Sunday, 26 February 2012

1st Sunday of Lent, Year B, Shaftesbury

Sometimes it seems like life is just tough enough already. I was reminded of this recently by someone who told me how a friend of theirs had gone to Mass awhile back, in the midst of all kinds of difficulties in his life, and he got to Mass only to hear a sermon on the need to "carry your cross" if you are to follow our Lord. And this person thought, "I don't need this right now! I've got difficulties enough already! I don’t need to taking on more!"

This, I think, can be a common attitude that many of us have, myself included, at the start of Lent. I'm sure that there are many of us here, right now, who have got their difficulties that lead them to think that they don't want YET ANOTHER bit of suffering to add to their life.
What I want to say to you, however, is that although this is a common attitude in all of us, it is a mistaken attitude. And it is mistaken because it fails to appreciate that we do not carry our cross alone, rather Jesus carries with us, in fact, He carries it MORE than we do.

The very fact that Jesus, in the Gospels, again and again, uses the word "cross" when He tells us that we must "take up our cross daily", the very fact He uses the word "cross" is the key: because none of us carry PHYSICAL cross, it is a spiritual cross, and we only call it an "cross" because the Lord Jesus carried the Cross, and in our carrying of our daily difficulties we carry them with Him, and He carries them with us, and IN us by strengthening us with His grace.

But how are we to enable the Lord to be the one who is active in us, who is carrying our cross within us, rather than just trying to carry it alone? We can only do this if we allow ourselves to be weak, if we place ourselves weak and in need before our Lord. And, what I wish to suggest to you today, is that, this is one of the things that is achieved in our Lenten penances.

In our Lent of 40 days we are called upon to go out into the desert as our Lord went out into the desert and fasted for 40 days and 40 nights. He allowed Himself to become physically weak. When we go into our spiritual desert, when we "give things up for Lent", and when we accompany this with prayer, and generosity to the poor, when we "give things up for Lent" we allow ourselves to become weaker still. But because we do this in the desert with our Lord, not in the desert by ourself but in the desert with our Lord, then the weakness we experience in the struggles to give things up in self-denial, this very opening of ourselves to weakness opens ourselves to the strength of His grace.

So, for example, this week I've had a particular few problems come my way, problems I don't normally have to deal with. And when Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent arrived, in a very real sense I was not in the mood for it. I was in the mood for a little self-indulgence, for a little taking it easy, for a little comfort eating -not having less but rather having more: more beer, more chocolate, more crisps, more snacks, more! And yet, even at the beginning of Lent, there was something about the experience of denying myself, something about the experience of going without, something about the experience of fighting with my passions and calling on His grace, something in all of that that actually gave me MORE help to carry the daily difficulties I'd been struggling to carry in the first place.
Because we do not carry our cross alone. He carries it.

To bring this to a practical resolution. The Catholic tradition offers us the 3 remedies for sin in this holy season: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving –and we should seek a least a little of each of these 3.
(i) “Giving something up for Lent” is a small act of fasting –compare that with the way Muslim fast in Ramadan, or the way Catholics in the past fasted more vigorously. If you want some suggestions for things to give up for Lent look in the list of suggestions here;
(ii) Prayer needs to be the spirit with which we do this “giving up”, but is also something important in itself. Maybe add as little as extra Hail Mary each day in Lent. Or, especially for the many of you who are retired: attending weekday Mass at least one extra day per week in Lent would bring you many graces. The Friday Holy Hour. Stations of the Cross on Friday evenings would also be very valuable. Maybe a decade of the Rosary. Resolve on one!
(iii) Finally, Almsgiving –giving to the poor, to others, in some form. Following our Ash Wednesday fasting we have a retiring collection today, that’s one way of giving. But maybe also some little act around the home or for our neighbour.

To conclude, Lent is a time of going into the desert with our Lord. Lent is a time of giving things up, of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving to the poor. But all of this does not need to make it a time of MY strength, rather, it should be time of opening myself to HIS strength taking over within me.

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