Sunday, February 18, 2018

FOLLOWING CHRIST OUT INTO THE DESERT: a homily for the First Sunday in Lent, year B (Mark 1.12–15).

You can listen to the homily here.
            Why did the Spirit drive Jesus out into the desert?  What good could He do out there in all that emptiness?  Who could he preach to or teach?  Who could He heal out there?  The desert (more rocks than sand) was reputedly the home of demons.  Why would our Lord go out there?
            By going out into the desert, driven out there by the Holy Spirit according to St Luke, our Lord is confronting the enemy, our enemy, the evil one.  The forty days should bring to mind the forty years of the Jews in the desert after they fled Egypt and the forty days Elijah travelled to Horeb, where God revealed Himself not in the stormy wind, the earthquake or the raging fire but in the sound of a gentle breeze.   God appeared to Elijah in a whisper.  Our Lord is not only showing the evil one who is boss He is also making a personal and private pilgrimage.  He goes out into the desert to get away from all the distractions so that He pay perfect attention to the voice of Father whispering in His heart.

            From that pilgrimage He comes back with His clear and succinct message: 'Repent and believe in the Good News.'  Not just 'repent' and not just 'believe in the Good News' but 'Repent and believe in the Good News.'  The word for 'repent' in the original Greek actually means to 'change one's mind,' to do a u-turn in one's thinking'.  The new direction we take then must be that of Christ our Lord.  We are to believe in His teaching for it is the Truth, the Way, the Life. 
            So our Lord also goes out into the desert to give example to us.  We too must find the desert in our lives and do battle with the evil there.  We too must make the journey to the Holy Mountain of God's Presence so we can repent and discover His gentle mercy whispering His love in our hearts.  We too must discover that the Kingdom of God is not an abstract concept, a theological opinion, but a reality that dwells within us and all around us.  God, through the Sacraments, has made us His, His body, His tabernacle.  We are called to be His ambassadors, His representatives to others, and our behaviour is meant to be a proclamation of His Presence within us. 

            Yet we are weak and fallen creatures.  We do the very things we advise others not to do, that once we swore we would never do or that we promised we wouldn't do again.  We do again and again the things that hurt those around us and hurt us too.  We are all of us slow learners.  On our own we cannot change.  Only God's grace, His very life dwelling and operating within us, can enable us, empower us to become what He made and redeemed us to be.  Lent is the privileged time for starting that effort afresh, of clearing out the rubbish in our lives and making space for God and our neighbour.

            By going into the desert it is not expected that we head off to the wilder parts of Kerry or Connemara.  We are to create our own desert within our own lives.  We do so by turning off the radio and the TV.  By reducing the time we spend on the computer or our phone and by avoiding unnecessary conversations or reading matter.  We make the desert by removing all those things that distract us from giving time to God and discovering His Presence within us.  He is always there but like the gentle breeze that revealed the Presence of God to Elijah one has to be really still and silent to hear it.  By being gentle, still and silent we discover the gentle stillness and silence where God dwells.  There we will also discover peace and joy and the strength to love others.
            In the meantime though it is not enough for us to repent and ask for forgiveness.  If you hurt a child do you not hurt that child's parents and indeed her entire family?   God is our creator and our Father.  Any and every sin is therefore ultimately and most importantly a sin against Him.  If I broke your window and you forgave me, that would be great but it would not fix the window.  In justice I would need to replace that window.  Likewise, with our sins God has forgiven us but even after we have received absolution in Confession the damage we have done to ourselves and to others remains.  We need to repair the relationships we have broken or harmed, returned what we have taken, and undo the harm done.  For those things we cannot fix and for the harm done of which we are unaware we do penance.  We pray, we fast and we do works of charity especially giving to those in need.  These three are the traditional remedies for the effects of our sins.

            Prayer is the first on our list.  To pray does not mean to rattle off the prayers we learnt as children, even the Our Father that our Lord Himself gave us.  Those and the others we learnt were given as models for us in how to pray but prayer itself cannot be limited to a certain set of words.  To pray is to lift the heart and mind to God.  Whatever enables us to truly and sincerely lift our heart and mind to God is prayer.  In Lent we need to make the desert where we can lift heart and mind to God so that we can face and overcome the evils in our life.
            Fasting and abstinence are not popular today.  Our culture values the personal freedom to eat and drink what we like when we like and as we like as long as we can pay for it.  To fast means to withdraw from all the unnecessary food and drink and other things that deaden us to the voice of the Lord and the needs of our neighbour.  It also teaches us the reality of the hunger in which so many people, children especially, spend so much of their lives.  A little hunger can awaken our compassion for them and if that compassion leads to action on their behalf then it has done its job.
            To give to the poor, though, means far more than giving money to beggars.  You may be better giving your money to known charities like the Penny Dinners anyway.  I am reminded of the man I saw on O'Connell bridge so many years ago who dropped food into the laps of the children begging there.  It was quickly, quietly and effectively done.  Any act of charity is giving to the poor for it is giving to someone in need.  Charity includes giving our time and our attention to those in need.  It includes forgiveness of those who have hurt us and our help to those who need it. 
            Find that desert in your life and seek the Lord's Presence.  He will give you the power to dig deeper than your pocket: He will give you the power to dig down into your heart and find the living water.

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