In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus’ work centres around a formula for healing the world: a conversation, a reconciliation of the past, and a healed continuation of life.
The story about the barren, sickly fig tree in a vineyard illustrates that process. The earth around the fruitless tree will be turned and manured once more in the hope that the next season fruits will be produced. All kinds of things are done to make the tree fruitful, but, in the final instance, the outcome depends on the tree. If that fig tree remains insensitive and unresponsive to all the care it is given, and it still produces no fruit, then the tree is past hope. Alas!
In the first reading of this second Sunday of Lent, the Church looks at the first covenant God established with Abram. A few years before that event, Abram had left his town, Ur, at the age of 75, together with his wife Sarai, being childless and having nowhere to go.
For years they walked on the strength of the promise God had made to Abram: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.”
But at a certain point in their journey, Abram needs a sign from God that he will fulfill his promise and give them a son and a land in which to settle and be buried. This is when today’s first reading begins. God gives Abram a sign, and more than that, God makes with him a covenant.
Scholars have been debating the meaning of these Old Testament covenants for much longer than anyone can remember, and the debate is still open. However, most of them would now agree that covenants are liturgical rites performed to unite two parties in a familial relationship. In our times, a wedding would be the closest rite we have to these Old Testament covenants.
It was common at that time to express the new duties and obligations in the form of self-curse by splitting animals in half and then walking between the two parts. It was as if the parties were saying: “May I be slain like these animals if I break this covenant.”
In the first reading today, God asks Abram to split some animals in half, as was the custom, and prepare them for the ritual. But something unexpected happens. Abram would not pass through the animals, only God would do it, to indicate that this covenant is the initiative of God and that He alone would take all responsibilities.
Through history, God has established covenants at different times and with different people with the intention of bringing humanity ever closer to himself. The last covenant to be made was Christ’s. In Him, God was not only expressing his desire to establish an unprecedented relationship with humanity, but he was also making that relationship possible.
Easter is the great celebration of that ultimate covenant that opened the gates of heaven for us. Let us prepare ourselves well during these days, so that we may celebrate it eagerly and meaningfully.
Lent is a season of penance, growth, and renewal. It leads to the celebration of Easter: The resurrection of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man. As individuals, and as a community, we need such seasons in our lives.
All of us are starkly aware of the need for penance and renewal in the Church. Pope Francis spoke unambiguously of this in his final address to the bishops assembled in Rome to reflect with survivors of the crime and sin that is the abuse of minors in the Church. You can view the proceedings and addresses at www.pbc2019.org. Cardinal Vincent Nichols shares his own reflections in a message that you can watch on https://rcdow.org.uk/cardinal/
The Church in England & Wales is committed to the safeguarding of minors and persons at risk. We have structures in place to deal with allegations past and present. Each parish and diocese have named persons who are responsible for overseeing and implementing this commitment.
We need to listen to the accounts of those who are survivors. We pray for their healing, justice, and renewal.
We pray for ourselves, that we may be more aware, more vigilant, and better informed of the consequences of this crime, which, though it exits in every society, in every culture and people, strikes at the heart of our Christian message.
May our Lent be fruitful, in word, deed, and prayer. May the Church of Christ be a safe home for all God’s Children.
This coming Wednesday, we start our Lenten journey towards Easter. A journey marked by signs of conversion and repentance. A journey that will prepare us to celebrate more meaningfully the mystery of Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension into Heaven, as well as the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
The Church offers us an itinerary of forty days, but this is not to encourage us to leave conversion for the last minute, as the prophet Joel reminds us in the first reading of the Mass for Ash Wednesday: “Now, now–it is the Lord who speaks–come back to me with all your heart; fasting, weeping, mourning." St Paul in the second reading writes, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “At the favourable time, I have listened to you, on the day of salvation I came to your help. Well, now is the favourable time; this is the day of salvation.” The favourable time, the right time to come back to God, is today not tomorrow.
This time of Lent, originally designed to accompany and prepare those who were to receive Baptism at Easter, still rings with notes reminding us of our Baptism. Indeed, the celebrations of Easter would have no effect in us if we were not united to Christ in some way. In the waters of Baptism, we died and were buried with Christ. We drowned–as it were–our sinful selves and rose again together with Christ to a new life of virtue and faith, symbolised by the light of the baptismal candle and the white garment we put on. So, we not only need to prepare ourselves to celebrate and participate in the mysteries of the life of Christ, but we also need to get ready for our public and solemn renewal of our baptismal promises and the profession of our faith at Easter Sunday.
Let us all come and receive the ashes this Wednesday, asking the Lord for a spirit of repentance, a deep desire for conversion, and fortitude for the battle against our sinful ways, so that we may be prepared for the Easter celebrations. Taking for ourselves the words of St Paul: “Get rid of the old yeast so that you can be the fresh dough, unleavened as you are. For our Passover has been sacrificed, that is Christ, let us keep the feast, then, with none of the old yeast and no leavening of evil and wickedness, but only the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth."