To-day sees us arrive at Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent. This has always been considered, especially in Ireland – as a time of fasting and of efforts to repent – of doing penance and reaching out – and always with the special reminder that we are-dust-and-to-dust-shall-return.
Who would have thought this-time-last-year [Ash Wednesday was about a week later in 2020] that our world was to be turned upside-down in mid-March with the arrival of the pandemic called covid-19 in Ireland? Here in Clongowes, the Mocks were done-and-dusted and the Cup season was in full swing – with Seniors through to the Semi-Final and Juniors to their Quarter-Final. Life, as they might have said, looked grand.
But that life was to be far from grand – as it became a sort of year-long Lent for us all – for the whole country and for the world. Those Lenten words – fast – repent – do penance – reach out – became part of our daily life – and not always by choice. There were sudden problems about supplies of food and essentials like drink and fuel [with that great run on toilet-paper!] People had to change their life-style – had to go-without and make do with what one had. But, and perhaps to our surprise – reaching out became also very much part of people’s lives – as neighbour-strangers became friends – the older generations suddenly became more precious – in the lockdown family life became more appreciated – and the hitherto unappreciated value of the “essential” workforce [especially that of back-up services and the nursing and medical professions] came to be recognized as the vital element they are in our daily lives. We had to take stock and reflect!
As we look back on the past year – perhaps we can appreciate what a learning experience it has been – for ourselves about ourselves – and also about ourselves with others. There has been suffering too – illness, whether covid-due or otherwise – the loss of loved ones – the absence of Family and Friends – and restricted movement as the various lockdowns became commonplace.
But there has also been so much that has been positive – as we have come to realize how resilient we can be when we come together with a common purpose – so well expressed with the slogan: We are in this together!
What would the Man at the gate of the year [of my last offering] say to us now – a full year after it all began, as, Xenophon-like – we set out to tread into the unknown?
Let us get back to Lent – and consider for a moment what is the deep-down meaning of this special season for Christians. Basically it is our time of preparation to celebrate, every passing year at Easter for over two millennia, the most important truth of our Faith about God-made-man.
Alleluia ! Christ is risen, as He said – truly risen from the dead. Alleluia !
The best preparation we can make to join in the Easter celebration of life-over-death, on 4th April 2021, is to do our best to get rid of the detritus of the dead things in our life – our pettiness – our prejudices and rash judgments – our self-centredness and lack of concern for others – our ambitiousness and self-sufficiency …… and so on and so on. The list is endless and can lead to depression if – but only IF – we fail to follow the advice of the Man at the gate of the year ………… if we fail to put our hand into the Hand of God.
That is what Lent is about – accepting ourselves with all our weaknesses, faults and fears, warts-and-all, as they say – but not remaining turned in on ourselves – but going out into the darkness and treading gladly into the night. Lent is a time of learning more about ourselves – so that we may tread safely into the unknown – because God leads those of us who have the gift of Faith towards and beyond the hill of Calvary and the breaking of day in the lone East – towards the rising of His Son – the Resurrection of Jesus Christ at Easter, on the first day of the week.
Lent is time of learning about ourselves – an acceptance of our limitations with the confidence of being able to get up again every time we fail. God, writing straight with crooked lines – is able to make wine Grace] out of our water [weakness] – but only if we are willing to accept that, at times, we do fail – knowing that, with our hand in the Hand of God, we can get up again.
Timeo Jesum transeuntem et non redeuntem.
Saint Augustine wrote this line many centuries ago – and it came to mind as I was writing the above. Translated, it means: I fear Jesus passing along my way – and not returning this way again. Too often we fail to recognize Him in the person of someone else – and fail to reach out to our sister/brother in Christ – and then excuse ourselves, saying: If only I’d known it was You !
Let me share a memory of how I once experienced this reality myself …………….
Many years ago – it was in late September 1974 or 1975 – I went with a friend for a swim in the Forty-Foot. It was a coldish day and, with the All-Ireland Football taking place, there were few others around, as we parked our car [with watches and valuables safely hidden] and prepared to take the plunge. Observing the warnings to Beware of pickpockets – especially as we noticed a lone, elderly man carrying a duffle-bag wandering around the place – we carefully hid the car keys among our belongings on site. We didn’t stay too long in the water and hurried back out to dry ourselves and get warm again. As we did so, the old man came near and looked as if he was going to speak to us [looking for money, perhaps?] We became suddenly engrossed in deep conversation – turning our backs and pretending not to notice him.
Some time later, as we started our journey back into town – we came across a small crowd of people standing at the side of the road. My companion said that it must be an accident – and we got out to see if we might be able to help. Imagine my shock when I saw that the person lying on the ground was none other than the old man we had just seen while we were having our swim – and whom we had shut out of our closed and unwelcoming little world.. I knelt down beside him and gave him a blessing – and committed him to the Lord, as the ambulance medics, having pronounced him dead, took him away to the hospital mortuary. Back in the car, not a word was spoken between myself and my friend. We both realized what we had done – or, rather, failed to do. That old, nameless man [at least to us] may have had a premonition that he was going to die and did not want to die alone. He may have been simply looking for some form of companionship in his hour of need …………… but we had turned our backs on him. In our silence there was nothing to be said – wordless, we each felt too ashamed to be called disciples of Jesus Christ.
Every time I tell that story, I pray specially for him – knowing that he was sure of a welcome home from the Lord. And I pray for myself – begging him to ask God to give me – when my time comes – a better welcome than the one we had failed to give him – or, rather, Jesus – Jesus passing by our way that September day – and not returning.
Perhaps one thing we have learned from Covid-19 this past year is how much we have come to mean to each other – family, friend, neighbour, stranger, worker, medic, emergency staff – and also, perhaps, just how surprisingly generous we can be when we are in this together !
Living can – and should – be learning. God’s gift of life should lead us to learn that He is always there in our midst – especially when least expected and in the least recognized.
So may this Lent, lived again in the shadow of covid-19 – be kept fresh in our memories of how, during the past year, we have come to learn that Jesus does not always pass by our way a second time. Let us pray that, in the learning, we may make the world a better place when we do welcome Him the first time – unlike myself and my friend – and all those of whom John speaks in his Gospel: He came among His own people – but they did not receive Him. [John 1:11]
Fr Michael Sheil SJ