A reflection on Lent: 5th Sunday's 1st Reading

A reflection on Lent
By Christopher Ow

After reading Immanuel's posting of the poem on the divine name, I recalled this reading from Mass on Sunday.

Reading I
Is 58:7-10

Thus says the LORD:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!
If you remove from your midst
oppression, false accusation and malicious speech;
if you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted;
then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
and the gloom shall become for you like midday.

And why this reflection all of a sudden? Well for us in Singapore, today (Fri 11 Feb) is both the celebration of Ash Wednesday and the third day of the Chinese New Year.

I could write about shifting the observance of fast and abstinence from Wed to Fri, but i don't think that is a really important issue. And I'd wager that neither Isaiah nor Our Lord would have regarded it as being of great import either.

Living la vida loca -- Nope, Lent is not a crazy life

What I'd like to share are just a few thoughts on Lent, seeing as how we're already in the midst of it.

When I was younger, I always saw Lent as a dreary time of deprivation. There were just so many things that I was supposed to give up. Watching TV, playing computer games, eating meat, etc... Being thus deprived was not a good thing for me. "How could it ever be?", I used to think to msyelf. Lent was always a moody season in my life.

And what better reminder of this than to have ashes smeared on your forehead at Mass on Ash Wednesday, a day of fast and abstinence too!

Good news first or bad news first?

Now at the homily at Mass today, the celebrant preached about the two traditional formulae for the imposition of ashes. "Remember, o man, thou art dust and unto dust ye shall return." and "Turn away from sins (Repent) and be faithful to the Gospel."

In the first, we are starkly reminded of our mortality and fragility and the shortness of our temporary earthly life. What then is the good news? How can going back to dust be good news? If that is good news, I'm not staying to find out what the bad news is!

But when we consider the second formula, we realise that we are being urged to repent and return to the values of the Gospel. But what is this Gospel, this good news? A little more reflection leads to

John 11:25 Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live
And slowly, we begin to see that the real good news is that for us, at our death "life is changed, not ended" (CCC 1012, Preface of Christian Death I)

Adopting the values of the Gospel [as captured by Isaiah in the reading (Isa 58:7-10), and expanded upon by Jesus in his teaching, especially in the Beatitudes (Matt 5)] can make sense to a person only after she has begun to her see life with an eternal perspective.

If death is an annihilation, why be good? Why give bread to the hungry? Why should I be moral when there are clear instances where being immoral will serve my interests better?

Setting aside more esoteric philosophical considerations, what I want to point to is the reality of the prophet's words.

When one begins to treat with dignity and profound respect those around us, made by the same hand of God that fashioned our very selves in the secret of our mother's womb, each one a reflection, an image of the invisible God whom we worship though we cannot see, then by our words and deeds, God is made visible in our midst. Then when the vicissitudes of life deal us a blow beyond our own ability to cope, the community into which we have birthed God, will be the hands that hold us; theirs will be the lips that utter the words of God himself, "I am here."

And when we consider that in Lent, the Church propose three key practices that we are called to intensify, namely: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, then we see that Isaiah was really talking about living Lent.

I am here...

All too often, I find myself assuming that God is already present in my home, within my family, among my friends, in my cell group, in my community...

How often I go wrong in making this assumption. So often where envy has a foothold, God is crowded out. When egos get in the way, God has no space. Where self-aggrandisement is on the agenda, God isn't. And so on... You get the idea.

Yet the Scriptures remind us again and again that God wishes to be with us. He wants to be in our midst, living and dying, crying and laughing, with us.

He wants to answer our pleas. "I am here" is what he wants to say to the needy one. Will we lend him our lips and our lives?

Refiner's Fire

Our lives are a continuous attempt at purifying our hearts. Lent just helps us to focus better on this ever-present need.

And Lent is meant to be a season of joy. This is not simply agreeable sensations. After all it's not hard to see that feasting, hoarding, and self-centredness will lead to more agreeable sensations than fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. So what is this joy and where does it come from?
"Each year you give us this joyful season when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery with mind and heart renewed.
You give us a spirit of loving reverence for you, our Father, and of willing service to our neighbor.
As we recall the great events that gave us life in Christ, you bring the image of him to perfection within us."
Preface of Lent I

It comes as a gift from the Father. It is a supernatural joy. A joy that makes loving reverence and willing service to God and neighbour possible and fulfilling.

This gift is what I hope to receive this Lent. And I believe that you would want it to, wouldn't you?

Where do we go from here?

So what am I really being asked to fast from? I don't know exactly what it is yet. And I expect to get an answer in the days to come through prayer.

What about you? What do you need to fast from?

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ChrisYeo said...

"All too often, I find myself assuming that God is already present in my home, within my family, among my friends, in my cell group, in my community...

How often I go wrong in making this assumption. So often where envy has a foothold, God is crowded out. When egos get in the way, God has no space. Where self-aggrandisement is on the agenda, God isn't. And so on... You get the idea."

I was struck by this idea in your sharing, Chris. Often, I hear of people in church councils or who are involved in some ministry in the church become disillusioned because of the politics or the lack of productivity. This is because we only remember the saying "when two or three are gathered in my name, there I will be" Matt. 18:20.

You sharing makes me realise that 'gathering in his name' may not mean just a physical gathering. Rather it must be with heart and mind as well. If a meeting were conducted to do God's work for example, we could very well be crowding out God in that meeting with our own ideas and biases. This is perhaps why many such meetings prove so unfruitful.

Nick Teo said...

Indeed, i can identify with that as well. As I reflected on why certain aspirations didnt work and failed, we often attributed it to the lack of God's support, saying it's not His plan nor time.

But to follow up on what chrisyeo and chris ow said, it could simply be the lack of concerted ideas, heart and spirit. Differences in ego and the obstacles posed by envy and jealousy.

Alas, many great ideas would never see the glory of success.

Yet again, it can be because of the lack of God's support because it's not His plan.

We will never know.