Let My People Go – Pastoral Reflection Week 4
Let My People Go
Pastoral Reflection for Lent – 4
A few weeks ago, I mentioned that there is a symbolic connection between the forty days of Lent and the forty days that Jesus spent praying and fasting in the desert. Forty days is “a long time”. There is also a symbolic connection between the forty days of Lent and the forty years that Moses and the people of Israel spent in the wilderness, after they escaped from slavery in Egypt. The connection is about being set free.
We read in the Book of Exodus that Moses, in obedience to God’s command, went to Pharaoh, the most powerful man in the whole region, seeking justice and freedom in God’s name. Hesaid: “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: ‘Let my people go!’.” (Exodus 5). Pharaoh wasn’t having any of it, but neither was God taking “no” for an answer. He wanted his people to be free. If you read the story of Exodus, you will notice that, while Moses did eventually lead the people out of Egypt, it took them half a life-time in the wilderness to become truly free. That was because it took them that long to recognise who they were called to be. Freedom turned out to beall about relationship with a God who loved them, and who gave them commandments so that they could live with integrity.
Each year, right in the middle of Lent, the Church invites us to celebrate the Feast of Patrick, who came twice to Ireland as a migrant, the first time as a slave and the second as a missionary. The festivities that take place in his name (if notnecessarily in his honour) all over the world, are a reminder of an Irish Exodus, which has been going on for hundreds of years and which has seen communities of Irish ethnic origin in every corner of the earth.
Some left Ireland in search of a life that would be free from oppression and violence. For many that freedom was also connected with freedom of religion. Others simply wanted the freedom to work, to be able to support a family and to participate in society. Many more, motivated by humanitarian ideals or by faith, have found their own true freedom in the service of others.Christian communities across the globe, without a drop of Irish blood, acknowledge a Christian heritage which is rooted in the dedication of Irish missionaries.
We read in the Letter to the Hebrews (Heb. 13:14) that “we do not have here a lasting city”. From a spiritual point of view, whether we travel abroad to other countries, or stay physically close to home, we are pilgrims on a journeytowards the fulfilment that God has always intended for us. Day by day, following in the footsteps of Jesus, we seek to become what God has called us to be. Through the forty days of Lent we are invited to rediscover the meaning of freedom, which is not just freedom from things, but freedom to live with greater integrity and generosity in our relationship with God and with one another, and to be at peace within ourselves.
Human freedom can never be understood simply in terms of economics or politics, because human beings are much more than cogs in a wheel. This is something that Jesus made clear, when people came to him expecting a political Messiah. It is important, however, not to spiritualise freedom to the extent that we forget that we were created in flesh and blood and that God intended the resources of the earth to provide for the material well-being of all his people. This is expressed in Catholic Social Teaching in the principle if the “universal destination of goods”. To put it simply, individuals and nations may legally own property or material resources, but ownership brings with it a responsibility towards those who are in need. It was out of this understanding that the Irish Catholic Bishops established Trocaire 50 years ago and that, each year in Lent, Trocaire calls us back to that vision of faith-seeking-justice.
I want to finish by returning to the theme of Exodus. Migration is so deeply embedded in our faith and in our culture, that we Irish are very well placed to understand and to empathise with those who find themselves forced to leave their own homes to escape the ravages of war, of famine and of natural disaster. We understand what it means when God says, once again in our time “Let my people go”. There are sacrifices to be made in welcoming the stranger and, as we have seen time and again in human history, it is often the poor who are the most generous to refugees. It is important, as we enter into the second year of war in Ukraine, with all the challenges that brings, that those who have come among us seeking refuge and freedom are not made scapegoats, as the people of Israel were by the Egyptians, for the ills and failures of our own society, which have always been there. Perhaps this is a time when we can all, native Irish and migrant, become free together through a shared commitment to an Ireland where everybody can be free.
In preparing these few thoughts, I came across an interesting online invitation to join in a virtual Lenten pilgrimage in the footsteps of the people of Israel, walking the route from Egypt to the Promised Land. The link is here for those who might wish to try it.
It certainly offers some rich insights into the relationship between Lent and the Exodus.
Bishop Kevin Doran
15th March 2023