Thursday, February 18, 2021

A reading from S. Clement for Ash Wednesday

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, and I had prepared a homily based on the Mass readings, stressing that the individual and communal dimensions of our Lenten penitence go together. But throughout the day I put my homily aside and decided to read instead the following passage from S. Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians, from the day’s Office of Readings. Here it is: 


Let us fix our attention on the blood of Christ and recognize how precious it is to God his Father, since it was shed for our salvation and brought the grace of repentance to all the world.


If we review the various ages of history, we will see that in every generation the Lord has offered the opportunity of repentance to any who were willing to turn to him. When Noah preached God’s message of repentance, all who listened to him were saved. Jonah told the Ninevites they were going to be destroyed, but when they repented, their prayers gained God’s forgiveness for their sins, and they were saved, even though they were not of God’s people.


Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the ministers of God’s grace have spoken of repentance; indeed, the Master of the whole universe himself spoke of repentance with an oath: As I live, says the Lord, I do not wish the death of the sinner but his repentance. 

He added this evidence of his goodness: House of Israel, repent of your wickedness. Tell the sons of my people: If their sins should reach from earth to heaven, if they are brighter than scarlet and blacker than sackcloth, you need only turn to me with your whole heart and say, “Father,” and I will listen to you as a holy people.


In other words, God wanted all his beloved ones to have the opportunity to repent and he confirmed this desire by his own almighty will. That is why we should obey his sovereign and glorious will and prayerfully entreat his mercy and kindness. We should be suppliant before him and turn to his compassion, rejecting empty works and quarrelling and jealousy which only lead to death.


Brothers, we should be humble in mind, putting aside all arrogance, pride and foolish anger. Rather, we should act in accordance with the Scriptures, as the Holy Spirit says: The wise man must not glory in his wisdom nor the strong man in his strength nor the rich man in his riches. Rather, let him who glories glory in the Lord by seeking him and doing what is right and just. 

Recall especially what the Lord Jesus said when he taught gentleness and forbearance. Be merciful, he said, so that you may have mercy shown to you. Forgive, so that you may be forgiven. As you treat others, so you will be treated. As you give, so you will receive. As you judge, so you will be judged. As you are kind to others, so you will be treated kindly. The measure of your giving will be the measure of your receiving. 

Let these commandments and precepts strengthen us to live in humble obedience to his sacred words. As Scripture asks: Whom shall I look upon with favour except the humble, peaceful man who trembles at my words?


Sharing then in the heritage of so many vast and glorious achievements, let us hasten toward the goal of peace, set before us from the beginning. Let us keep our eyes firmly fixed on the Father and Creator of the whole universe, and hold fast to his splendid and transcendent gifts of peace and all his blessings.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Clement was the third successor of S. Peter as Bishop of Rome from 88 to c.99 A.D., when he was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the sea.


The majority of scholars date his letter to the Corinthians in the last decade of the first century, although there are others who argue for an earlier date, even in the late 60s or early 70s. Writing on behalf of the Roman church, Clement responds to ongoing problems in the Corinthian church. The letter challenges those in the wrong to repent and change their ways. It is firm, but very pastoral in tone, referring to apostolic teaching and ministry, grounded in many Scripture passages.

Clement’s Letter to the Corinthians was so respected in the early Church, that in some regions it was read at Mass interchangeably with  the writings of the Apostles. That’s not surprising when the words of S. Irenaeus of Lyons (c.130–c.202 A.D.) are taken into account: ‘[Clement], as he had seen the blessed apostles, and had been conversant with them, might be said to have the preaching of the apostles still echoing [in his ears], and their traditions before his eyes.’


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