Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Launching into Lent

Ash Wednesday. There was a time when I was teaching in Nigeria and realised that there was a problem. The Christian girls in the school envied the Muslims for their fast of Ramadan. Their thinking was a bit convoluted, but they felt that sometimes there was a bit of one-upmanship: that the Muslims were somehow stronger in their faith because they were able to fast for longer.

A few days before Lent began, I had a flash of inspiration. Using the strongest expression of obligation in the local language, I told my class that not only was Ash Wednesday an important day, they absolutely, positively had to go to bed hungry that night. To my amazement, the faces of the girls were covered with beatific smiles. Here was one occasion when they could teach the Muslims a thing or two! Ouch! I’m not sure that had been my intention or that of the Church!

This is the season of conversion, of turning back towards God. We’ll hear a great deal about forgiveness and reconciliation. That can also be a big Ouch! It can sound so easy. It is not, at least, not for those of us who are not great saints and sometimes have a struggle not to say those few words that will mean that ‘I have given just as good as I got’ and made sure that someone else has been hurt just as much as they hurt me, if not more, so that there is a warm feeling of payback and of balance.

It can be all too easy to say the ‘Our Father’ and miss the words “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. It can be all too easy to offer the Sign of Peace at Mass without a second thought.

Have you ever deliberately avoided giving so-and-so the Sign of Peace because you would prefer to be a million miles away rather than in hand-shaking distance? It has happened to me, I must confess.

Yet how can we ask forgiveness from God if we are not prepared to offer it in return? Can we pray the ‘Our Father’ and keep holding onto resentment, bitterness, anger and a desire to lash out for hurts received? Can we really and truly offer the Sign of Peace if there is actually anger?

I can think of one occasion in particular when I discovered, to my discomfort, that I was standing next to someone whom I thoroughly disliked (it was mutual) and that, although I had been on the receiving end of her nastiness, it would not be possible to avoid the Sign of Peace. At the time, I could have prayed for a paralysed right arm! Most of the Mass until the Sign of Peace was an argument with myself…and then God put in a little word. “Would you seriously wish for someone not to be at peace?” Guess what. My arm moved almost by itself …and what a difference.

During Lent, perhaps all we need to do for our penance is to take the Our Father and the Sign of Peace seriously. There is no room for one-upmanship, but there is plenty of room for reconciliation and for the healing that it brings.

God bless,
Sr. Janet