Feb 22nd, Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. This is a season of reflection that leads us towards the three days of the Triduum, with Easter Sunday falling on Sunday, April 9th. It is a time to ask questions, a pause time on a journey, a time when we might re-examine the baggage we carry from month to month, maybe a time to lighten the load. The third verse of a hymn from the late Sixties, ‘God’s spirit is in my heart’ has these words. “Don’t carry a load in your pack, you don’t need two shirts on your back, a workman can earn his own keep, can earn his own keep”. That just about sums up the story of our journey. So the signing of the cross on our foreheads, using ash from last year’s burnt palms is a reminder of where we have come from and where we are headed and the ever-present need to take stock.
Lent is a time of return, when that which was lost is found again and a new beginning sought. The ‘lost sheep’ is a recurring symbol of our experience. A few years ago I came across a solitary sheep cropping the roadside verge. It gave rise to these few lines.
“It had strayed beyond the barbed fence, head down, to graze the grass verge by the roadside.
Careless of traffic, a single sheep, carrying a rust-red stain of identity, had walked away from the field flock.
Slowly it cropped the road edge, unhurried, waiting to be found”.
The mark of our baptism identifies us with our flock. With Ash Wednesday and the start of the Season we call Lent, there is a call to spiritual awareness, an opportunity to strip lives down to the bare essentials and see what really matters. T S Eliot in his poem Ash Wednesday, published in 1930 writes of the Christian pilgrimage.
“…and pray to God to have mercy on us and pray that I may forget these matters that with myself I too much discuss, too much explain, because I do not hope to turn again, let these words answer for what is done, not to be done again, may the judgement not be too heavy on us”
Too often we are quick with our answers on matters of faith and morality when really we should look more at the options that are open and the context of our choice. We easily forget that black and white are separated by many uneven shades of grey. Maybe that is what Lent gives us, a pause time to ask the difficult questions, not of others but of ourselves. And if the answers are not immediate, then we should not worry. Not all questions have answers that are clear cut and obvious, but the asking of the question at least means that we have considered an issue important enough to question. Waiting patiently is the story of our search for faith. A question posed doesn’t always have a gift wrapped answer waiting to be opened.
Two years ago, the reflections of Francis on the recent Synod were published under the title ‘Beloved Amazon’. In his words he addressed many of the social issues facing the poor of South American countries and the need for those in government to treat their people with fairness and care. His Franciscan tradition was much in evidence. However the headlines in the media focused their response to his statement on what was not said. There was no word on a pressing issue, addressed by the Synod, that there should be due consideration of the relaxation of the celibacy discipline in order to meet the chronic shortage of priests in so many communities. It was a matter of great disappointment to those who had hoped for encouragement to follow this path.
But neither did he reject the option of change which makes it imperative that the discussion continues with even greater urgency. It is a question that we cannot sidestep time and again, for the needs of the people must not be ignored. In our own country, the age profile of priests ministering in our parishes is a matter of increasing concern. If we ignore the road signs on our journey, we are in danger of finding ourselves in a cul de sac. So maybe there is a good question that we could all address this Lent, how might the Church meet the needs of the community without resorting to worn platitudes? Early morning brightness lights the sky once dawn breaks and the night time hours fade. We should encourage each other to face reality and trust that we might follow God’s Spirit as it moves in our hearts.
“So do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you;
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” Isaiah 41:10