Reflection for Lent 2011 by Bishop Donal McKeown

09 Mar 2011


8 March 2011

Reflection for Lent 2011 by Bishop Donal McKeown

Lent says that I can become master of myself and not a slave to someone else’s agenda – Bishop McKeown

Tomorrow, Ash Wednesday, is the beginning of Lent.  Why celebrate Lent in 2011?  Lent should not be about satisfying a tendency towards masochism or self-righteousness, if its primary focus is weight loss or a pious but insignificant nod towards the world’s starving billions – then it risks being just one more self-help therapy or a superficial attempt to assuage a guilty conscience.  Lent is about preparation to celebrate the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus  – it is a season which calls us to self-transcendence and not just to self-fulfilment.

But just because Lent is not pleasant, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have a meaning or make sense.

Maybe the first piece of sense that Lent makes is that, in some ways, it doesn’t make sense! At least, in a culture which suggests that it is my duty and right to obey all my thirsts, where self-restraint is frowned upon as unhealthy, Lent says that self-discipline can be much wiser than self-indulgence.

Lent says that I can be true to my own deepest sense of call – and not just a Pavlovian slave to an advertising jingle. Lent whispers the heresy that the best resources for healing and hope are inside and not on the shelf of the nearest superstore or off-licence. Lent says that I can become master of myself and not a slave to someone else’s agenda.

So, Lent does ask us as individuals to look at our patterns of behaviour and to engage our bodies so that we can tackle the selfish urges and encourage the generous ones. That is why it is never an easy Exodus journey from the slavery of our Egypts to the promise of liberation. Crossing the desert of personal grown needs investment and involves risk.

And what applies to individuals can apply to the bigger national picture as well.

There is a Marxist axiom which holds that the ideology of any society is really the ideology of the ruling class.  The Saviour God, through our persistent friend, Lent, seditiously poses a lot of questions that shouldn’t be voiced in polite company.  But these are questions that the weak in any society are entitled to ask of the strong.  And God asks poses these questions to all of us through the Lenten practices of penance, prayer and almsgiving.

Firstly, penance.  Leadership in Church has – at national and local levels – a huge amount of repenting to do.  The gilded story of holy Ireland was widely accepted – but we could not bear to recognise the reality of evil in our midst.  Our story about ourselves needs to be retold in ways that recognises the terrible sins of the past. There is no future unless the past and its pain are processed.  But there is no future if we all remain prisoners of our past.  We have a chance to learn from the experience of human – and not just ecclesiastical – blindness.  Otherwise we build our future on sand.  There is no value in replacing one untrue and self-serving story with another equally selectively blind narrative.  Lenten penance is both a sign that there is much to repent of in the past – and an assertion of confidence that, through the God who is Truth we can be freed from the icy grip and the jaundiced eye of malignant memories.

Secondly, prayer.  Any renewal of faith communities will have to remember that we seek to be God’s church.  Wise Sister Lent invites us to let go of our pet agendas and of our natural human assumption that our pet change in structures will be critical in building the Kingdom of Heaven!  The whole Bible – as well as so much recent Church teaching – is clear that Christians are called to holiness in imitation of the all holy God.  New systems without a changed heart are meaningless.  Good intentions without grace risk serving human rather than divine priorities.  The Tower of Babel was an exercise in human folly and not an example of human wisdom.  It was in the desert that the Jews discovered the presence of the apparently absent God.  Prayer during Lent can help us to discern God’s way forward – and edge us off our pet hobby horses and road maps.  But are we ready to be opened up by prayer – and then give up our cherished priorities in order to let a greater wisdom into our lives?

Thirdly, there is almsgiving.  One current narrative – popular with a particular sector of the commentariat – still encourages us to see the current financial strictures as part of a necessary but temporary blip on the glorious road to utopia through economic growth.  Uncomfortable Brother Lent challenges political leaders and opinion formers to repent for the believing – and perpetuating – the lie that human beings are merely consumers rather than citizens, that owning more baubles makes us more human, and that vulgar displays of wealth are a sign of maturity rather than of childishness.  Can we learn from the current debacle to promote a society where progress promotes cohesion and community – and doesn’t require us just to rejoin the troupe of clowns with colourful overblown egos and sad sweating faces behind the painted smiles? Can we prioritise whatever promotes rich humanity and not just promote life as a circus?   Generous almsgiving might help us to seek salvation in solidarity and not just in self preservation.

So I don’t believe that Lent is just a grim time for new resolutions and gritted teeth.  It begins with ashes and purple.  But already at its heart there is an invitation to believe that salvation and renewal are possible and promised – and not just a vague valiant cry of hopeless optimism.  Lent is not a self-hating exercise in pain but a conviction that, by walking with grace, we can grow as individuals and as a society.  Our individual and communal Calvary is not a despairing destination – but it is and unavoidable and necessary stage on the road to Resurrection.

And Lent is not so much just a season of the year but a season of the heart.  Living simply is supposed to be a way of life and not just a way of slimming.  Lent is an invitation to listen to our hearts and not just to bathroom scales.  This season is a call to hear the cry of the poor above of the screech of advertisements.  It is a God-given time which suggests that it is always better to be unhappy with the right questions, rather than to be happy with the wrong answers.


Bishop Donal McKeown is an Auxiliary Bishop of the diocese of Down and Connor and is Chairman of the Council for Vocations of the Irish Bishops’ Conference.

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