MONDAY 23rd FEBRUARY 2015
The period of Lent is traditionally associated with acts of depriving oneself of some leisure and pleasure. Well catechized Catholics know what they should avoid during lent, what they should not eat during Lent and what parts of the liturgy and gestures that should be avoided during Lent. These practices, which are more of omissions, avoidances, exclusions and prohibition than deliberate positive acts can end up being ends in themselves. It can easily happen that by the time Lent comes to an end, one is able to cheerfully recount one’s success in managing to avoid certain practices and behaviors and feels good about it, or one is depressed for having given in to self-indulging practices.
Whether one by the end of the Lenten period is elated about his success on Lenten observance or is depressed by the dismal failure in curbing leisures and pleasures, the question is how has these practices opened me more to God’s love for me and how has this experienced love of God enabled me to love others, especially those in need. Lenten exercises are just that, they are exercises that lead to a certain goal, as physical exercises lead to excellent performance of the sport for which the exercises were done. Lenten exercises are not an end in themselves but are meant to increase the love of God in us through the people we encounter and interact with. If they do not achieve this, one might as well drop them. This is illustrated by the story of a monk who was so touchy and grumpy because he had given up his smoke during Lent, and the Abbot urged him to resume his smoking during Lent if that was to help him to be more peaceful and kind to others.
Today’s readings invite us to consider our Lenten observance in relation to the wellbeing of others. In the first reading, God through the mouth of Moses, tells his people to be holy, and as if God wanted to preempt the question of “what does it mean to be holy?” God immediately states what people must and must not do. “You shall not steal. You shall not lie or speak falsely to one another. You shall not defraud or rob your neighbor. You shall not withhold overnight the wages of your day laborer. You shall not curse the deaf, or put a stumbling block in front of the blind, you must openly tell your neighbour his offense”. According to this reading holiness has to do with kind and benevolent acts towards others. While meditation and contemplation have their place in connecting us with God, and thus making us holy, God has decided that holiness shall also be achieved when we give others their fair wages, when we act justly, when we defend the rights of others and when we correct others.
The Gospel gives us insight and motivation as to why we should act in a caring and a just manner towards others, especially the needy, which is the fact that it is Jesus himself who is present in such people so that what we do to them we do to Jesus. We live in a world where the value of a person is determined by status and material possession. In these days the worth of the person lies not in his or her dignity but on usefulness, and for this reason, the sick, the hungry and the old are ignored, the unborn are easily gotten rid of, and those who are poor are used as tools and commodities.
Our Lenten observance must lead us to an appreciation of the dignity of all people by virtue of having been created in the image of God and redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ. Being appreciative of this dignity, we will then be moved to protect their rights as suggested by the 1st reading and to care and support them in their need as invited to do so by the Gospel and when we do that, we shall be attaining to holiness.
What I find striking is that God appears to be making the achievement of holiness easy, he is not making a demand that requires a lot of effort and energy, he simply asks us “not to steal, not to lie, not to defraud, not make life of others difficult. It is as if God is saying, just avoid doing anything wrong towards your neighbour, and you will be holy, it can’t be any easier than that!
In the Gospel, although Jesus moves a step further requiring us not only to avoid doing wrong but also doing something positive, he is not asking us to do extraordinary things, but simply to give someone water to drink, visit someone in prison, checking a sick person and giving a piece of bread to the hungry person. He seems to say, just do these simple things and you will achieve holiness. If by the end of Lent I can say that through my Lenten observance I have managed to minimize doing something wrong and I have tried to be kind in simple ways, then my Lenten period will have been fruitful, than just being happy because I have managed to keep the Lenten fast. We thank God for the period of Lent in which he invites us to holiness, and for making holiness appear so much easy to attain.
+Bishop S. Sipuka
Diocese of Mthatha