Lent Reflection – Week 1

Enlarge The Space of Your Tent

This time last year, as part of our participation in the Universal Synod, Catholics all over the world were invited to reflect on a short passage from the Prophet Isaiah which, I suspect, many of us had never seen or heard before. “Enlarge the space of your tent, spread out your cloths unsparingly, lengthen your ropes and make firm your pegs” (Is. 54:2).  I was a Scout in my youth, so I have some experience of erecting tents, and I know something about the challenges associated with guy-ropes and tent-pegs. We actually made our own tent-pegs using our sheath-knives and random pieces of wood.

For the Hebrew people travelling through the wilderness, the tent was not just a place where two or three people could sleep at night. It was much more than that. It was often a home and a place of shelter for an extended family group. Extra sheets could be added on the make room for new arrivals. It was firmly fixed in place to withstand the storms that sometimes crop up in the desert. But whenever the people moved on, it could easily be taken down and carried. In that sense, the tent symbolises a people on the move.

Tradition has it that the Hebrew people spent forty years in the wilderness, on their way to the promised land. The Season of Lent, with its forty days, calls to mind those forty years. During this time, as we journey towards Easter, we are invited to reflect more deeply on who we are called to be as Church. The image of the tent, has much to say to us about belonging (Communion), sharing responsibility (Participation) reaching out to others (Mission). These, as it happens, are three key themes which were identified back at the beginning of our Synodal journey in 2022. While some of us have already reflected richly on the invitation to “Enlarge the Space of Our Tent”, I suspect that many Catholics in Ireland never heard that invitation, or never felt invited to participate. That is the power of the image because, wherever there is a tent, there always seems to be someone who is left outside. During this Season of Lent, I’d like to invite you to reflect on the many ways in which we, as Church, can enlarge the space of our tent.

Let’s begin with something which is part of the experience of every community and of most families at some time or other; serious illness, a major accident, or simply the frailty due to old age. Doctors and hospitals can fill the places in the diary where work, and sports and social gatherings used to be. Over time, somebody who was part of our community can disappear from view, not because they want to, but because they no longer have the physical or emotional energy to go out.

How do we respond when someone who is part of our community no longer makes an appearance “in the tent”? Let’s be honest, many of us feel awkward when we have to witness the decline and the sadness of someone we knew when they were in the whole of their health. If we ask them how they are or how they feel, they might even tell us. It might be easier not to know.

In my experience, however, the one thing that people fear, even more than sickness and death itself, is the possibility that they might be abandoned or forgotten. In a world where lepers were shunned and isolated, Jesus didn’t send the lepers away, and he didn’t keep his distance from them. What might it look like if rather than lowering the flaps of our tent, we were to enlarge the space? Is there somebody among your family members, neighbours or friends, who is no longer able to go out, but who might welcome a visit? Is there someone who can no longer go out alone, but who might be able to go out if someone would accompany them? It might not be convenient for me, but it might be life-giving for him or her.

Nobody should be deprived of prayer or the Sacraments just because he or she cannot go to the Church. When we take Holy Communion to the sick at home, we not only keep them in Communion, but we also keep them in the community.   You might imagine that someone would tell the priest that a person who is sick at home would welcome the Sacrament of Anointing, but often nobody does. The Church, like the tent in the wilderness, is not fixed in one place. It can travel.

Bishop Kevin, 14th February 2024 – Ash Wednesday 

Bishop Kevin’s reflections will continue weekly during Lent 2024