During the Ash Wednesday Liturgy, as I joined the long procession to be marked with the sign of the Cross with the ashes of last year’s palms, I reflected on the words used to accompany the signing:
‘Repent and believe the Gospel’
I thought how wholesome they were in contrast to the earlier form used until fairly recently: ‘Remember man thou art but dust and into dust thou shall return’
The current form reflects a more positive, encouraging and hope-filled approach to the season of Lent. It takes us beyond the pressure of guilt about the death of Christ to the fruits of his death, to the good news of the resurrection and our responsibility to live by Gospel standards.
Many of our churches and chapels are dominated by the crucified Christ. This reflects of course the era in which they were built. It is much easier to develop and reflect the evolving concepts of our theology in words, than it is in fixtures of paintings and statuettes.
Sculptors and artists have, however, attempted to move in new directions through works that portray the Risen Christ in a cruciform structure, trying to portray the life, death and resurrection of Christ as one salvific event and many post Vatican Two Churches have these installed in the Churches. They were not, I believe, comfortably received at first; many people had an uneasy sense that the death of Christ was being underplayed. They did, however, provide material for some very fruitful homilies.
By the providence of God, I now find myself, both in our Convent Chapel and in the very beautiful Gothic Church next door, praying before very dominant figures of the crucified Christ. Recently, during prayer, while pondering on a larger than life crucifix, I had a sort of conversation with Christ. I asked. “How do you feel about hanging there, portrayed as dying or dead, permanently on view for centuries?
The thoughts that came to my mind in response went something like this;
‘Not good, this is unfinished business; my passion represented here, depicts twenty-four hours of the thirty-three years I lived as man on the earth. Move on to my Resurrection, Ascension and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit. I came among you to set fire to the earth. I conquered death and the power of the evil one, so that you could have life and have it more abundantly. I have left you a legacy of teaching and example. Remember I am alive, not dead. I am with you always. Do not linger over my death; you are the light of the world; move forward, go out to proclaim the good news’
Reflecting further, I thought it is right and fitting, particularly in this season to pray and reflect on the suffering and death of death of Christ and to repent for my own personal contribution to the climate of sinfulness in which we live. It is needful also to reflect, pray and question myself about institutional sin which creates the massive injustice of a very small rich first world and a massive, desperately poor third world.
This prayer and reflection however is always in the context of Christ’s victory over sin and death, his resurrection and his legacy of example and teaching. Despite the, apparently worsening situations vividly portrayed in our media, we are, in Christ, people of faith and hope and joy. The mystery of suffering, of time and eternity, is profound and baffling. Yet I believe there is far more love and goodness in our world than there is evil. I think today of so many brave people ready and anxious to get into Syria to bring humanitarian aid. So many times we have witnessed heroic generosity in times of great crisis and the quiet goodness and love of so many people we are in contact with.
Those words ‘Repent and believe the Gospel’ which heralded the season of Lent is an invitation to realign our lives in order to walk more fully in the footsteps of Christ.
We begin first, I think, by praying for a deeper, ongoing insight into those areas of our lives that are out of line with Christ’s teaching and values. I believe our response to a deepening awareness of our failures and sins should be a mixture of sorrow and gratitude: Sorrow, but not depression, frustration or a refusal to accept this awareness; and gratitude, for the insights which enables us to be more aware of the pit falls and able to make a fresh start.
The second part of the invitation is a call to strengthen our faith by reflectively and prayerfully re- reading the Gospels. Let us pray for each other.