Sunday, February 21, 2010

Seven themes found in the Lenten liturgy

"In the next six weeks there are seven themes that continually emerge in the prayers and readings for Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. Lent is a time for penance. We need to be prepared to what we do not feel like doing. There are certain features of our lives, of our personalities that we would be better without; there are aspects of our personalities that are not beautiful or helpful for ourselves and others. Some of these are quite simply sins. Sin? Not an in-word today. At penitential services in Lent and before Christmas I frequently hear people say, “It’s six months—or even several years—since my last confession. I do not have any sins.” I feel like saying, ask your husband, wife, children, parents, or work colleagues if you are really without sin. The person may not have committed murder of adultery, but they will probably have many features of their lives which are not adding to the sum of human happiness or indeed to their own well-being. So there is firstly a need for penance, which is a matter of seeing what road we are on. We go astray in many ways, and strangely the smaller the faults, the more difficult it can be to eliminate them. Penance is being alert to our failings and a willingness to do something about them. The second theme is conversion. This means turning away from what is sinful or dangerous. The other side of conversion is a third theme of returning to God. We should view our behaviour and our lives in the mirror of the teaching of Jesus. Fourthly, we have to have an attitude to our failings and sin. This is sorrow. A feature of contemporary society is the lack of sorrow for evil-doing. Politicians and Church leaders hate saying sorry we know, but many people go around doing harm, even if in small ways, without any regrets. Sorrow for sin and for the evil in our lives is essential for spiritual health.

However, these four themes of penance, conversion, returning to God and sorrow for sin are not fully within our power. The Christian view is that we cannot really do much that is of value except with God’s help. Our spiritual health depends on God’s gift. Hence the fifth theme is redemption: God saves us. He will not do it without our co-operation. To recall a earlier text, we have to be willing to allow God to recreate our hearts and cleanse our inner being. The redemption we need arises from the sixth Lenten theme, the passion of Jesus Christ. Jesus came to save us; he taught and healed, before dying for us. The passion of Jesus is a truth that teaches God’s love for us, the reality of sin. Contemporary spirituality neglects too much the Cross of Christ; the Stations of the Cross are not nearly so popular today. The seventh Lenten theme is baptism. The weeks of Lent are a final preparation for the sacrament. They are also a time when we should reflect on our own baptism. What does the sacrament mean to us? Three ideas might be noted: baptism brings us into the family of God, with relationships to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Baptism then brings us into the Church, the Christian community, with an obligation to love and serve. Thirdly, baptism draws us in imitation and discipleship of Jesus.

These seven themes found in the Lenten liturgy can give us a new vision of ourselves. Once they are pointed out, then we can hear them with new ears: penance, conversion, returning to God, sorrow for sin, redemption, the passion of Jesus and baptism will feature in the prayers and readings, with ever new lights and insights. But we will not plumb their depths without reflection. A lot of teaching is about facts; we can with more or less difficulty process information. There were two world wars in the 20th century: 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. Anyone who does not know this is ill-informed. Anyone denying them is plain wrong. But a lot of education is about attitudes and values. Generosity and open-mindedness have to be communicated in education, but these involve owning and valuing them, similarly with the values of Lent. You could have a page for noting these themes as we hear them at Masses during Lent. They could be the subject of prayer and reflection so that we have a new acceptance and esteem for them."

-- The meaning of Lent with some Carmelite insights by Christopher O'Donnell, OCarm

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