We begin Lent on Wednesday 13th February. The liturgy of the day presents us with a proposal that is simple, direct and personal, as it needs to penetrate the many habits and convictions in that jungle of defences and mistrust which, consciously or unconsciously, we construct: “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.” It comes also with a personal invitation: “Come back to me with all your heart” (Joel 2:12). We should take Lent seriously for it is the season when the Lord calls us to a deep rupture within our thoughts and with our lifestyle. Returning to God and repenting begin with looking at ourselves and not running away from the endless justifications that make us always feel right; a true humility for people so often deformed by the euphoria of abundance and the pride of one’s ego.
We need to repent and return in order to be forgiven, old and marked by sin as we are. We need to repent and return because only hearts free from evil can disassociate themselves from war and convey peace in a world accustomed to violence, which deludes itself into thinking it can live with hatred and does not know how to seek justice and peace. We need to repent and return in order to be clothed with the dignity lost pursuing practical consumerism, which does not oppose God openly but to which we grant so much room.
The Gospel reading for the first Sunday of Lent is always the same, whether recorded in the gospels of Matthew, Mark or Luke: Jesus confronts evil in the desert. So begins his agony, the struggle between life and death. The Lord, passionate lover of people, comes to do battle against humanity’s enemy, the one who sows division, who is behind the instinct of pride and love for self. This is why he asks for conversion, not as a pious exercise, something additional for the righteous to occupy themselves with, but real change in all because he loves the world and cannot accept it is as it is. He wants it to be better, to be as it was created to be – “God saw that it was good” (Genesis 1).
The one who changes is the one who is aware of the void in his or her heart and begins the way of repentance. Lent is a time of forgiveness and joy because we find our heart again, listening to the God who loves and renews. The righteous ones find no joy. They do not ask for forgiveness and do not know how to forgive. They must finally grab hold of their hypocrisy so as not to fall into the abyss of sin, since they do not believe in forgiveness. They do not know how to cry tears; they flee the pain of bitterness, the humiliation of discovering themselves as they are and asking for help. But they remain as they are, though sad, whereas the sinner finds consolation. Are we not poor in love, cold, fearful, aggressive, unfaithful, inconstant, full of grudges, ruled by instinctive pride? Is the heart not perhaps easily filled with so many fears and enmities, mistrusts, hostility? Does our heart not become limitless, greedy for satisfaction, confrontations, and small affirmations of self? There is a great need to change our heart because the world is full of enmity and violence. Can the world live without a heart? Who can give a heart to a world that is passionate only about material things, about the market, about that which doesn’t count? Who will give back the many years that hunger and hardness of life have robbed from millions of the world’s poor? Who will take away from the hearts of many people, the many habits of violence, the path of barbarity that annuls mercy and compassion?
This is why we receive the joyous proposal to change, beginning with our heart. Like sin, complicity with evil always has an effect on others; similarly when we change we will be building a better world of peace, decontaminating it of violence. A good heart makes the life of so many both beautiful and human; it resembles a sweet-smelling perfume (“…. follow Christ by loving as he loved you, giving himself up for us as an offering and a sweet-smelling sacrifice to God” – Ephesians 5:2). Jesus’ disciples have a heart and take others to heart. “Believe in the Gospel.” Believe that the Gospel is a way of peace, that the world is not unchangeable. Believe that a heart full of good feelings and spirituality overcomes the logic of war and can hasten the day of peace. Believe in the power of prayer, open up the Gospel often, silence your reasoning in order to listen to the Lord. God has granted the world to humanity, but he admonished them to respect human life, their blood, that no one live uninterested in another’s life.
Lent is again finding within one’s own heart and that of one’s neighbour a rainbow of peace, a sign of hope and God’s blessing, so that the flood of violence may end – the tempest of love for self, of resignation – so that the many who scrutinise heaven, imploring help and protection, who ask for peace and home, may be able to see that rainbow soon.
Six days before Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. They gave a dinner for him there, and Martha served, while Lazarus was one of those reclining at table with him. Mary took a litre of costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard and anointed the feet of Jesus and dried them with her hair; the house was filled with the fragrance of oil. (John 12:1-3)
Recently I spent some time reflecting on this passage and discovered something that had always eluded me: the example of a disciple who filled a space with the perfume of God’s love, someone who completely identified herself with Jesus. Mary identifies with him to such an intimate degree – the drying of his feet with her hair seems to me to be quite an erotic act – that she manifests the same disposition of total self-giving that he is about to manifest on the cross. She had learned from Jesus, as we are bidden to learn, how to throw herself away and become like God.
Mary is shown in three Gospel accounts to be at Jesus’ feet:
- When Martha and Mary offered hospitality to their friend Jesus and the former complained that her sister was not helping with the meal (Luke 10:38-42);
- Their brother Lazarus was dangerously ill and in desperation Martha and Mary sent for Jesus (John 11:1-44);
- The anointing of Jesus at Bethany (John 12:1-8).
John does not want to leave us in any doubt about the generosity of her gesture on this occasion. We should note the quantity of oil – a litre – and how it is described: both costly and genuine. It is thought to have been of Oriental origin, thus emphasising the extravagance of Mary’s gesture. In other words, only the best would do: neither a cheap substitute nor a measly amount. Jesus alone understood the significance of this act. The times that she had spent at his feet had not been wasted.
Approaching another season of Lent we could be forgiven for feeling jaded and so opt for the ‘usual’ pattern of Lenten self-denial: giving up alcohol, chocolate or cream cakes for the duration. To perpetuate the memory of Mary is to fill the world with the perfume of God’s love, a love that is totally self-giving. In the concrete, it is to anoint the poor and the afflicted, the favoured members of Christ’s Body, with this love and, where possible, to be generous, even reckless, in our relationship with others. The invitation: “Come back to me with all your heart” calls for more than a token gesture. From whom can we learn if not from Jesus? To live in his presence, desiring to be a sign of love requires generosity of effort and time to be with him this Lent: to read, to contemplate, to imitate. Aside from spending time learning from Jesus by reading one of the gospels, there is the time-honoured Catholic practice of a visit to the Blessed Sacrament focussing on the tabernacle. Whichever means we choose to be with him, there is no need to fill that space with words, but if we must say something let those words be: “Show me, Lord, your face. Reveal to me your heart. Do what you want with me.”
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 65 (Winter 2012-13)