It seems too soon to break up the party! Only a few months ago we were celebrating Christmas with all its colour and joyous music. Now, we are in the solemnity of Lent whose purple always seems deeper and more austere than that of Advent.
Maybe it is because we enter these forty days not with any less hope but with more self-knowledge, more understanding of the terrible fragility of our lives and our world. Maybe, too, we must recognise our own part in it all: the small sins and the big ones – the jealousies and the grudges, the violence that lurks in our hearts and drains our souls. Maybe we have glimpsed, just for a moment, all those tricks of denial and have sought our securities and comforts in other things but God.
In Lent there is no beautiful story in which we can hide or find easy consolation; there is only a crucified Christ. And so, once we’ve written our list of things we plan to give up, with tentative, cautious steps we can brace ourselves and set out on our Lenten path.
These might be the characteristics of a normal Lent, but this Lent is not so normal. Covid has taught us not to rely on ‘normal’; indeed, we could be forgiven for thinking that these last two years have been a long Lent. So much has gone, so many people have been lost. We know whatever happens in the future, we can never take our life, our families, friends, communities and our faith for granted again. Now, just as we felt some sort of recovery was insight there are the new challenges – economic, social, political and human – as the consequences of the pandemic and the ever more obvious effects of climate change play out. This Lent we know there is no going back to things as they were before. In front of our eyes, we can see the disintegration of nations and the structures that held their ambitions, fears, rivalries and violence at bay. Daily, we hear and see the violence that wantonly destroys life and covers our world with brutal darkness.
This year, more than ever, we need Lent. Our first resolution should be not to trivialise it, but to welcome it as a time of deep reflection and prayer; a time of truthfulness not just about ourselves, but about the society and the world we have created.
It is a world where crucifixion is not just a possibility, it is a daily reality. This is why this Lent, more than ever, we need to fix our gaze on Christ and the cross which hangs over all human history. It is the cross of truth, for it will not let us disguise the horror of our narcissistic fantasies and distorted narratives with their vacuous rhetoric and twisted history. In the crucified Christ are all the crucified who stand before us, eloquent in their suffering and searing in their testimony. They are witnesses to the truth which cannot be hidden or erased or manipulated by those drunk on the illusion of their own power and destiny. Before the cross of Christ all the self-appointed saviours and the emptiness their messianic claims are exposed. They crumble to dust, dispersed by the rushing winds of time announcing the victory of the Risen Lord.
Lent is always a journey and a new beginning. It gives us the chance to put away all that distracts us, to clear our hearts and minds and direct our will to God, whose mercy and healing love are offered to us. It is the time of hope, for Lent tells us that we can repent and change; we can recover our truth and return to the source of life, cast out the violence in our hearts, and restore our relationships. We can prepare ourselves to accept the costly, but freely given the gift of a new life that the crucified and risen Christ offers us. Filled with the Holy Spirit of Easter, we can begin to imagine a world in which all the crucified are raised in life, a life of justice, love, dignity, peace, and joy; a new beginning in which we are reconciled, at peace with creation and with each other.
Unlike the rulers of this world, God never offers a utopian dream. God only offers the Kingdom; a kingdom which Christ has prepared for us. The Kingdom is already with us, quietly but powerfully, sown in our own time. It begins with the three simple acts of Lent, indeed, they are the three simple acts for every season of our life: prayer, repentance, giving. As we practice them, we can see ourselves grow and come into our own truth; we discover that we can live more deeply, filled with a great sense of gratitude for the gift of life, for others, for all creation. In God’s mercy, guaranteed in Christ, we always have the chance to begin again, to mend what we have broken, and care for those we have wounded.
It all begins in prayer. A simple honest, open, prayer recognizing our need and, especially, our need of the grace of to change, to repent. This is the first great act of our freedom and our hope.
The ancient prayer of Psalm 50 (51), the miserere – ‘Have mercy on me Lord and in your compassion blot out my offence’ is, perhaps, the most complete prayer asking for forgiveness and the grace to begin anew. It is a prayer of self-recognition and honesty; we know that we have sinned, and we face up to the damage that our sin has caused. It is a prayer to God whom we have also wounded by our sin, yet the deepest truth is our recognition that it is God and God alone who can restore us. It is God’s love and forgiveness that we need. This is where we can begin to start over and, ourselves, offer forgiveness to others. Forgiving others, as we are forgiven, is surely one of the most profound acts of loving God and our neighbour.
Although the psalm has been set to music on many occasions, one of the most moving and haunting is Allegri’s setting. In it we can hear the deep pleading for mercy, especially as the different voices rise and fall, echoing and filling out the space. The space is interior for what we hear is our soul’s own prayer, filled with pain, remorse, longing, need and hope.
There are occasions when we hear the parts of the choir in a deep antiphonal movement; at times it is a voice that seems to come from within and beyond this world with its darkness and suffering – a voice in which we can hear already the echo of God’s mercy on the way to meet us – almost anticipating our prayer for forgiveness and coming to us with the promise of healing.
If you pray with the ancient ‘kyrie Eleison from the tradition of the Ukrainian Orthodox liturgy, you will also find the same prayer for mercy rising out of the depth of the human soul.
As we listen, especially in the context of this Lent, it is not difficult to also hear the great cry of all those who are suffering. Their prayer to God is that our world might be forgiven; that it may have the grace to begin again, to set out anew on another path. Surely, is the grace we most need this Lent.