March 2011

Travelling to freedom

Is there something programmed into our spiritual DNA that needs Lent? Ash Wednesday, the day on which we begin Lent, usually attracts more people than usual, even those who are not regular church-goers, writes Good Samaritan Sister Verna Holyhead.

BY Verna Holyhead SGS

In Victoria, just over two years ago, on what we have come to know as ‘Black Saturday’, Australia suffered the worst bushfires in its recorded history: 173 lives lost, 5,000 people injured, 2,209 homes lost, countless animals incinerated and 4,506 square kilometres of land became a burnt desert. On the Christian liturgical calendar it was just over two weeks before Ash Wednesday.

But as a recent ABC TV programme, Out of the Ashes, documented, the rhythm of nature is a constant beat: new life is emerging out of the ashes, native animals are returning or being returned by wildlife carers, and the natural environment is witnessing its extraordinary capacity for healing. For the people who suffered loss of loved ones or homes, the rising from the ashes may be much slower. There is heroism, determination to rebuild, disillusionment and despair, and no matter what the human response, all is mixed with the tears of things.

Ashes, desert, tears… Is there something programmed into our spiritual DNA that needs Lent? Ash Wednesday, the day on which we begin Lent, usually attracts more people than usual, even those who are not regular church-goers.

Do we welcome the Church’s wisdom that gives us the opportunity to line up with our sisters and brothers, to admit that all our spirits are a bit dusty and grimy, and to welcome the chance to participate in a liturgy where there is no sense of discriminating judgement, but only our shared need to “Repent and believe in the Good News/Gospel” or “Remember, O human one, that you are dust and to dust you will return”?

We lift up our unmasked faces to another person, to another human touch that signs us with the cross. This is a very different ‘liturgical fingerprinting’ to that of our Christian initiation at baptism when we were signed with the fragrant oil of catechumens. Our Lenten signing is an inelegant, gritty smudge. But Jesus’ cross was not elegant nor fragrant; it was smudged with the blood and grime and tears of his naked humanity.

The Lent that we are entering is a journey into the mystery of that cross – so hard to understand and accept that we need to be reminded of it every year, admit that our lives have become smudged with infidelities during the last year, and recommit ourselves to following our crucified and risen Christ.

Ash is insubstantial, and yet, as those who live in bushfire prone areas know, it is also the regenerating remnant of what was once alive, and can be so again. So with Lent, it is our journey towards the joyful regeneration of the new life of Easter, our travelling out of the slavery of sin into the freedom Christ has won for us.

We all know the story of Cinderella, have enjoyed it, have read it to our children. We know, too, that like all fairy stories it has a deeper meaning. It is a story (reflected with variations in many cultures) about the need for the ‘eternal girl’ (Latin pu-ella) to sit in the ashes (‘cinders’), feeling tearful, powerless, neglected, worthless in comparison with others, and how this turns out to be the experience that is the context of her being offered the glass slipper of transformation which fits her for the royal dance and partnership with her prince.

On Ash Wednesday we are invited to enter into the season of Lent, to taste our own emptiness and powerlessness so that we may be humbly grateful for the partnership of Christ in our lives, and be ready and able to slip on what will make us fit for our choice as partners with Christ on his Easter dancing day.

Our Lenten conversion, our return to grace, to recognising God’s love in ourselves and in the world, is a radical change that is not achieved by the wave of some magic wand. It comes through the forty-day leading in the dance by Jesus, and the partnership of other people of faith, through a discipline of mindful prayer that is world-centred, not just self-centred, fasting that makes us more aware of our hunger for God, and almsgiving that urges us to give ourselves in loving compassion to others.

Storytelling always helps us to travel well, whether it’s exchanging stories with our companions, remembering to a take the paperback for the journey, or downloading the e-book. Along the Lenten way we are accompanied by the stories of the Old and New Testaments, the biblical readings that we hear Sunday after Sunday in this Year A of the liturgical cycle.

We are reminded that we can choose to listen to the seductive serpent that slithers in disguise into our lives, or to listen to the empowering word of God; to recognise and banish the demons in our own personal deserts, and also gratefully acknowledge the ‘angels’ that minister to us.

We can choose to disfigure our discipleship because a suffering Messiah seems rather a hard act to follow, or we can accept to be enlightened and transfigured by the beloved Son of the Father, who is also the crucified and risen one.

Lent is about sitting at our own Jacob’s well, in the place where we are lonely and rejected, and allowing Jesus to be present to us, lower his words into the deep well of our being, and draw up from there his life-giving water of which the Samaritan woman became aware in his respectful, loving and non-judgemental presence.

It is about the “Amazing Grace” of Jesus’ encounter with and healing of a man born blind, and our own readiness to accept to be healed of our many blindnesses by the one who is the light of the world.

We may meet this healer through a personal or historical event which opens our eyes to the revelation of human dignity, perhaps by the endurance of victims of natural disasters, the compassion of volunteers such as we witnessed in the recent devastating Queensland floods or the tragic Christchurch earthquake, or through our horror at the lack of compassion for asylum seekers and other poor and disadvantaged people in our midst or far away.

We can stand at the Lazarus grave of our buried hopes, of our disillusionment with God, with ourselves, with the Church, and with other people, and keep saying the useless, painful words that imprison us in futility: “If only…”.

Or we can gaze on Jesus’ human grief at the grave of his friend, his response to the tears of things, hear his call to “Come out!”, allow ourselves to be unbound by his life-giving love and the freeing care of our sisters and brothers, and commit ourselves to trying to unbind others from the deaths that are in all our lives.

Our media has been full of images of flag- and placard-waving protestors for freedom, and the intoxicating joy that flowed through the crowds with the good news of the fall of a dictator. In memory of the freedom that Christ has won for us from the dictatorship of sin, on Palm Sunday we wave branches as we come together to hail the one who is our liberator with cries of “Hosanna to the Son of David!”

We are challenged to share Christ’s perspective on the world – not from the back of an armoured tank or a sniper’s rooftop, but from the back of a donkey, the people’s gentle work animal, not a well-trained war horse. This is the foolish, vulnerable king we are invited to follow, and the ‘placard’ that the Church holds up for us on that day is, especially, the long narrative of the passion.

If we have been privileged to have catechumens in our midst who are preparing for baptism at Easter, we will have travelled with them on their journey, have witnessed their reception as the ‘elect’ at the beginning of Lent, and have scrutinised our own hearts along with them in the scrutinies of the third, fourth and fifth Sundays. We will have given mutual witness to one another of our need to be converted from sin, from all that has turned to dust and ashes in our lives.

In 1968, Martin Luther King spoke about the earlier non-violent demonstrations for justice that had been held in Birmingham, USA, and how water hoses had been turned on the marchers to stop them. But, he said, they just kept on marching, because they knew the fire of the Spirit within them that could not be put out, and remembered the water that flowed, not from hoses, but from their baptism. In that memory and conviction they marched on to freedom.

May we come through Lent to Easter as women and men renewed by water and by fire, determined to march on out of the slavery of sin to Gospel freedom and a renewed commitment to justice in our own relationships and in our world.

Verna Holyhead

Verna Holyhead is a Melbourne-based Sister of the Good Samaritan. She leads retreats, lectures and is a published writer with an emphasis on biblical scholarship, liturgical insight, and pastoral challenge.

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