Parish of St Matthew the Apostle,
Douglas, Isle of Man
Father Tom ponders …… Repent and Believe the Gospel – Lent with St Mark
The six weeks of Lent fall into three broad bands. The final band, Holy Week, is virtually invariable and concludes the season as it leads through the suffering, death and resurrection that takes place from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday. The other two earlier sections change every year in the three-year liturgical cycle and they are formed by combining the first two Sundays into one section and the third, fourth and fifth Sundays into another.
In 2018, and during the rest of the year, it is Mark who is our guide through the Sundays and, so, it comes as no surprise that he provides us with the material for the first two Sundays of Lent. For the second block of Lent, weeks three, four and five, we have St John to lead us. Along with these two gospel writers we have Old Testament readings that shed a different light on the gospels, and we have a series of New Testament letters that enhance the Lenten themes which are the message of the gospel.
The first Sunday of Lent is the beginning of the 40 days of “fasting and abstinence”. The readings at Mass focus on the humanity of Jesus. Jesus was fully human and therefore subject to temptation. Mark’s account tells us how the devil tried to tempt Jesus at his very core, to deflect him from his faithfulness to his God-given mission while he was out in the wild and bereft of any support except his relationship with his Father. This is a comforting reading for anyone who feels disheartened by their own temptations. The message is that temptation is not the same as sin; temptation is not sinful but giving in is. Moreover, whatever our most vile temptation might be, Jesus also had it because if he were not tempted at the basest of levels he could not redeem us. So, the First Sunday of Lent reminds us that in the power of God’s Spirit we can resist whatever is thrown at us. Lent is a time for repenting and believing in the gospel.
The other side of the coin comes on the Second Sunday of Lent when we contemplate the divinity of Jesus in the episode of his Transfiguration. He is seen talking with Moses and Elijah in a state of brilliance which points to his equality with God. This comes as a boost to the apostles’ faith in the face of predictions that Christ would be betrayed and executed. As we move further into Lent this Sunday reminds us that we too carry something of the divine within us, despite our humanity, as a result of our baptism. Developing our full humanity is the way to share the divinity of Christ.
St John leads us through the second block of Lent (Sundays 3, 4 and 5). In these Sundays we have a very clear message; they point to the apparent foolishness of Jesus’ message and yet for those who believe in him this message is the whole point of our human existence. This is consonant with the so-called “paradox” of Christianity. We know that Christianity is about putting ourselves last rather than first, that to lead is to serve, that to live is to die. Our middle section of Lent reminds us of the decision we have to make, not once and for all but day-in and day-out, to follow what the world considers insanity.
So the Third Sunday of Lent sees Jesus setting himself at odds with the establishment as he causes havoc in the Temple by turning over the money-changers’ tables and driving out the traders. As if that is not enough, he goes on to ruffle feathers as he claims he could destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days. Jesus’ refusal to clarify what exactly he meant is an indication of how his teaching was taken to be foolish by those who did not accept him. Yet it is the challenge he issues to his followers.
This blurring of the lines between foolishness, wisdom and challenge recurs on the Fourth Sunday of Lent when Jesus meets Nicodemus in the middle of the night. He has already confused Nicodemus by telling him that he must be born again (foolishness?) and now he predicts that the Son of Man must be “lifted up” so that believers might have life. This talisman text (“God so loved the world…”) reminds us in Lent that God’s purpose in sending his Son is not to condemn anyone but to save them. If we refuse to accept the wisdom that the world considers foolishness, then we have already condemned ourselves.
Perhaps the ultimate challenge that Christ puts before us, particularly on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, is to ask us whether we trust him enough to give up our lives for him. Like the grain of wheat, if we are prepared to die to self then we will yield a rich harvest. This epitomises the heart of Lent’s focus: what Christ taught the crowds divided them right down the middle. Some thought his message was characterised by stupidity while others considered it to be a wisdom that really made sense of life. Christ challenges us this Lent to make up our own minds and to prove our choice by our actions.
As Holy Week arrives, Lent concludes with our following Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm (Passion) Sunday, sharing in the institution of the eucharist and the command to serve each other on Maundy Thursday, Jesus’ victory over sin and death on Good Friday, and the ultimate triumph of the resurrection at Easter. In an act that includes light, fire, story, water, baptism, renewal of faith and communion through eucharist we proclaim to the world that Jesus has broken the shackles of death and has risen to newness of life.
On Ash Wednesday, we have ashes applied to our heads as a sign of our desire to repent and believe in the gospel. As Lent proceeds our ashes are no longer visible externally, but we carry them within us symbolically as we journey with Christ for six weeks in the hope that we too might become signs of his victory.
Wishing you all a holy and profitable Lent,