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It seems that so much has turned to ash. Faith that was once a well-spring and fountain of community joy and life, now, for many, has a taste of bitterness, and the church itself, in the eyes of some, is shown to be a destructive remnant best consigned to the past. Over the past two weeks, I’ve heard many words of despair – from priests, from committed faithful, from those on the edges of the church, and from those who have lost their faith long ago. In this context, is it too soon or would it be too naïve to speak today of “hope”, “encouragement” and “new possibilities”? However we might interpret the cross-roads at which we, the church, now stand, whatever debilitating sorrow we might feel, it would seem to me that any way forward begins with the simple recognition that either we stand with and for the Gospel of Jesus Christ or we are left with and stand for nothing. This is the point of departure that this Lent – or any Lent for that matter – forces upon us. A truly worthy Lenten season forces us to face the stark realities of the consequences of our personal and corporate decision-making. “Giving-up”, so often our Lenten catch-cry, simply won’t cut it this Lent; “facing-up” is clearly what is demanded by the circumstances of this particular Lent. Lent starts, rather pointedly, with the ashen reminder that sin is death, and that it is not the sins of others that will kill us; it is our own. So we must come face-to-face with ourselves if we want to seek life. It is not “his” sin or “her” sin or “their” sin for which we must atone but “my” sin and “our” sin. We all must bear the weight of the destructiveness of sin in its ever-inventive forms and name own our personal contribution to our collective failures. The three pillars of Lent, prayer, fasting and almsgiving, are meant to enlarge our heart rather than reduce it. To quote Pope Francis, fasting “is learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to ‘devour’ everything”. Prayer “teaches us to abandon idolatry and the self-sufficiency of our ego,” and to acknowledge our need for God. Almsgiving helps us “escape from the insanity of hoarding everything for ourselves in the illusory belief that we can secure a future that does not belong to us”. The impulse of Lent is to move our hearts, and minds and spirits from “the desert to the garden”. For many, the “desert” is a striking image of the church at this present moment. So, to return to my earlier question: Is it too soon or would it be too naïve to speak of hope, encouragement and possibility in these days of Lent? It would be naïve to be glib or untroubled by this moment, or to reach for standard re-assurances, or neat and tidy sophisms. Yet, even so, the full story of Lent and Easter insists that Christian hope is never exhausted. Lent always begins on the ashen, desert road, and Easter, never out of view, always promises the unexpected. Still, this Lent demands something other than a regular routine: it demands that we look reality squarely in the eye in all its gritty truth. It is only from the darkened earth that we can look up towards the Son-lit heaven. So Lent is a summons to honest, earthy reflection which gives birth to deep commitment. Lent is a summons to grace, and not the power of our own frail will. Lent is the deep lament that patiently awaits joy; our ashen spirit is the invitation to the possibility of a new heart.
Fr. Anthony Mellor, Dean