Lent – An Invitation to Joy
In this beautiful homily for 1st Sunday of Lent, Year A, Father Hanly takes a deeper look at Lent and the reasons behind the three works of Lent. For example, he says fasting “is to make people who have, realise and become one with, people who do not have.”
Readings for First Sunday of Lent, Year A
- First Reading: Genesis 2:7-9, 3:1-7
- Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 14, 17
- Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19 or 5:12, 17-19
- Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11
Today begins Lent.
I think any of you that would be my age or even older, would remember Lent was a kind of a terrible season for little children, because the only things we had in life to look forward to in those days, maybe simple, it was times of Depression, was we loved to eat candy, we loved to listen to the radio, we loved to play ball in the school yard, and all of these things were not allowed during Lent, because we were supposed to fast and abstain.
We didn’t know what fasting and abstaining meant, but all we knew was that everything we cherished in life, we had to give up: no more ice-cream, no more candy, no more fooling around. We had to behave. We had to go to confession. We had to do all of these things.
And so the general feeling about Lent made me feel a little bit outraged to lose all the good things in life. But we also were people of faith and we knew that there must be something good in here otherwise we wouldn’t have to do these things.
Now I have a different view. Now I can see not only the wisdom of Lent, but it’s not really a sad time.
You see, the word Lent — because if I ask you to raise your hand, how many know what the word Lent means? I don’t think you would know — but, oddly enough, Lent means springtime, and, of course, springtime is a time of great hope and great joy.
And why did this word Lent come from a word that means springtime? Well, it comes from the word of “lengthen.” When the days are lengthened day by day, the sun shines brighter day by day. It’s the lengthening of the hope that winter is past and the cruelty of winter is gone and we have nothing to look forward to but springtime.
And that’s the spirit that Lent was named. Lent is not all doom and gloom.
I think the best way to look at Lent is a little bit like we look at the Chinese New Year, especially in the old days.
You know, Chinese New Year’s, the days before Chinese New Year’s, were days of great sacrifice. Everybody worked to make everything in the house spic and clean. They worked hard and long.
They also had to give up just about everything of the old. If you were fighting with somebody, you were supposed to forgive them. If you were lazy, you were supposed to be industrious.
There was supposed to be not only a change in the (inaudible), but also a change in the heart and a change in the mind.
The old saying was, “Out with the old and bring in the new.” And, of course, the new was the joy of the first day of the new year when you opened the doors and welcomed in the springtime.
Why do we feel so sad about Lent, in the sense that we feel it’s a time of penance and doing penance. And it is a time of penance and doing penance, but we are asked to remember what sin is.
Most of us do not think of sin in its correct way. We think that sin is breaking a commandment — you break a commandment, you break a law — but sin is breaking a heart. And when you break a heart, you’re breaking God’s heart. And the angels weep, because what sin means is a refusal to love. That’s what sin is. It’s not breaking a law, it’s breaking a relationship.
And so it is, when we think of sin, we recognise that when we recognise that we are prone to sin, that we are prone to relationships that should be better, they should be fuller, they should give we and the people we live with great joy if we pay attention to them.
If we look upon it that way, then Lent is an invitation to joy. It’s an invitation to receive Jesus the Lord in a special way. He has never left us, but we might have left him.
And so, during this time, what we do is the three main works of Lent. You know, from the beginning of time, there were always three main activities during Lent, and they’re very simple.
The first one is prayer. And what is prayer?
Prayer really means to open up your mind and heart to a loving God who thirsts to become close and once again one with you, not only in theory but in practice.
It is the intimacy of relationship. It is God, as He’s known in the Old Testament, as standing at the door of the human heart and knocking. And very often there’s no answer.
It is recognising that Jesus has come to show us the way, to deepen our love and intimacy with the Father, with the Son, one with Jesus, sharing the love of the Holy Spirit.
And to do it every day of Lent. When we get up in the morning, we pray.
Now, there’s two kinds of prayer that we talk about.
The first prayer, of course, is the one I just talked about: the exchange of intimacy.
Most people are afraid of intimacy, not only with God, but with each other. But if we learn not to be afraid of intimacy, not to be afraid of opening your heart with all its wonders but also a lot of the nonsense that we carry, if we remember that, then we know that the most wonderful thing that could happen to us is that God Himself hungers to be intimate with the children that He has created.
The other aspect of prayer is what you’re doing right now. We are people who need each other. If we know our need for God, we share intimacy with God. If we know our need for each other, then we become really something special, for we are the ones who knit together relationships and families, civilisations and cultures.
It is because we reach out to each other. The poet doesn’t sing his song all by himself, he sings it to the whole world. The man who works hard for his family and comes home every day exhausted from it, gets great pleasure from watching his children grow and move and have their being and know that they are one family.
And this is what it means to pray all together. Not only do we have these lovely liturgies, age old liturgies, it’s as Guardini, the great theologian, once said, “Liturgy is playing before God, not being afraid to say God is with us.”
And how happy it is. And that’s why we sing and in some churches we dance, but we always celebrate when we come. This kind of prayer is a celebration of the people of God and the celebration with God Himself.
Another form, however, is the prayers. We feel sometimes we come before God and we don’t know what to say, even though we know we don’t have to say anything because He already knows what you’re going to say before you even begin to open your mouth.
But we would like to say lovely things. That’s why this world needs more poets, perhaps, and more hardworking scientists at times, because it is in the poetry that we feel the love of God, while it is in the science that we understand deeper and deeper the meaning of the Godhead.
Anyhow, no matter which way you slice it, the idea of course is that we say the beautiful prayers…
The Our Father, taught by Jesus himself. I always give that as a penance: “Say one Our Father.”
And they say, “Is that all?”
I say “Jesus only taught us one prayer. Only one.” And why didn’t he teach us a hundred prayers? He certainly was a poet. The reason he only taught us one was because he wanted to keep this one for himself.
Our Father means me and you. And, when we say this prayer, we say it with Jesus. And we say it with all the love that Jesus allowed us to have, because it is his love with which we love, and it is his greatness which becomes our greatness. And so, when we say the Our Father, we say it with Jesus himself.
But there are many other prayers. Hail Mary. Every child knows the Hail Mary. When I was a child, it was quite common for my father to kneel me down and say it. That’s where I learned all the prayers: Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be To The Father. Never learned them from books, I learned them kneeling there with my father, who corrected me and then he explained.
And it was something. One of the great feelings of my childhood is the relationship that we had together, all by ourselves, me and my father, and no women. My mother and two sisters were not allowed, which is, in a way, everything that a boy of old would probably look forward to.
But the main point is that it is individuals sharing the loveliness of words and singing songs and reciting them together that makes liturgy. And that’s why we come here.
We don’t have to get anything out of Mass. Somebody said, “I don’t go to Mass anymore. I don’t get anything out of it.”
You come to Mass to give something to it. You go to Mass to give your faith and your love and your care for all the people around you. That’s why you come. And you want to be together with them and this is what brings us together.
You don’t come and hope the Mark 6 is going to come your way, or something like that, pass your final exam. These are natural things that you can ask for — you need more money, you need this — that’s okay.
But what you’re here for is to give, because the giver is Jesus and if you unite yourself with the bread, you’re uniting yourself with the Bread of Life. He is the giver of himself, his love and his caring and his forgiveness, that you might give this, not take it but give this, and share it with each other.
So these are some of the thoughts at the beginning of Lent.
The final one… I’m sorry, first one was prayer, the second one is fasting. I’ll be very brief on this one.
Fasting means to give up food, right? So we fast for this and fast for that.
The deepest meaning of fast, though, is Jesus on the cross: “I thirst.” In the midst of his agony, he cries out, “I thirst,” because the blood has drained him and he feels this terrible thirst and so it is a physical thing that he cries out (inaudible) rush to give him something like rancid wine or something.
But behind the thirst that rings down through the centuries is Jesus saying, “I thirst for your love. I thirst for your understanding. I thirst that you, one day, will understand who I am, why I came and why you are here.”
Because to thirst for something and to hunger for something is more than just physical. In fact, its highest level, when we come together to eat, is to celebrate life together.
Now, this is very true and it is very much a part of our ordinary lives, because if we love somebody, the first thing you say: “Well, let’s go out and eat together.” So food has a special meaning, a spiritual meaning, but it is also fasting.
What would the fasting be? This is going to be a little hard to take. What this kind of fasting is, is to make people who have, realise and become one with, people who do not have.
And you only have to look through our own society and through the world. They estimate that two thirds of the children in the whole world go to bed hungry.
And how will we ever understand this and how will we ever come to unite our hearts with this, and to hunger and thirst for change, if we do not understand that we ourselves must become one with them, as Christ has become one with us, that we might be able to say, “I hunger with you and we ask God, together, to help us in our distress.”
And that opens the heart to an understanding, not just of your salary or money, but of the power of hunger and how it can change the whole world when it is directed, not towards taking, but towards giving.
The third one, and the last one, of course, is almsgiving. Almsgiving means money given to the poor. Alms is something that you give to a beggar who is in need. Almsgiving is probably the most popular, and we know it very, very well, because each Lent we have various collections for the poor: we give alms.
But the basics of almsgiving is remembering what Jesus said. Remember, Jesus once said, “Whatever you give to the least, the least, of my brothers and sisters, you give to me.”
And when we’re asked how we are to be judged, he will say, “When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. When I was in prison, you visited me.” Talking about all of the reasons why alms and help should be given, by those who have, to those who have not.
And as one of the great saints once said when he was talking to two little Sisters as they were going to go out to give alms to the poor, and he said to them, “Now Sister, remember the poor are your masters. The poor are your masters and, maybe, when you give this money to them that they need to survive, perhaps, someday, they will forgive you because they need to take your money.”
What it means is, when you give alms, you must feel humble. It is a privilege to serve those who do not have in the Kingdom of God, not to give more to those who have. And that is what they expect of us.
And now we’ve gone through the three acts of Lent in the hope that all of you can understand a little bit more how deep the Lenten season means.
We celebrate, at the end of the Lenten season, the great dinner of Jesus where he gathers his disciples around and breaks the bread and says, “Take this and eat it, it is me. And take this and drink it, it is my blood poured out for you. And remember me whenever you come together to do these things. And know that you are loved and I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.”
And how great is that love?
On Good Friday, the next day, he will lay his life down, totally and completely. He lays his life down for us in the act of self-sacrificing love by God Himself.
And God looks down at him and He weeps tears because there’s nothing He can do as His Son is dying.
But He knows Jesus will cry out the words that the whole world has been waiting for, the whole world has been waiting for. He’ll look down on the mass of humanity before him, screaming and yelling and laughing, and he will say, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
And these are the words of salvation and these are the words that he dies with on his lips.
And then, of course, his Father raises him from the dead and, in raising him, raises all of us, all our dreams and everything, up in the Resurrection.
God has given out freely to all of us, for we are forgiven and we are loved and we are cared for and we, indeed, are the children of God.
And so Lent is a joyful season to look forward to.
But at the beginning it might be dark and dingy, because we must recognise that out of the darkness we will find the light.
And when we find the light, then the Easter joy will permeate everything that we do.