This letter from our Archbishop was read at all the masses in Southwark this past Sunday. It’s good to hear from our Bishop! An inspirational Lenten message:
The Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
Sunday, 19th February 2012
Scenes from the Life of Christ
Byzantine School (6th century)
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
In today’s first reading from the prophet Isaiah, we heard words of consolation and encouragement given to the people of Israel who are in exile in a foreign land, Babylon. They are powerless to escape, but God will forgive their sins and bring about a new Exodus, through which they will be freed from slavery, and enjoy a renewed and fruitful life in a new homeland.
This theme of the forgiveness of sins and new life is echoed in the Gospel story of the healing of the paralytic and the forgiving of his sins. The paralytic is desperate to be healed and to start a new life, but for obvious reasons is unable to approach Jesus himself. But he has four friends who want to help him. So they bring him to Jesus, but are thwarted in their task because of the huge crowds who block the way. So they take an ingenious initiative, carry their paralysed friend up onto the roof of the house and proceed to strip a section of it. They then lower the man into the house in front of Jesus. “Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, ‘My child, your sins are forgiven.’” The scribes are outraged. “How can this man talk like that? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God?” Jesus’ response is to ask them a question. “Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven’ or to say, ‘Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk?’ But to prove to you that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,’ – he said to the paralytic – ‘I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home.’”
If we see the man who is paralysed as the symbol of those who are unable to help themselves and change their way of life, that man also symbolises the reality of our relationship with God. We cannot transform and change our lives for the better without God’s help, and if we think we can, then we are deluding ourselves. And we also need good friends to accompany us on our journey of faith, and encourage us to seek God’s help. We are all in some way or other subject to incapacity, whether through sin and selfishness, or simply human weakness and fragility. If our lives are to be transformed and renewed, then we need the grace of the Holy Spirit and the support and encouragement of each other.
This week, on Ash Wednesday, we begin the season of Lent. In his Lenten message to the Church throughout the world, Pope Benedict XVI said: “The Lenten season offers us once again an opportunity to reflect upon the very heart of Christian life: charity. This is a favourable time to renew our journey of faith, both as individuals and as a community, with the help of the word of God and the sacraments. This journey is one marked by prayer and sharing, silence and fasting, in anticipation of the joy of Easter.”
This special time is given to us by the Church to help us in preparing to celebrate the Paschal Mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ – the great feast of Easter – in just over six weeks’ time. During this time the Church exhorts us to get to know God better, and to get to know ourselves better too! It is a time for turning our hearts more fervently to him who, in the words of the Psalmist, is “compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.” He is the one who “does not treat us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our faults”, but, rather, the one “who crowns you with love and compassion.” And he dearly wants us to reveal his love and compassion to the world in which we live. He wants us to “incarnate”, to embody, that love and compassion in our relationships with one another and to express it in a practical way, particularly to those who are in any kind of need. He commands us to use generously the gifts and talents we have received from the Holy Spirit for the building up of the community of his Church; to help build that communion of love, compassion and mercy, which reflects the very life of the Trinity.
My experience over the years is that in order to do as the Lord asks of me, my heart must be united with his heart; I must come to know him more deeply, and abide with him day by day with ever greater commitment. Lent is that “favourable time” for me to ask myself some searching questions about where I stand with God, and how I am responding to the commission he has given to all of us who are baptised. I cannot do that fruitfully unless I become more attentive to the word of God in the scriptures and through spending time each day in prayer. I cannot, from my own resources, produce the fruit that will last, unless I allow the living Word of God to nurture my faith and trust in Him who loves me unconditionally with a steadfast love; who looks on me in my weakness with great mercy and compassion. That living word of God not only informs my mind and heart, so that I come to know him better, but also transforms my life so that I can indeed become “the light of the world”, “the salt of the earth.” I know too that I will never be perfect in this life and I am comforted by the words of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta: “God doesn’t ask us to be successful – he asks us to be faithful.”
Being faithful to the person of Jesus Christ has never been easy. If we’re honest, we don’t always live out our faith as consistently or as fully as Christ calls us to do, and inevitably we are criticised for that and sometimes branded “hypocrites”. But the solution to that is not to hide ourselves away, to keep our faith in God “private”, behind closed doors. The solution is to open our hearts to the love and compassion of the living God and ask him to help us grow in holiness, to grow in union with him and with each other. In that communion of life and love, we can then strive to live out our faith with courage and commitment, whatever the cost.
“Behold I stand at the door and knock.” This Lent, I shall be asking myself the question, “Am I open to hear that knock at the door of my heart each day, and am I going to open that door and welcome him in, whatever the cost to myself?” If I’m realistic, I know I have so little to give him, yet in my heart of hearts, I also know and believe that the little I have, he can, and will, multiply in abundance.
With an assurance of my prayers and blessing for you all this Lent,
Archbishop of Southwark