for Sunday, February 21, 2010
We are now in the liturgical season of
Lent, preparing for Easter, at this time three things are traditionally
recommended to us: Prayer, Fasting & Almsgiving.
Lent is a time of sober reflection,
reassessment and rededication of our lives to God. We review our lives,
seek forgiveness, do penance and recommit ourselves to Christ. This is
all done within the context of the Passion of the Lord, which we are
constantly reminded of during Lent as we build up to the solemn
re-enactment of the passion and resurrection of Christ at Easter.
It could be asked - why are we so sorry
for our sins during Lent particularly, surely this should be the case
all the time? Yes, but perhaps it is because during Lent we are made
specially aware of the sufferings of Christ, particularly through such
devotions as the Stations of the Cross.
We quickly see the connection between our
sins and Christ's sufferings and we are sorry and seek to make amends.
This is a very natural and human thing to do; but we realise that
nothing will be sufficient to make up for our sins - yet we do feel a
strong need to do something to make amends and so we do penance even if
we realise that this is a mere drop in the ocean.
We do penance because we are sorry for
our sins, sorry for the pain they have inflicted on Christ and on
others, even though we know it is only token and can't ever make up for
it. But because we do penance which is an ecclesial and sacramental
activity it unites us with Christ himself in his passion. It becomes not
a merely individual activity but something of cosmic proportions, it
makes us part of Christ's redemptive work.
But what about prayer fasting and
almsgiving, the three ways the Church has given us for penance
particularly during Lent.
These three things almost sound trite
after what I've been saying about participating in the passion and being
part of something of cosmic proportions. Surely this can't be brought
about by merely rattling off a Hail Mary, giving up sugar or putting a
few coppers in the poor box.
If we are really serious about Lent and
are prepared to undertake the task of re-conversion to Christ, of
becoming more and more conformed to his image and living out in our
lives the implications of his passion, then we will also take seriously
the means the Church gives us. We will want to get below the surface and
find out what they really mean.
Now I'm sorry if I disappoint you but I
am only going to give you one way of looking at these three forms of
penance; but perhaps it will be of some help and may get us beneath the
surface, St John tells us that God is love and he who lives in love,
lives God and God lives in him. Love then is God's basic attitude
towards us and love, as you know, always requires a response - even
being ignored is a response, albeit a negative one.
So if what we are dealing with is a
relationship then I'd like to look at prayer, fasting and almsgiving as
aspects of our relationship with God.
Under the heading of prayer I mean my
personal attitude to God. What are the channels of communication between
us like? Are they open? If they are open, just what state are they in?
Is it just a one-way link, me telling God what he should do, or is it
like the so-called 'hot-line' between the super-powers, only for
emergencies? Or is it like my grandmother with the telephone, she knew
quite well how to work it but didn't ever use it because she was afraid
of it? I'm sure there's an analogy to fit your own particular situation.
The point I want to make is that prayer
is the actual content of your relationship with God. And what the church
is saying is: get those channels of communication open and in frequent
use, don't allow anything to obstruct them. And if you don't seem to be
getting much response don't worry because in a way this too is a
response, hang on in there and wait for God; make your prayer a
listening and not a telling.
So prayer focuses on our direct
relationship with God and not merely on the saying of prayers. During
Lent then we don't just pray more we think about the whole pattern of
prayer in our life. And we ask what does it mean? Where is it going?
Have we developed or are we still at the primary school stage? Is our
prayer just an example of obsessive activity? Or is it a major stimulus
like a high-powered fertilizer forcing us to grow as persons, forcing us
to be more fully human and therefore closer to God?
As regards fasting, I see this as
shifting the focus to self. It is about me and how I see myself as a
human being situated in the material world. It is about my priorities
and the value I place on material things, how I occupy myself and how I
measure my worth.
For example, how can I be a God-centred
person and yet judge my success in life by the standards of the consumer
By the simple heading of fasting the
Church is trying to indicate a whole attitude towards life, an attitude
towards self and material things. The values and attitudes of someone
who sees the need for fasting and actually does fast are worth acquiring and
they ultimately lead one to God. Yes, the material world and material
pleasures are good and wonderful in themselves, but they are created
things and in ultimate terms the creator is much more important than
what he creates.
To absorb ourselves then, merely with
material things and to see no need for sacrifice is to devalue
ourselves. We who are made in the image of God cannot ultimately be
satisfied with anything less than God himself.
Lent is for reviewing, let us then review
our lives and ask the question, how does a redeemed child of God
actually live in the world of material things? And having answered the
question for ourselves then make a serious attempt to swing the balance
a bit, and maybe we will see the need for something a little extreme
like a real fast with the idea that the pendulum will swing back to a
position of right relationship with the world. Not rejecting it in
favour of some pious nirvana where we exist on communion hosts and holy
water, but neither wallowing in ostentatious wealth like some twentieth
Just as I have done with the other two
Lenten priorities I'd like to broaden almsgiving out a bit and not
restrict it to charitable handouts. I see almsgiving as a symbol of our
relationship with other people and the key word here is giving. Becoming
a 'giving' person.
I have related prayer as a symbol of our
relationship with God and fasting as a symbol of our relationship with
the material world, the other part of the equation is other people and I
think that this is at the root of almsgiving.
I think it is all summed up in the use
and misuse of the word 'charity'. Charity means 'love', but society has
misused it and it now means money doled out by those trying to salve
their consciences. No wonder no one wants charity! Love then is the
keynote and in our Lenten review of life we ask ourselves whether love
is in fact what characterises our relationships? Are we turned in on
ourselves or turned out to others seeing in them other Christ's, each
in the process of dying on their own cross?
If that's how we did see others then we
certainly would be moved. Which one of us doesn't have the cross in his
or her own life, which one of us doesn't expect other people to make
allowances for us? If this is so then why are we so hard hearted?
Almsgiving isn't doling out money to
the vagrant sitting in a Broadmead shopping street with dreadlocks, a
can of cider and a big dog. Almsgiving is giving our whole lives to
others in the name of the man who died to redeem the whole world. And
yes, it will involve putting our hand in our pockets now and again, but
it will never be out of distain or disgust or merely out from duty or
We will be keen to maintain other peoples
self respect and be willing to put up with other people's
idiosyncrasies in the knowledge that its surely much harder for them to
put up with us.
These have just been a few thoughts on
the subject; it's been a bit long but there is, after all, an awful
lot to be said ...or rather an awful lot to be done.
Readings of the day:
Reflections are available for the following Sundays: