Monday, February 24, 2020

An invitation to make the most of Lent

Traditionally, Christians have regarded the season of Lent as the ‘healing time’ of the Church’s year ...

# the time when we look at our lives and work out where we really are in our walk with God.

# the time when we realise afresh that ‘the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt ...’ (Jeremiah 17:9) and that our capacity for self-deception is limitless.

# the time when we allow holy Mother Church to care lovingly for us and to help us face reality as the necessary prelude to a new and wonderful healing encounter with Jesus.

Sometimes we can be psychologically, emotionally and spiritually worn down by life’s challenges, not to mention the pressure of the battle against evil (within us, within our communities, and the spiritual warfare we wage with the cosmic powers of evil) in which we were enlisted in our Baptism. 

If we are worn down right now, then this Lent can be a time of spiritual refreshing, as we respond to Jesus’ invitation to ‘come apart and rest awhile’ (Mark 6:31). 

There are also mysterious stretches of spiritual dryness followers of Jesus sometimes go through, seemingly unconnected to any particular fault or sin on our part. Memories of our long past ‘springtime of faith’ torment us, and we find ourselves banging on heaven’s door, asking for the grace to re-live those old days. God seems a million miles away.

All the great saints down through the ages struggled at times just to hang on to God in naked faith, trusting in his promises. Some of the saints - like Mother Teresa of Calcutta - endured literally decades of this, even while selflessly drawing so many others into God’s love. 

If that is where we seem to be at the moment, we, too, must hang on to God in naked faith, supported by the love and prayers of our Christian brothers and sisters, and strengthened by the grace of God in the sacraments of his presence. The main thing is not to give up. Remember the saying, ‘When the train goes into the tunnel, the safest thing is to stay on the train!’ Maybe for you this Lent will be a time when your trust in the promises God is strengthened.

Having recognised that we can be simply worn out, or going through one of these inexplicable periods of spiritual dryness, we need to be honest enough to admit that often our spiritual, emotional and psychological problems are connected with our relationship with God becoming dysfunctional.

In our relationships with other people, the causes of dysfunctionality are complex, and both parties are very often at fault. We need wise counsellors and psychologists to help us work out why things are as they are. 

But the one thing we know about dysfunctionality in our relationship with God is that God is never at fault. He has loved us with an everlasting love. He sacrificed everything to redeem us in Christ. He could not have done more. He made us his people and gave the Holy Spirit to dwell within us. He speaks to us through the Scriptures, and he comes to us in the miracle of Holy Communion.

He gives himself completely to us. Any dysfunctionality in our relationship with him is OUR fault.

There are at least two ways in which our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional: 

The first is when we deliberately ignore what God says in the Scriptures and try to run our own lives. Each one of us has a huge struggle to bring the various aspects of our lives into conformity with the will of God, even with the Holy Spirit within us, and the encouragement of our Christian brothers and sisters. 

But we cannot deliberately shut God out of this or that area of our life and expect our overall relationship with him to survive - any more than we could do that in our relationships with people. And we DO shut him out when we ignore his will as we find it in Scripture. The end result is that instead of the ‘life more abundant’ he wants us to have (John 10:10), we end up in a loveless hell of our own making.

The second way our relationship with God becomes dysfunctional also reflects what can happen in ordinary relationships. It’s when we become so self-absorbed, so preoccupied with what we are doing, so busy fulfilling our ambitions and goals, that we just drift from God without meaning to, and probably without realising what is happening. This seems fairly innocuous, but the end result is the same.

In Orthodox Churches, the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent is the account of Jesus healing the paralysed man (Mark 2:1-12). You remember this paralysed man . . . his friends got him to Jesus by pulling the roof apart and lowering him, sleeping mat and all, into the house.

The man’s physical paralysis is used in the liturgy as a picture of our spiritual paralysis, the end result of allowing our relationship with God to remain dysfunctional. 

It is also used to convey two other truths: First, that the paralysis caused by sin can only be healed by Jesus. So, it is to him we return this Lent, in order to know his forgiveness, his love and his healing power. Second, that those wonderful friends who helped the paralysed man remind us that this Lent we need to help each other as brothers and sisters in our local Church community get to Jesus in spite of the obstacles that might be in the way.

Lent takes us back to the basic question of our priorities. Saint Paul tells us what mattered most of all to him in these powerful words:

‘I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. 

‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith; that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 

‘Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.’  
(Philippians 3:8-12)

‘Faith’ for Saint Paul certainly includes believing the right things about Jesus. But it is far more than that. It means to RELY on what Jesus has done for us, and to TRUST him with the details of our daily lives. It means to abandon ourselves to his love.

The self denial, fasting and penitence that the Church urges during Lent are not ends in themselves. They are meant to help us examine our hearts so as to see clearly the areas in which we have gone astray, and to then re-focus our lives on Jesus. 

Let us draw closer to him this Lent. Let us slow down a little. Let us allow the suffering love of Jesus to impact on our hearts and minds. Let us open ourselves afresh to the Holy Spirit and experience the mending of our relationship with God and our relationships with one another.

The sign of the cross made on our foreheads with ashes on the first day of Lent -  Ash Wednesday - is a gritty reminder of our mortality and sinfulness. It is also a reminder of the price of our redemption. This little ceremony launches us on a journey through the wastelands of our lives, hungering and thirsting for the living God. We face the inner wilderness of our dangers and temptations. This is, in fact, a journey back to the baptismal waters. We make it, not primarily as individuals, but as a community of disciples growing together in our Saviour’s love.

Lent as a season evolved early in the Church’s history from the annual fasting and repentance of Christians as they prepared to celebrate the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. It was a springtime in which new converts completed their preparation for Baptism, which would take place at the great Easter Mass. It was also a time when those Christians who had been separated from Holy Communion because of serious sin received forgiveness, and were restored . 

The whole Church came to see the value of an annual season of self-examination and repentance, acknowledging that although we have been Baptised, we all betray the gift of new life we received in the waters. And so, now, as Father Alexander Schmemann writes:

‘Easter is our return every year to our own Baptism, whereas Lent is our preparation for that return - the slow and sustained effort to perform, at the end, our own “passage” or “pascha” into the new life in Christ. If, as we shall see, Lenten worship preserves even today its catechetical and baptismal character, it is not as “archaeological” remains of the past, but as something valid and essential for us. For each year Lent and Easter are, once again, the rediscovery and the recovery by us of what we were made through our own baptismal death and resurrection.’


The First Sunday of Lent  
Genesis 2:7-9,3:1-7
We go right back to the beginning, to the Genesis account of our rebellion against God’s love. 

The Second Sunday of Lent 
Genesis 12:1-4
We hear about God’s blessing of Abraham our ‘father in faith.’ 

The Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:3-7 
We hear of the Israelites, set free from slavery in Egypt, journeying through the desert, sustained by God himself. 

The Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1,6-7,10-13
We hear of the anointing of David as king, foreshadowing the kingship of his descendant, Jesus. 

The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Ezekiel 37:12-14
We hear from the prophet Ezekiel who shows how for centuries God was working in human history towards the redemption that Jesus would bring.

This Lent we dip into St Paul’s letters to the Romans, Timothy, Ephesians and Philippians, and hear of the love and compassion of God who is reaching out to us in Jesus.

The First Sunday of Lent 
Matthew 4:1-11 
We hear how Jesus battled the tempter in the desert.

The Second Sunday of Lent
Matthew 17:1-9
We hear of Jesus’ Transfiguration on the mountain where his glory was revealed to the disciples. 

The Third Sunday of Lent
John 4:5-42
We hear of the Samaritan woman at the well

The Fourth Sunday of Lent
John 9:1-41
We hear of the healing of the man born blind 

The Fifth Sunday of Lent 
John 11:1-45
We hear of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. 

(Notice that for the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent, we switch to John’s Gospel and hear these powerful passages about who Jesus is, the same passages that were popular in the ancient Church for teaching new converts who were preparing for their Baptism.)

Special times have been set aside for Confessions on Shrove Tuesday, and also in Holy Week. If none of our usual times or the special times advertised will work for you, please get in touch for  an appointment.

‘For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition of love, embracing both trial and joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.’  (St Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897), in Manuscrits autobiographiques) 

At heart, prayer is a process of self-giving and of being set free from isolation. To pray is to enter into a relationship with God and to be transformed by him.’ (Kenneth Leech in True Prayer, p.10)


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