Homily for 8th Sunday of Year 2006
At the opening Mass for our School on Friday night I spoke of the anger that seems to be everywhere around the world. Evidence of it is put before us everyday on TV. Anger in Iraq, and in Israel, are the most obvious. This anger highlights the divisions between people and those divisions are easily exploited. Between East and West, Jew and Arab, Christian and Islam it is as though a great gulf has opened up. I find it heartening to remember that there was a time early last century when the loyalty of Catholics to Australia was seriously being questioned. There was the great conscription debate during the first world war. Irish Catholics in Australia were against conscription into an army that would defend the British Empire. That same British Empire was engaged in a war in Ireland to put down the Irish independence movement. Things haven't changed much.
In any case, all this anger we see gets absorbed into us. We are so immersed in the violence and hatred around that it does affect us. It is said that we see so much of it that we become desensitised to it. That is partly true I suppose. But I believe we do internalise some of it as well. This in turn aggravates our own personal hurts and pain. The world and our lives can become very dark places indeed. I meet people almost everyday who are smiling on the outside but are barely concealing the pain of their lives or the anger and frustration they feel about something. Much of the anger is about trifling things but is an expression of a deeper spiritual need.
So I think Lent arrives just in time. We begin Lent next Wednesday, Ash Wednesday with Mass at 10am and 7pm. We need time personally and as a parish community to refocus our lives on the Gospel of Jesus instead of the gospel of hate and division. Lent is a time when the whole Church goes on retreat as it were.
It is like God saying to Israel in the prophet Hosea today about Israel's unfaithfulness, “I am going to lure her and lead her out into the wilderness and speak to her heart” (Hosea 2:14). God had said that he will strip her naked of all that she is addicted to! Then God can clothe her again in love and justice. Does that remind you of anything? It reminds me of the new white garment of baptism. The child born naked and new is clothed in Christ.
Lent is a time of retreat because it is a time when the Church prepares for Baptism. Specifically, the baptism of the catechumens, those in the RCIA. But more generally, Lent prepares us all to renew our baptismal commitment at Easter. And at Easter we renew our baptismal promises in the presence of the baptismal candle. So in Lent we seek conversion of heart to the Gospel from which we have strayed since baptism. It is a fitting time, then, for the children to prepare for first Reconciliation. Preparing with their families is a good and simple way to enter into the spirit of Lent. These children will be given a blessing at the Ash Wednesday Masses.
People came asking Jesus why his disciples didn't fast like John the Baptist's disciples or the Pharisees. Jesus refers to himself as a bridegroom. God was spoken of in the same way in the reading from the prophet Hosea we heard. God is the bridegroom of Israel the bride. In those days the bride and groom didn't go on a honeymoon. They stayed at home where the wedding celebration went on for a week. It was a time of feasting, not fasting. If it happened that unexpectedly, the bridegroom was taken away from the party that would ruin the party indeed. Here Jesus is referring to his death when he would be taken away from his friends. Then the feasting would stop and fasting would begin.
Jesus reply to the question about fasting goes much deeper than about a particular religious practice. He illustrates in brief parables the newness of this unexpected removal of the bridegroom. Who Jesus is, and what he is on about, cannot be understood within the structures and thinking of Judaism. Judaism had no place for a crucified Messiah. Who he is, and what his mission is, is so different that it is like a piece of new cloth that if it is sewn into the old it will shrink and tear away making the hole worse. Jesus does not want to destroy the old. But wants his hearers to be open to the new which fulfils the old. It is so new that like new wine in old skins both the old skins and the new wine could be lost. To be a disciple of Jesus is very different to that of John or the Pharisees. No, new wine must be put in new skins.
Lent is a time for allowing the Spirit to speak to us. To let the Spirit speak to the anger, resentment, frustration, and sin that festers in us. Through the Spirit, Jesus who was taken away, is with us always. Fasting of itself is not the question here. We must get beyond paying lip service to God in our practice. Get beyond our petty sins and let the creator Spirit fill the emptiness of which our sins are but an expression. There is a time for fasting and a time for feasting: Lent and Easter. It is about our transformation, the new creation that baptism promised us.