My March Column – Full Text

It’s Lent again. Is it just me or was it only a couple of months since the last Lent? I must admit I don’t look forward to Lent. Lent is a time of giving up things and the theme is penance. On Ash Wednesday we were invited to face up to the fact that we are dust and are going to return to dust. Now that’s not a happy thought.

The first problem I face is deciding what to give up. I give up red wine, all alcohol actually but I only have a glass of wine (it’s supposed to be good for the heart.) My wife gives up sweets and cakes, so those are out as well since they are not brought into the house. The whole giving up business can create its own problems. I read that Theresa May, our Prime Minister has given up crisps. She got a really bad press for that; all too easy the critics say. Michael Gove went further in an article in The Times. He pointed out that this was a Catholic tradition and it showed that Mrs. May was the first Catholic Prime Minister of the U.K.

He wasn’t saying this was good. He was arguing that Brexit was essentially a Protestant thing and Mrs. May should not be trusted to go through with it. Mrs. May is actually an Anglican but obviously some think she seems a bit dodgy. So it seems that giving up something up for Lent leaves us open to anti-Catholic rhetoric, even if we are not a Catholic.

Now there’s a problem right away. There’s a great temptation to compete with one another on who does the most difficult giving up. I wonder if Theresa May’s critics have given up anything? I must admit I admire her for going public about Lent. I suppose she was asked and had to think of something quickly but it’s unusual for any politician to admit to any Christian action these days. Politicians have been ridiculed for expressing their belief in God.

Carol Monaghan, M.P. for Glasgow North West turned up to her select committee meeting on Ash Wednesday with her ashes on her forehead. Other members could not believe she wanted to appear with this symbol as the meeting was being broadcast on television. Perhaps they found the idea of publicly marking oneself as a sinner, for that’s what we are doing, was a step too far.

What if I had a class of wine tonight, have I failed Lent? Pope Francis would tell me that I have the wrong idea of Lent. Lent is a time of penance; but penance with a purpose. On Ash Wednesday the Pope was comparing the atmosphere of selfishness and downright lies in our society with the atmospheric pollution in our cities. The E.U. has threatened to fine us for exceeding air pollution levels, levels which cause premature deaths. We tend not to notice the pollution as we are breathing it every day. Similarly we do not notice the poisonous atmosphere of sin we inhabit because it’s always there.

Pope Francis tells us that Lent is a time when we can cut out this spiritual pollution and learn to breathe again. My giving up red wine is an exercise for my spiritual health, not a test. If I can give up my indulgence and put the money I would spend on that to some good cause then I’m fulfilling the requirements of penance and almsgiving all in one go; a two for one offer as Tesco might put it. There are plenty of opportunities to use the money wisely; SCIAF’s Wee Blue Box is sitting on our table.

I will try to adopt a more positive approach to this Lent. If I take a long hard look at myself and list all my failings I’m sure I will end up with a massive to do list. I don’t think I’ll be able to sort out all of those faults in six weeks. I think I’ll need to do a wee bit at a time. Where should I start?

The Gospel reading this morning was very short and to the point.

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon and you will be pardoned. Give, and there will be gifts for you; a full measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap; because the amount you measure out is the amount you will be given back.’

Luke 6:36 – 38

There you have it do not judge and do not condemn. Well, that lets me out then. Oh yes? Can I be sure that I’m not guilty of judging and, indeed, condemning others? Perhaps I am guilty of judging others when I get annoyed by something they do or say. Do I condemn others? Do I write them off as not worth bothering about?  Maybe I need to take that close look at my behaviour.

While picking out all my faults I should keep in mind where I’m going with all this. I am going, we are all going towards Easter. Easter is the great celebration of the Church. We are celebrating our salvation. We are celebrating that turning point in history when Jesus, by his suffering and dying on the cross, made it possible for us to attain Heaven.

Now if I am going to be judged in the way I judge other people then I’d better start creating a sympathetic judgement for myself. I have to start to be more understanding of all those people who annoy me. There’s a Lenten task that puts abstaining from red wine into the shade.  Perhaps I need to try to put myself in their shoes as they say. If I could see things from their perspective then perhaps I would not be so grumpy.

Well, that’s made up my mind. I’m going to make a greater effort in what’s left of Lent to spring clean myself. I’ll try to move my focus away from the trivial things of this world and set my sights on the next one. Instead of taking Donald Trump’s tweets seriously (that way leads to insanity) I’ll try to take the Holy Father’s words more seriously. When he talks of being tolerant of people in unorthodox marriages and reaching out to strangers I’ll do my best to ‘get with the programme’.

It’s worth remembering at this time that Jesus went through all his suffering and dying to save people who were not Catholics, not particularly good and some were downright bad. That is still the mission of the Church. We are here to bring sinners (including me) to Christ and through Christ to Heaven. Now when it comes to the final judgement and I have to account for myself, what am I to say in mitigation for my sins? I think that helping to bring a sinner to Jesus will go down much better than I always put money in the plate and I never kept bad company.

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