At Mass this morning, these words from the preface leapt out at me – words I do not usually associate with Lent:
Each year you give us this joyful season
when we prepare to celebrate the paschal mystery
with mind and heart renewed.
This is entirely correct of course. Lent is indeed a time of solemnity, a time for austerity and preparation,, but that is the key. Above all, it is a time of preparation for that great season of Easter, and its culmination in the resurrection, which is what the Christian religion is all about.
This perspective gives added meaning to the standard formula which opens the preface, as it does with only minor variations for every Mass:
Father, all-powerful and ever-loving God,
we do well always and everywhere to give you thanks
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
We do well, indeed. One of the fascinations of Lent and Easter, to me as one from the southern hemisphere, is how tightly they are tied up with the natural seasons, of late winter moving into spring. Down south, there was always a sense of dissonance, celebrating the season of renewal in nature just as we were heading into autumn. Now, located in the north, I am able to appreciate very consciously how the natural and liturgical season coincide at this time of year. Winter has been long and harsh this year, and is not over yet, but there are at last signs of spring on its way, even if not yet here. Just this afternoon I saw a garden with large beds of crocuses on the point of flowering. In our own garden, the snowdrops are in full flower. Everywhere, daffodils are producing prominent buds. (The word “Lent” is derived from the Old English word for “Spring”. The Afrikaans translation for Spring is “Lente”.)
The natural winter is not he only one we have experienced. I don’t believe I am alone in sensing that inside the Church, we as gay men and lesbians have been experiencing a fresh hardening of attitudes, with Cardinal George’s extraordinary unprovoked attack on News Ways Ministry, and more harsh words yesterday from the Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, who has said that politicians who support gay marriage cannot consider themselves Catholic (and who appears to have held out a thinly veiled threat of excommunication against any Italian politicians who do express such support.). If winter is a time of cold, of struggle a shortage of nourishment and absence of growth, we can truly say that we have been experiencing a time of ecclesiastical winter. Sadly, in this metaphorical sense, the balancing Spring of warmth and new growth is not yet to be seen anywhere in the Catholic institutional Church. (It is very different in other denominations, and among some ordinary Catholics in the pews.)
This is why the words of today’s Mass are so important. In addition to the preface of joy, the first reading reminds us that while we receive hostility from the institutional Church, that is not so from God, who is “full of mercy and compassion.”
Now, now, it is the Lord who speaks…
Come back to me with all our heart….
Turn to the Lord your god again,
for he is all tenderness and compassion,
slow to anger, rich in graciousness.
If it seems that the Church has abandoned us, the soundest response from us is to turn instead directly to God. Let us use this season, filled with both solemnity and joy, to prepare for the coming season of Easter, Spring and rebirth – and for that future time when new shoots of love and true compassion for all her people will be likewise be discernible again in God’s church.