With Joyful Hope and Generous Hearts – Bishop Kevin’s Message for Lent
Dear Parishioners of the Diocese of Elphin
Last year we spent most of Lent in lockdown as we faced into the unknown of the first wave of COVID-19. I share your sense of disappointment at the fact that we now begin another season of Lent with the same restrictions in place.
How Can We Sing the Lord’s Songs in a Strange Land?
You may be asking yourselves; “how can we celebrate Lent this year?” You will probably know that the people of Israel asked themselves a similar question when they were in exile in a Babylon. In Psalm 137, made popular again by Abba, the cried out to God: “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” I think there may be two answers to the question: “How can we live Lent this year?” One is “with difficulty” and the other is “with joyful hope and generous hearts”.
Lent was originally a shorter period of four weeks, when those who were to be Baptised at the Easter Vigil prepared themselves through prayer and fasting. Later, the season of Lent was extended to reflect the forty days that Jesus spent in the wilderness, preparing himself for his mission. For us who are already Baptised, the annual celebration of Lent is a time of renewal, when we try to live the promises of our Baptism more richly, so that we can share more fully in the joy of Easter and ultimately in the Resurrection of Jesus.
A Season of Prayer
Lent has traditionally been associated with the commitment to participate more regularly – and even on a daily basis – in the Eucharist, so that we enter more closely into communion with Jesus. Mass was never meant to be an online experience. The live-streamed Mass is a substitute and we must aspire to something better in the near future. In the meantime, however, I want to remind you that the Mass, even when it is offered behind closed doors, is offered for you, the people of the Diocese.
Writing in the 7th century, St John Damascene described prayer as “the lifting of the mind and heart to God”. When we freely choose to join with our parish community for Mass, even online, we are responding to God’s invitation to lift our minds and hearts to him. We are being drawn by his Spirit into communion with Christ and with one another. If, during the past nine months you have become a bit more casual in responding to that invitation, I invite you to “come back with all your heart” during this season of Lent. Unite yourself with the sacrifice of Christ by praying the “Act of Spiritual Communion” at the Communion of the Mass.
There are other ways in which you can make Lent 2021 into a time of prayerful preparation for Easter. Two that I would suggest in particular are:
- praying the rosary, while reflecting on the mysteries of Christ’s life, death and Resurrection
- reading a short passage of the Gospel each day and spend a little time reflecting prayerfully on it. You could use the Gospel of the daily mass or of the Sunday.
I encourage you to make use of the Prayer Guide for Lent, which has been prepared jointly by the Dioceses of Elphin and Clonfert. You can find it at: https://www.elphindiocese.ie/springtime-a-prayer-guide-for-the-season-of-lent/
A Time of Penance
We have been told since childhood that it is good to do penance and to make sacrifices. But let’s face it, we struggle with it. The idea of penance is a little bit like the idea of physical training. It is about building up our spiritual immune system. By giving up things which are good in themselves, we develop a capacity for self-control so that, when we are tempted to do what is wrong we are better able to resist temptation and choose instead what is good.
I think it would be fair to say that, for many of us, this whole experience of COVID-19 and lockdown has been penitential in itself. I don’t want to discourage anybody from generously taking on particular sacrifices for Lent, but I think there are also other ways of looking at it this year. One possibility is that we look again at the opportunities that are presented to us at this time to serve others whose needs are greater than ours.
Part of doing penance is identifying ourselves with Christ who, as the Gospel tells us: “went out carrying his own cross”. He didn’t get to pick from a selection of crosses. He carried the one he was given and, when he fell, he got up again and kept going. Perhaps, this year, the invitation to live Lent is an invitation to take up with a generous spirit the cross that we have been asked to carry. The cross comes in so many different shapes and sizes. That could be the challenge of minding the kids, while working from home. It could be the fact that you can’t travel, that you can’t go to the cinema or to the pub. It could be the separation from family and friends. Carrying the Cross with Christ, is not just about endurance, it is about sharing his attitude as we do it. Can we, in these weeks, reflect something of the calm, the sense of purpose, the attitude of gentleness and mercy that he brought with him on the way to Calvary. That would be a blessing for ourselves and for those around us.
I wish you every blessing for the season of Lent and I look forward to sharing with you in the celebration of Easter, when I hope we may be able to gather together. That is something for which we need to pray. I will be asking our public representatives to make sure that the centrality of Holy Week and Easter is not overlooked in the process of decision making in the coming weeks. It may be good, if you see fit, for you to do the same.
Bishop of Elphin
16th February 2021