the picture of a watchman would have conveyed powerfully the feeling of a soul longing for God.
Lent is a time to recover that sense of longing and yearning for God. We need to get back to the notion of faith as a journey, a pilgrimage, towards the heavenly kingdom, remembering that God’s kingdom is in the here and now as well as in the next life in its fullness. St Augustine frequently uses the image of life as a pilgrimage. Believe it or not, he even uses the expression ‘keep on walking’ in one of his sermons, to convey the idea that as Christians we are always on the move towards God. We are ‘restless hearts’, until they rest in him.
But our pilgrimage is a pilgrimage with a difference: the goal of our journey is already with us while we make progress along the way. As with the disconsolate disciples on the road to Emmaus, Christ walks the journey with us, at first unrecognised - until the ‘breaking of bread’. He is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life. Let us open our eyes to the Christ alongside us as we journey through Lent.
‘WHO DO PEOPLE SAY THE SON OF MAN IS?’
February 22, 2018
Today we take a little pause in Lent, to remember St Peter and what he stands for: the ‘Chair of Peter’. That is, he is the ‘rock’ of faith on which the Church stands, or ‘sits’. Statues of Peter usually have him sitting in a rather grand chair, as in St Peter’s in Rome. The important thing about Peter is that he recognised Christ, calling him the ‘Son of the living God’. In very real sense, the question put to Peter is put to all of us: ‘Who do you say the Son of Man is?’
Lent is a time when we reflect on who Christ is for us. Is he just a name that we use unthinkingly in prayer, or have we actually encountered him in our lives? It may sound rather corny, but have we ‘met’ Christ? Is he alive for us in a way that no one else is? Does Christ ‘happen’ for us?
They say that the problem with Catholics is that they have been sacramentalised but not evangelised, and there is some truth in it. Somehow, the sacraments can get in the way of encountering the living Christ, especially in the gospels, instead of being channels of his love and healing. How do we get round this problem? By being more attentive to Christ in the gospels. Allow him to speak to us each day. Pick out the phrase or sentence, or even just one word, that strikes you about the gospel of the day and reflect and pray about it. A good practice is to read the gospel of the following day the night before and sleep on it. Allow your unconscious to work away on it while you are asleep, and you will be surprised what can come up the following morning.
Let us ‘fast’ from reading a novel or WhatsApp before going to bed and read the next day’s gospel instead.
‘UP!’ HE SAID ‘GO TO NINEVEH, THE GREAT CITY, AND PREACH TO THEM AS I TOLD YOU TO.’ - JONAH 3:1
February 21, 2018
Nineveh stands for where we all live, whether in a great city, a town, or in the countryside. Whatever our personal circumstances, we live with others, and it is in our relationships that we are able to measure the extent to which we are close to God. Lent is a time, therefore, to reflect on those relationships. Augustine believed that in loving others we ‘purify our eyes for seeing God’. We cannot claim to love God and be unloving to our neighbour.
‘Fasting’ is not just about giving up food, it is also about giving up negative attitudes towards others. Let us give up instead any feelings of superiority, ingrained dislikes for certain people, dismissiveness, prejudice, whatever. Instead, let us replace those attitudes by ‘giving’ to others: by being more open and generous with time and talents; by putting others before ourselves; by trying to see things from the perspective of the other person rather than myself.
Believing in Christ is fundamentally about the discovery of Christ within, and then allowing that Christ-centredness to extend outwards towards others. Let us ‘fast’ from a preoccupation with ourselves and ‘give’ instead to others. In the words of St Augustine, ‘Love and do what you will’.
‘LOVE YOUR ENEMIES AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU’
February 24, 2018
Nobody said Lent was going to be easy! Loving our enemies is one of the most difficult things that Jesus is asking us to do. Does he really mean it? I think he does, even if some try to explain it in terms of loving the ‘enemy’ that is within ourselves. That is, we need to acknowledge all the negative stuff that is going on inside us, bring it out into the open, and ‘love’ it - and allow God to heal it. There is some truth in that. But in a way that is too easy an explanation.
Firstly, we need to make a distinction: loving and liking are not the same thing. We make a decision to love; it is an act of will, even when it may go against the grain. And we’re not talking about falling in love. Liking, on the other hand, is a spontaneous response. We don’t choose to like something or not. We either like Coca-Cola or we don’t (I happen to detest it, and no amount of drinking it will change that).
So loving our enemy, whoever that may be, is something we decide to do out of a conviction that it is what Christ is asking of us. The task given to us in Lent, therefore, is to figure out who our enemy is. Let me give an example, a very topical one. Because of terrorism, much of which seems to have a particular religious basis, many of us are fearful of Islam. It has become ‘the enemy’. We have a word for it: Islamophobia. Pope Francis, however, is urging dialogue, asking us to befriend it. This is extremely difficult for those whose lives have been blighted by particular acts of Islamist violence. I know people who have experienced Boko Haram in northern Nigeria. Try telling them to love their enemy. Not easy. What is Pope Francis’s response? When he visited the Central African Republic two years’ ago, where there is a serious conflict between Christians and Muslims, he sat down with the principal imam on the same sofa. Note: not in separate chairs, but the same sofa. That picture of the two of them together went around the world and sent out a powerful message, more powerful than words: ‘love your enemy’.
Let us ‘fast’ from the hatreds in our lives this Lent, whatever they may be, and give love instead.
‘AS THEY CAME DOWN FROM THE MOUNTAIN…’
February 25, 2018
I have a confession to make: I love mountains. They say that you are either a mountain-person or a sea-person. I’m definitely the first, always have been. One of my earliest memories as a small boy was being fascinated by the conquest of Everest in 1953.
Mountains in the Bible are significant. They are places of revelation, of encounter with God: Mt Sinai, Mt Horeb, Mt Tabor, and Mt Calvary. There are more. These were real mountains; you can visit them. But the ‘mountain’ is also a powerful metaphor for the place where one meets God. And Lent is a time, above all, of encounter with God. During Lent, therefore, ‘let us go up to the mountain of the Lord’.
In today’s gospel, Peter, James and John encountered the glory of the Lord, received some inkling of Jesus’ divinity it would seem, on Mt Tabor. We call it the Transfiguration. They wanted to savour the experience and were reluctant to return to their humdrum lives. They wanted to stay on the mountain. This is a perennial temptation: to want to stay on the mountain of religious experience and forget about the daily struggle, which is often boring and routine.
What did Jesus do? He brought the disciples back to reality and led them down the mountain. Lent is a time of encounter with Christ on the mountain of prayer; but however religiously stimulating it is (or not, as the case may be), our task is to live daily the three-fold Lenten challenge of prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The memory of the mountain experience will help to keep us going, and that is important. But we must also try and live without it. To live out our faith is a decision, not a nice feeling, though the consolation (another word for ‘mountain experience’) we receive as a gift from God helps us along the way. Only the one ‘with clean hands and a pure heart can climb the mountain of the Lord’, as it says in the Psalms.