Greetings, brothers and sisters in Christ, on this Ash Wednesday, as we embark on the Lenten journey.
The season of Lent provides us with 40 days to let God’s transforming grace into our lives in a new way, so that we might live more deeply, more faithfully, with greater joy, hope, conviction and compassion. I think most of us would acknowledge that there’s lots of room for growth in that regard in our lives.
In preparation for this week’s message, one of my working group colleagues mentioned the film Groundhog Day, which I went back to watch, after many years. The film is something of a parable about moral growth. The main character, at the start of the film, is something of a scoundrel, completely self-centered, arrogant and obnoxious, and on the first day of the film, Groundhog Day, he acts like a complete jerk. The next morning when he wakes up, he discovers, to his complete bewilderment, that he has woken up to the same day all over again. No one else is reliving that day, but he is. This happens over and over again through the film, presumably thousands of times. He keeps living the same day over and over again, and only he is aware of that. He is able to change the decisions he makes each day, and to see the consequences of those decisions. At the start, once he has gotten past the bewilderment with what is happening, he uses the information from previous days for his own selfish ends. Seeing the futility of it all, he falls into a kind of a depression, and tries to end it all. That doesn’t work. He keeps waking up to Groundhog Day. Eventually he starts to have some empathy for others, and slowly starts to move out of his self-centredness, and to use what he has learned to start helping others. Finally, finally, he lives the day well enough that when he wakes up, it’s actually February 3rd.
The film is based on a simple clever hypothesis: what if we would live the same day over and over again until we got it right, until we lived it well. We don’t, life isn’t structured that way. But life is structured in such a way that each new day we get a chance to begin again, to try to live better. In some sense, God has structured the human condition in such a way that we are invited to learn from each previous day and to grow in wisdom, compassion, holiness, hope and joy.
That takes us back to the season of Lent, 40 days to give particular focus to God’s transformative desires for us, and the need to open to that grace. In a recent reflection, our Archdiocesan theologian Brett Salkeld noted that the biblical focus on 40 - 40 days after the flood, Israel wondering 40 years in the desert, Jesus praying 40 days in the wilderness - is likely connected to the reality that 40 is the number of weeks a human child gestates in its mother’s womb. Brett notes that when the Bible uses the number 40, it is telling us that something is gestating, something new is preparing to be born. That’s a good mindset for us at the start of the season of Lent. What is God trying to bring to birth in us?
In the film Groundhog Day, the character has a seemingly endless opportunity to make changes, to live better. We have been given time by God. As Annie Dillard notes, time is one thing "we have been given, and we have been given to time. [And] time gives us a whirl." But time is not endless, and our opportunities to make changes are not endless. Listen to this insightful quote from the novel The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles, who writes:
"Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless."
Time is not endless. One thing Jesus seems to insist upon with his disciples is that the time for change, for conversion, for holiness, is now. His opening proclamation in Mark’s Gospel is this: the Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, that is, change your ways, and believe the good news.
So as we embark on this season of Lent, I think we do well to acknowledge that we need Lent, we need a time of renewal, we need God, we need mercy. Lent begins by being signed with ashes, in the form of a cross, though this year, because of pandemic protocols, the ashes will be gently dropped on us. But you can imagine them in the form of a cross on your forehead. The ashes are a sign of our woundedness, a reminder of the reality of death, of brokenness, of things falling apart. A reminder of our society as it is... ourselves as we are, beneath the facades of wellness and wholeness.
Lent doesn’t leave us in ashes. It moves us towards resurrection. It moves us towards God’s ability and desire to turn our darkness into light, our selfishness into other-centredness, our sinfulness to holiness - if and as we open ourselves to God’s redeeming grace. So let us embark upon this season not with fear and trepidation, but with a sense of relief, a sense of awakening to the need for real change, and a trust in God’s merciful desire to bring about that change, in us, and in our communities.
In each weekly Lenten message, I will draw on a prayer or two from our tradition, and in this first Lenten reflection, I would invite you to listen to the words, addressed to God, from the Preface to the first Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation, which can be used all year round, but is especially timely for Lent:
O God, "you do not cease to spur us on to possess a more abundant life and, being rich in mercy, you constantly offer pardon and call on sinners to trust in your forgiveness alone. Never did you turn away from us, and, though time and again we have broken your covenant, you have bound the human family to yourself through Jesus your Son, our Redeemer, with a new bond of love so tight that it can never be undone. Even now you set before your people a time of grace and reconciliation, and, as they turn back to you in spirit, you grant them hope in Christ Jesus and a desire to be of service to all, while they entrust themselves more fully to the Holy Spirit."
Let’s end with the Anima Christi:
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O Good Jesus, hear me.
Within your wounds hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from you.
From the wicked foe, defend me.
At the hour of my death, call me
and bid me come to you
That with your saints I may praise you
For ever and ever. Amen.
Watch video message HERE
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