10 March 2011 - Corpus Christi College

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Corpus Christi College
10 March 2011

It seems to have taken a long time this year for Lent to begin, and of course the reason is that the celebration of Easter this year is as late as it can possibly be. Easter Sunday will be celebrated on 24 April, whereas in some other years it has been very early in April or even in the last days of March. But sooner or later, Lent begins, and of course Ash Wednesday occurred yesterday.

Although there was something very different and special about Ash Wednesday, it does take a little time to, as it were “get into the swing” of Lent, and that is why, in my view, these first days, leading up to the First Sunday of Lent, are especially important. Making the best use of this short, introductory period, will have an important bearing on how we live the Season of Lent, and are prepared to celebrate the Death and Resurrection of Christ when Holy Week arrives.

In this short opening period, there are two important Lenten features which deserve our attention – the Ashes of Ash Wednesday and the Desert of the First Sunday of Lent. It is not by accident that ashes are a major symbol within all religions. T put on ashes, to sit in the ashes, is to say in a public way that one is prepared to grieve for mistakes made, and opportunities lost, and that there is need for some silent work to be done within.

At some time, one has to make the journey of descent, to live with a few smudges, to let the lustre become a little dim, all the while so that the ashes can do their work. Lent is that time for us to wait for some silent growth to take place within us, and simply for being still so that the ashes can be effective within us.

From the Ashes, we move to the desert, which is another very rich image in the tradition of many religions, particularly our own Christian tradition. The desert, as we know is not a physical place but a place in the heart. The desert is that place where we go, to face our demons, to feel our smallness, to develop a closeness with God and to prepare ourselves for a future that awaits us.

The first reading today recalls the time when the people of the covenant were called upon to leave Egypt and to move to another place where they would worship the true God, and that God alone. They had only two choices, the way of idolatry which led to death, and the way of faithfulness to Yahweh, which would lead them to happiness and peaceful possession of the Promised Land.

No doubt the disciples found the messages of today’s Gospel very hard to absorb. Jesus had been going through something of a “softening-up process” trying to give his followers some understanding of what was ahead of him and ahead of them as well.  For those who want to be true followers of Jesus, the challenge is that to take up the cross every day, and to enter into the cycle of Death and Resurrection, just as Jesus did. Not long after he gave this message, Jesus, as we are told in the Gospel of St Luke, resolutely turned his face towards Jerusalem where all these predictions would become realities in due course.

The true disciple cannot remain just where he or she is. Each of us on the road, and we have to step out resolutely at the side of Jesus. We may be tempted at times to stop and to take a breather, but that is not the way of the Gospel. “Life, as someone said once, is always in the future, like God.”

While preparing for this inaugural Mass, I was thinking that the time in the seminary, spent in preparation for the priesthood, has elements of the death and resurrection experience to it, and elements of the ashes and desert experience as well.

Not only in the formal lectures of theology, but also in the pursuit of the spiritual life, the paschal mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus is at the very forefront of everything. The Death and Resurrection give meaning to our ministry, and to our preaching, and above all to the celebration of the Eucharist itself, when those very significant moments in the life of Jesus are recalled and made present.

Also the time spent in the seminary is in a sense a time of sitting in the ashes and of going into the desert. One of the issues which gains considerable focus these days is when a sports star, a footballer for instance, a member of a successful rock band or a person who has early success in the film industry, end up having problems of poor behaviour or addiction in some form, leading to headlines of another kind.

It would seem that such a person has been unable to handle the success that has come their way to quickly and so easily, before they had been sufficiently prepared to handle their new-found wealth or their notoriety. The successes they have destroy them rather than build them up.

The priesthood is a wonderful vocation, and it too will bring some levels of acceptance and excitement which come with it. But we have to be able to handle that side of our lives as well, we who are bishops perhaps first and foremost, but those who are priests as well.

That is why it is so important to spend time in the ashes and time in the desert, and in some way the seminary could be an extension of the Lenten opportunities and the Lenten experience for the whole of the year. This is the time to prepare to take up the gift of the priesthood. It is not a task that we have to do on our own – there is the assistance of your family and friends, of the staff of the college, the priests and communities where you exercise a pastoral ministry by way of gaining further experience.

The invitation to us all is to have the courage to place ourselves in the right situation, and where it is God who ultimately does the work.