We are all a bit like Little Red Riding Hood - we all find ourselves picking flowers on our way to grandma's house. What those flowers are varies with each individual person - they may be money, comfort, pleasure, sex, material possessions, promotion, prestige, security or a host of other sinful, or just distracting baubles - what St Augustine calls 'the love of the world'.
We Christians, of course, are not on our way to grandma's house; we are on our way to the Father’s house, our heavenly homeland. The path we walk is Jesus, our Way, and the Holy Spirit of God is the Light which shows us where to place our feet.
Yet, as the journey of faith unfolds, and as the forest grows thicker, we are often waylaid by these glittering and immediately satisfying trifles the world has to offer. They all say to us, ‘Slow down, take a break, have a rest, you deserve it! Watch the cricket, read your novel, go out for the night.’ And we do.
And then, as bed time approaches we realise (fleetingly) that the whole day has been about us; our job, our relaxation, our affairs, and God has been forgotten. And we make a resolution (fleetingly) that tomorrow will be different – tomorrow, because right now we are too tired to read some Scripture or say the Rosary. So we mumble a Hail Mary or an Our Father and fall asleep.
For most of us, therefore, the stark proclamation of Jesus: Repent, and believe the good News, is essentially a call to repent of our busyness and the forgetfulness it induces.
Jesus put it another way in Luke 21:34: Watch yourselves, or your hearts will be coarsened with … the cares of life, and that day will be sprung on you suddenly like a trap.
I’ve deliberately left out his reference to sin here because, for the moment, I think it is good to focus on our daily routine (the cares of life), a most effective way to make our hearts coarse and incapable of anything more than a shallow and banal spiritual life.
Now to even realise this much, and to let it sink into our hearts, already requires that we slow down and the Church in her wisdom includes in her liturgical cycle a time dedicated to doing just that - she calls it Lent.
By an absolutely unrelated co-incidence the word lent in French means slow. This has nothing to do with the real meaning of the word Lent, which originally meant the season of Spring, but it does offer an opportunity to highlight the point I’m making: Slow down for Lent. Make time for prayer, fast from food and drink or some other good thing, and go to the help of your neighbour.
Immediately a question presents itself and there are many ways of answering it. The question is Why? Why focus on prayer, fasting and almsgiving in this special way? Some will say ‘It makes us holy’; others will say ‘It clears away sin’; others will say ‘It gives us discipline’. These answers are all true, but how does the Church answer this question in our readings today?
Today the Church calls us to prayer, fasting and almsgiving so that we might renew our response to the Covenant.
Ok, so what is a covenant, what is the Covenant?
When two people make a contract it is usually about a third thing, like a piece of land, or a house, or an amount of money that is to be paid for a certain service. A covenant is an agreement between two people (or two parties) about each other.
So a man and woman come before God’s altar in the church and he promises her lifelong faithfulness and love as her husband and she promises the same as his wife. God comes and seals this promise and makes the two into one and they now live in the covenant of marriage.
Incredibly, God has made a similar nuptial covenant with us, his Church. He has said ‘You will be my People, and I will be your God’ and this eternal Covenant was sealed in the Blood of Jesus Christ on the Cross: This is the Blood of the New Covenant.
The life of a Christian, your life and mine, is a Covenant life; we are his People – he is our God. Lent is a time for remembering, renewing, restoring, enhancing, refocussing our response to this Covenant because ‘the cares of life’ and ‘the love of the world’ have distracted us from it and made it hazy and distant.
When a Christian lives a life which is true to the Covenant it is very clear to all around him - his family, friends and enemies - mainly because his is happier than those around him. And one important reason for this happiness (among many others) is because we know who we are, and we know the meaning of our life: I belong to God who loves me and calls me to eternal life.
To be perfectly honest, there is not a Lent which does not find me standing with an embarrassingly large bunch of flowers in my hand; they are so consoling, so colourful and so diverting. I pray for myself, and for you too, that together we might empty our hands of all emptiness and fill them with love of God and neighbour – treasure that will last.
It would be wonderful if I could announce to you that Pope Benedict had decreed that this Lent we should all seek happiness by having a daily soak in a spa, burning essential oils in our homes, and wearing a crystal round our necks. That would make my message a little easier to deliver. However, as always, our Holy Father, our good Holy Father, has repeated the tireless message of Lent once again – Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving. Let’s get busy.