Lent 2007: March 2009 Archives

Who Is On Your "E" List?

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Saturday of the First Week of Lent

Deuteronomy 26:16-19
Psalm 118: 1-2, 4-5, 7-8
Matthew 5:43-48

The Spirit of Compunction

If yesterday's Gospel pierced your heart with sorrow for the sin of anger, it is likely that today's Gospel will open a fresh wound. At the Prayer Over the People on Ash Wednesday we asked God for the spirit of compunction, for the grace of a Word-pierced heart. Do you remember the prayer? It is a threshold text, one of great importance for the rest of Lent:

Upon those who bow themselves before your majesty, O Lord, graciously pour out the spirit of compunction, that, by your mercy, they may win the rewards promised to those who repent.

Wound Thou This Heart of Mine

We asked God to pierce our hearts through with the "two-edged sword of His Word" (Heb 4:11), not once, but again and again. Lent is all about becoming vulnerable; it is about approaching the Word of God with none of the protective gear we so cleverly devise against it. It is about saying to God, "Wound Thou this heart of mine; wound it again and again until by the wounding of Thy Word I am healed"

Pray For Those Who Persecute You

Today the command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us pierces our hearts. "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven" (Mt 5:43-45). People ordinarily pass over this command of the Lord, saying, "I am not the sort of person to have enemies."

Enemies

An enemy is one who feels hatred for or fosters harmful designs against another. An enemy is one who lives in a state of enmity. Enmity is a feeling or condition of hostility, ill will, animosity, antipathy, or antagonism. Jesus does not address our being enemies in today's passage; He focuses instead on how we are to respond to those who hold us in enmity, those who have hostile feelings towards us.

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Friday of the First Week of Lent

Ezekiel 18:21-28
Psalm 129:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8
Matthew 5:20-26

Anger

Today Our Lord addresses the sin of anger. "I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Mt 5:22). The law of the Gospel is more exacting by far than the law of old which said, "Whoever kills shall be liable to judgment" (Mt 5:21). Jesus uncovers the root of the killer's sin: anger. Anger goes by any number of names: among them are resentment, rage, exasperation, bile, spleen, belligerence, and wrath.

Unidentified and Unconfessed

The sin of anger often goes unidentified and unconfessed because it lies below the surface like a great fault-line or like the seething entrails of a volcano. We delude ourselves into thinking that we have no sin because the sin has not surfaced. "I haven't thrown a pot, a pan, a book, or a brick. I haven't kicked, or shoved anyone. I haven't let go with any hugely inappropriate words or slammed any doors."

An Invisible Killer

Reasoning thus, we conclude that the sin of anger has no hold over us. Jesus would have us understand, however, that the anger locked up inside us is in every way as poisonous as the anger we let out. One must not think that because one has kept a lid on the boiling cauldron of one's anger, one is without sin. Hidden anger, or the anger we think we succeed in keeping hidden, is as sinful as the anger that comes out in harsh words and hurtful actions. Hidden anger is an invisible killer. That is why, for Our Lord, the angry man falls under the same judgment as the murderer.

Anger Voids Every Virtue

The sin of anger voids every virtue in the sight of God. It is an ugly splotch spoiling even our good deeds. Abba Agathon says that, "a man who is angry, even if he were to raise the dead, is not acceptable to God." The struggle against the sin of anger is long and hard. Abba Ammonas said, "I have spent fourteen years in Scetis asking God night and day to grant me the victory over anger."

Thursday of the First Week of Lent

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Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25
Psalm 137: 1-2ab, 2cde-3, 7c-8
Matthew 7:7-12

Women of Lent

Yesterday the queen of Sheba, today Queen Esther: the liturgy directs our gaze to these women of the Bible, that we might recognize in them the mystery of the Church, and in the Church see ourselves. The editors of the First Reading omitted, for whatever reason, the highly significant second verse of the fourteenth chapter of Esther:

She took off her splendid apparel and put on the garments of distress and mourning, and instead of costly perfumes she covered her head with ashes and dung, and she utterly humbled her body, and every part that she loved to adorn she covered with her tangled hair (Vg Est 4: 17).

Having given this description of Esther, the text goes on to say, "and she prayed to the Lord God of Israel" (Est 14:3).

Esther: Icon of the Lenten Church

Esther comes to us today as an icon of the Lenten Church, the penitent Church, the praying Church. We see her "prostrate upon the ground, together with her handmaids" (Vg Est 4: 17p), praying "from morning until evening"(Vg Est 4:17p): a community of women in prayer. We are reminded too of that other icon of the Lenten Church, venerated in the East as one of the patrons of Great Lent, Saint Mary of Egypt. She, like Esther, took off her splendid apparel, put on the garments of distress and mourning, utterly humbled her body, and prayed. In Esther, we see a prototype of the Church, the "utterly humbled" Body of Christ, the Bride forever associated to His priesthood of mediation. In Saint Mary of Egypt, we see an antetype, a reflection of the great feminine archetype going back to Eve and perfected in the mystery of the Church.

The Bride of Christ

In knowing herself, a woman comes to know the mystery of the Church; and in knowing and reverencing the mystery of the Church, the Body and Bride of Christ, a woman comes to know and reverence her true self. It is the gift and office of man to receive woman in the mystery of her otherness even as Christ receives and honours His bride the Church.

It is in the recognition and reception of woman -- among them, Eve, Esther, the Virgin Mother Mary, and Saint Mary of Egypt -- that man and, in particular, the priest, discovers himself as one called to a sacrificial love for the Church, to holiness, and to the life of repentance and prayer. This is why the liturgical calendar shines with the memory of so many holy women. Each of them says in her own voice, "Whosoever sees me sees the Church." This is why Esther is given us today. She is an icon of the Lenten Church, praying in a body that is "utterly humbled."

The Disruptive Grace of Lent

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Wednesday of the First Week of Lent

Jonah 3:1-10
Psalm 50;3-4, 12-13, 18-19
Luke 11:29-32

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I can't resist adding a word about this portrait of Saint Mary of Egypt by Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, also known as Lo Spagnoletto. Ribera came to Naples in search of Caravaggio in 1609, but Caravaggio had just died. Ribera's Mary of Egypt is emaciated and hollow-cheeked. Her once voluptuous body is wrinkled and weatherbeaten. She stands in prayer against the landscape of her conversion: the desert. There is even a certain resemblance between the saint and the skull on the ledge in front of her. The broken loaf of bread is a symbol of the Word of God, recalling the saying of Our Lord in the desert: "Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God" (Mt 4:4).

Indolence

Lent is supposed to be unsettling. Lent is supposed to disrupt our routines. Lent is about entering into another rhythm of life, a rhythm different from the one by which we ordinarily organize our lives. The unwillingness to be disturbed, to make a change, even a very little one, in what has become customary reveals an underlying resistance to the grace of conversion.

Newman speaks of indolence. Indolence is a state of sluggishness; it is the habit of seeking to avoid exertion. The indolent person says, "I am quite comfortable with things as they are, thank you. I have neither the desire nor the need to change my routines, to displace myself, or to do anything differently from the way I have always done it." Indolence is incompatible with Lent.

Alacrity

The opposite of indolence is alacrity -- a very Benedictine virtue -- an eager willingness to get up and get moving. The dictionary defines alacrity as a "cheerful readiness, promptness, or willingness." When Saint Benedict treats of Lenten penances in Chapter Forty-Nine of the Rule, he says that they are to be offered "spontaneously in the joy of the Holy Spirit." There is in this something of the quickfooted and swift obedience of Chapter Five of the Rule, an obedience that brooks no delays.

Sackcloth and Ashes

In today's gospel Our Lord gives us two examples of alacrity in penitence: that of the Ninevites and that of the Queen of Sheba. The Ninevites wasted no time in responding to Jonah's preaching. He had gone but a day's journey into the city, preaching repentance, when the people of Nineveh believed God. "They proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them" (Jon 4:5).

Jonah's message completely disrupted things as they were. Word of it reached the ears of the king. "He arose from his throne, removed his robe, and covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes" (Jon 4:6). A dramatic departure from routine! The king proclaimed a fast affecting not only the people of the city, but even their beasts, their herds, and their flocks. The Ninevites are to put on sackcloth, but so too are their beasts. The image of a sheep, a goat, or a cow wearing sackcloth is almost too amusing; clearly it signifies a departure from business as usual. The extraordinary thing is that this public penitence is done with alacrity, in prompt obedience to Jonah's preaching. Nothing is said of a town meeting to discuss and decide what response might be appropriate. Jonah's message is pressing and it is urgent that the people of Nineveh waste no time in talk, lest the judgment of God overtake them.

Lent and Lectio Divina

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Tuesday of the First Week of Lent

Isaiah 55:10-11
Psalm 33:4-5, 6-7, 16-17, 18-19
Matthew 6:7-15

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Lectio and Oratio

Today's Mass invites us to focus on two practices necessary to the Christian life at all times, but utterly crucial during Lent: in the First Reading, lectio, and in the Gospel, oratio. In Isaiah God speaks of his descending Word, the same Word proclaimed from the ambo and heard in our solitary lectio divina. In the Gospel our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word Himself, gives us words for prayer to the Father: the very form of our common and solitary oratio.

Pope Benedict XVI on Lectio Divina

When Pope Benedict XVI addressed the young Catholics of the world in view of the World Youth Day 2006, he them to the practice of lectio divina. He even explained it for them in his letter. This is what he said:

My dear young friends, I urge you to become familiar with the Bible, and to have it at hand so that it can be your compass pointing out the road to follow. By reading it, you will learn to know Christ. Note what Saint Jerome said in this regard: "Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ" (PL 24,17; cf Dei Verbum, 25). A time-honoured way to study and savour the word of God is lectio divina which constitutes a real and veritable spiritual journey marked out in stages. After the lectio, which consists of reading and rereading a passage from Sacred Scripture and taking in the main elements, we proceed to meditatio. This is a moment of interior reflection in which the soul turns to God and tries to understand what his word is saying to us today. Then comes oratio in which we linger to talk with God directly. Finally we come to contemplatio. This helps us to keep our hearts attentive to the presence of Christ whose word is "a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts" (2 Pet 1:19). Reading, study and meditation of the Word should then flow into a life of consistent fidelity to Christ and his teachings.

Saint Benedict

Pope Benedict XVI and Saint Benedict are, so to speak, on the same page. For Saint Benedict, Lent is the season of lectio divina par excellence. He goes so far as to rearrange the daily timetable, changing the ordered routine of things, so as to provide more time for lectio divina during Lent (cf. RB 48:14). Lent requires a change in routine; there is a healthy sense in which Lent should be upsetting. It is a time to stop doing things as we have always done them and to quicken to a more bracing rhythm of life.

Distribution of Lenten Books

The distribution of Lenten books prescribed by the Rule (RB 48:15) is a kind of Lenten sacrament. In the old monastic ceremonials each monk received his Lenten book from the hand of the abbot, kissing the book to signify not only his joy in being trusted with a precious book from the library, but also his willingness to hear the Word and be converted.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

Donations for Silverstream Priory

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