Cathy Jenkins, Director, Archbishop's Office for Evangelisation Melbourne
The last time Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day collided was in 1945. I’m not sure if Valentine’s Day was recognised then, but it is certainly a celebration that has captured the imagination of many in the contemporary world. There are heart-shaped chocolates in the shops, florists are anticipating a busy day and in the Catholic world, preparations are underway for a day of fast and abstinence as we move into Lent. It’s tempting to dismiss St Valentine’s Day (and the information about the saint part is a bit sketchy) as a purely commercial venture but I suspect anything that prompts people to act a little more lovingly and kindly toward each other works to shave away some of the sharp edges of meanness from our world. Perhaps St Valentine’s Day can serve as a reminder that the quest to love and to be loved is, for all of us, at the heart of our hopes and dreams. That most of us, in our sometimes clumsy ways, do always hope and desire the very best for our families, friends and all who share our fragile planet.
I wonder if this is a little bit of the role Lent can play in our lives – a retreat time that can soften some of our sharp edges: the edges we all have and that sometimes seem to take on a life of their own. The cross words, the thoughtless acts, the weary spirit. From the moment we hear the Ash Wednesday plaintive call from the Book of Joel: ‘No, no – it is the Lord who speaks – come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning’ (Joel 2:12) we are invited to plunge into a different world, a different way of being. A way of being where we can lay bare our hearts as we seek wisdom and truth. A time to return to the heart and the soul of it all.
We are offered an invitation to actively re-orientate ourselves to God: because for Christians, God and the one who was so loved, Jesus, is the heart and the soul of life. We are offered this gracious time when we can reflect on what has formed us since we tread last year’s Lenten path. And we are offered beautifully ancient tools to assist us with entering into this time. The rich stories of our ancestors are available to us and the tradition of the Lenten practice of being prayerful, of living more simply and living more generously. This, perhaps, provides the environment that will enable us to listen to the whisperings of our hearts.
And so many things have happened since the last Lent! In addition to our personal struggles and the times when a smallness of spirit has entered our lives, we have been walking the cross of the Royal Commission. And we will probably need to stay with this cross for quite some time. It is hard for us, I think, to know that in addition to the personal burdens we carry, we carry the burden of the sin of the institutional Australian church. ‘But we didn’t even know them!’, we may think. ‘It has nothing to do with me’, we may feel. ‘I wasn’t part of it’, we may say. But sadly, and confrontingly, because we are part of the body of Christ we know in our bones and in our hearts that if one person has been abused and wounded, then we need to share in this suffering. And those of us who have been abused need to know that the cross of this suffering is borne upon many shoulders. This is part of what we place on our Lenten cross this year, I suspect. But we also know that the God of Israel and the Jesus who died on a cross is bearing this sorrow with us.
So let us take into our Lenten hearts a desire to understand more deeply and to enter more fully into the cycle of the paschal mystery as it plays itself out in our lives and in the world. Hearts that look for the meaning behind the truth. Hearts that allow themselves to broken, invite God in and seek healing. Hearts that are not distracted by too much. Hearts that hear. Hearts that are ready to come back to God where our restless spirits can once again come home.
So let us with join with the ancient peoples and pray:
Create in me a clean heart, O God,
And put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence,
And do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
And sustain in me a willing spirit.