Given on Ash Wednesday, 10 February 2016, at Canary Wharf.
It’s good always, on Ash Wednesday, to remind ourselves that Lent means ‘lengthening’. And, of course, it’s true: no sooner does Lent start than we begin to notice the days lengthening; we realise the spring equinox is approaching, or, rather, that we’re approaching it!
And herein lies key to Lent: it’s time for Enlightenment: time to let our lives be illumined, by what? By the essential, by the essence of the Gospel.
I like to think of Lent as a bit of retreat, a 40 day retreat, in which we try prepare ourselves for the journey on which we are accompanying Jesus in Holy Week. A good traveling companion in this time of preparation is Peter because of what he lived between Maundy Thursday and Easter Day, but more of that a bit later.
For the time being, it’s good just to focus on the advice given in Scripture about how to prepare. Chief among all the pieces of advice, I think is the call to pray, to pray more: ‘Go to your private room,’ says Jesus, ‘and when you have closed the door pray to your Father who is in that secret place.’
Pope Francis, in his letter on evangelisation, asks, no, urges, every Christian to seek a daily personal encounter with God. If this is not yet a part of your life, then Lent is a beautiful time begin. If we are achieving this already, then we should ask ourselves how we can deepen it: Prayer and almsgiving.
Almsgiving: It’s become quite fashionable for people to talk about their ‘favourite charity’. Why not make someONE your favourite charity this Lent? The man you pass sitting on the pavement on your way to work.
Imagine what a difference it could make to his life if you became the person who never does walk past him, but stops to ask him, ‘Are you okay?’ as you give him a pound or two.
I knew a good priest who decided he must be more generous one Lent. He filled his pockets at the start of each week with all the coins he wanted to disburse; and he said he found it quite difficult to give them all away. Try it yourself; and you’ll see what he means.
More seriously, we might recall, as the poor man or woman of the road comes into view what Pope Francis says, that when we reach out to the poor, we touch the broken body of Christ. WE take the poor man’s hand in ours and we are taking into our hands Christ’s hand, because he said, ‘whatever you did to these the least of my brothers you did to me: I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty and you gave me drink.’
The other call we must heed is to be reconciled. It’s striking to hear Paul say don’t ‘neglect the grace of God that you have received’. It’s so easy for us to neglect the grace that God is waiting to give us through the sacrament of Reconciliation. The mysterious thing about this sacrament is its healing quality. The very things we confess, we feel God giving us the grace to overcome.
This is particularly true of our relationships, be they at work or in the home. If we find we’re tending to criticise a colleague who has become, in some way our enemy, we bring it to the Lord in this sacrament; and we begin to realise we’re finding the strength to hold our tongue, temper our judgement, even change the way we look at that person.
That’s grace. Of course we fail again; but that’s because this is an area of weakness for us or, if not weakness, suffering. Being the friend and Father he is, God understands. He waits, with love, for us to be man or woman enough to acknowledge that we have been uncharitable again; say with the Psalmist: ‘My offences truly I know them; my sin is always before me’, and seek his help where we need it.
‘Come back to me,’ says the Lord through the prophet Joel. If we could each of us return to the Lord seeking reconciliation, especially if we haven’t confessed for a long time, could there be a better preparation for Easter?
I suggested St Peter might be a good companion on this journey, not least because he knew, in a profound way, his need to repent. Just six weeks tomorrow, we shall go with Peter, James and John into the garden of Gethsemane to watch with Jesus, watch and pray. We shall see Jesus taken, and hear Peter deny his Lord as he warms himself by the charcoal fire. Peter knows what it is to have sinned grievously and yet then to be forgiven.
He knows what it is to be filled anew with grace. What joy fills our hearts, a few weeks later, to see Jesus take Peter for a walk along the shore of Lake Tiberias, put his arm around him, and ask him how much he loves him. The same Jesus waits to ask you the same: do you love me? Do you love me more than these others do?
It is extraordinary to see the transformation that grace works in Peter. Only a few weeks after he was broken by his denial of the Lord, we see him standing in the heart of Jerusalem saying to the crowds, ‘Men of Israel, this Jesus whom you crucified, God raised up’.
The same Jesus waits to fill us with his grace; waits to meet us in prayer, in the man or woman we see on the street, in the sacrament of reconciliation, if only we would go there to meet him.