February Allocutio 2024

The Cross calls us to penance

Fr. Paul Churchill, Concilium Spiritual Director

Anniversary remembrances are as old as you can get. I wonder how the Apostles and disciples dealt with the first Anniversary of Christ’s death? Since that occurred at Passover those early Jewish Christians could not celebrate it without also remembering how Christ, hanging on the Cross, so resembled the lamb of sacrifice of the Passover. So, Lent began fundamentally as a reflection with great devotion on the Passion, Death and Resurrection of the Lord, the New Passover of the Lamb of God.

In those early days this reflection was all the more real as the disciples were threatened by persecution and death itself. The deacon Stephen was stoned to death early on, St James was beheaded soon after and Paul of Tarsus began his rampage against followers of the way. St Peter and John were imprisoned a few times. Those early Christians were partaking in Christ’s Passion.

They were also very aware that it was due to sinfulness that Christ died. Be it their own cowardice, the jealousy of the jewish leaders, the indifference of Pilate, all of us by our sins contributed and contribute to that axis of evil in which Christ suffered such an undeserving death and so many others suffer to this day. So the question arises: how can we show our appreciation of all that Christ suffered and reassure him that his sacrifice was not in vain. At the same time how can we work on ourselves so that this effect of the sin of the world can be overcome in us, now that we have the great example of Christ to inspire us?

And this is where the thought of penance and fasting came in. A variety of practices and time-scales were in place before Pope Gregory would determine that it should begin on a Wednesday followed by six weeks of prayer and penance, excluding the Sundays. But the heart of Lent was the same: penance by us all in solidarity with Our Lord who had suffered and died for our sins.

You cannot practice Lent properly unless you consider all that the Lord suffered for us. He is misunderstood and judged to be evil. His sound teaching is rejected as a step too far despite its deep truths. He cared and loved and had compassion but he received little or none himself. His friends said they would support him but were just not there for him when he needed. And his physical sufferings must have been worse than all the physical pain he had removed from those who sought his healing. One exercise we must all do for Lent is reflect on what he suffered.

But we cannot reflect if we do not in some way share his suffering even in some little way and work against our pride and selfishness. So doing without, fasting in some way, penances, prayer, almsgiving yes. Provided they help replace our sinful side with charity. A useful meditation will be on the section on Mortification in the Handbook in no. 13 of Chapter 13.

When we look at the Cross, we are looking at the One who had one deep down attitude we all need: to trust completely in God through everything. That faith was so strong that he could not be tempted, even on the Cross. And that gift of trusting in God, no matter what, is the grace above all we should seek in Lent because all sin is in some way caused by a failure to take God at his word. Lord grant that true faith, hope and charity grow in us this Lent.

There is one person I have overlooked: Mary. When Jesus’ first anniversary came up what did she think? Yes, she could not forget the pain of those hours as she saw him so ill-treated. But she also knew that all was well, that he had risen triumphantly from the dead and that he had ascended back to heaven. One thing she knew for certain was that her Son was safe, in heaven, the dream and hope that any mother should have for her child. Her mission to him was over. No need to pray for his soul!

The promise made her by the Lord had been fully fulfilled. She had kept the faith through the events of Good Friday and she had not wavered even though the sight on the Cross seemed to annul the message given her by the archangel. But she believed and trusted completely.

We can ask the question: surely she who had remained faithful, and had seen her faith vindicated, surely she was exempt from any form of Lent? And indeed God exempted her from the road all of us who lack faith and who sin must go: death! Having lived through Good Friday I’d say that she was exempt from any form of Lent. Lent is for sinners who still have not yet, unlike her, come to trust God completely and slip back into sin.

It is indeed time for us all to repent, to come back to God, to seek forgiveness. But if it does not produce an increase in complete trust in God, proven by turning to him in prayer and loosening our dependence on worldly goods, we must ask are we really benefitting from it. May Mary, whose faith was completely vindicated in the events we celebrate and reflect on, help us.

When Pilate condemned Jesus to death he was judged no longer relevant or of any use in this world. But Jesus knew that he had another home in Heaven and so allowed himself to take up the Cross, his way back to the Father. His greatest support on that way was his mother who shared his faith and trusted with him. As we also take up the way of the Cross may we find, as Jesus did, a mother who stays with us along the way, a mother who on our death also will receive us into her arms, not as on Calvary but into her heavenly arms, and so welcome us among the saints. So be with us, O Holy Mother of God, now as we follow the way of the Cross and at the hour of our death. Amen.