Lent 2016 is here. It is 15 days old. It came in quite early. Did we not just celebrate Christmas? Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. But everything points to Easter, the culmination of our Christian faith. This year’s celebration of Lent has an added value and significance given it is the Year of Mercy. Pope Francis inaugurated this year while on pilgrimage to war torn Central African Republic on the last lap of his apostolic visit to Africa last December 2015. While he spent the first Sunday of Advent in Africa, Pope Francis spent the First Sunday of Lent in Mexico. The Christian life is in essence a pilgrimage. This Lent seems to be an appropriate time to follow the example of Pope Francis and go on a pilgrimage but more than just a physical journey, it is an opportune moment to fatten our spiritual leanness and trim our spiritual excesses.
As I reflected on what this Lent holds for me, I found the answer in Pope Francis’s homily at Ecatepec, Mexico. It was not just the fact that in visiting this poor and crime ridden city, Pope Francis struck a favorite chord in his ministry namely going out “to the periphery” but also the message he delivered on that first Sunday of Lent.
Vatican Radio’s description of Ecatepec seems to bear resemblance to the messiness of the spiritual life for some of us: “It’s now an ugly sprawl of a shanty town littered with rubbish in one of Mexico’s ‘barrio bravo’. An expression meaning a lawless neighborhood where organized crime, pollution and poverty reign and where most people fear to tread.”
In his homily for first Sunday of Lent, Pope Francis exhorted us all to ward off temptations by following the example of Christ. In this familiar passage of the Temptation of Christ, we find Christ using Scriptures to respond to the devil’s temptations. The Gospel passage referring to Scriptures notes that “It is written…” and “It also says…” Even the devil takes up the example of Christ and in Luke’s account the devil builds the third temptation from scriptures and quotes the Psalm. Pope Francis however exhorts us not to dialogue with the devil.
In his off the cuff remarks, Pope Francis calls us to imitate Christ and use Scriptures to fight off the devil’s temptation. This is a continuation of his Lenten message of 2016 where he says: “For all of us, then the season of Lent in this jubilee year is a favorable time to overcome our existential alienation by listening to God’s word and by practicing the works of mercy.” In the Pope’s message for Lent 2016, Pope Francis calls for an “attentive listening to the Word of God” stressing the “prayerful listening to God’s word, especially His prophetic words.”
But just what does “attentive listening to the word of God” entail? There is a serious charge against us Catholics by our other Christians that we do not know the bible. We shall take up that charge on a different day. Let each of us examine their conscience and find out where we are on this. How familiar are we with the word of God. I have heard it repeated to me very often that you must know someone to love the person. One of the best ways to know God is in and through the bible. Not just memorizing some stock verses and parroting them but actually praying with the Bible.
One method of attentive listening is the Church’s ancient practice of lectio divina. This is a way of encountering God through Scriptures normally by reading a specific passage from the Bible and using that as the basis for prayer. Lectio Divina is not the traditional bible sharing or reading the bible for edification but letting oneself be soaked in and steeping oneself in Scriptures.
Lectio Divina is characterized by four steps namely: Reading, Thinking, Praying and Acting. The renowned professor of scripture, Fr James Martin (SJ) describes the process thus: Reading: You pick a scriptural text and then you read it. At the most basic level, you ask: What is going on in this passage? What does the text say? Meditation: What is God saying to me through this text? At this point, you ask whether there is something that God might want to reveal to you? It is recommended that one chooses a word or phrase from the passage and meditate on it. Prayer: What do I want to tell God about this text? Then Action: We are always called upon to do something: Quite simply Go forth and be a witness. This year, we are called to practice the works of mercy.
We live in a very noisy world and we are bombarded by many distractions and attractions. We hear too many discordant voices and hence end up hallucinating. Our pilgrimage this Lent should help us center our lives on God by listening attentively to Him. Let us walk with God this Lent through Sacred Scriptures. Ignorance of Scriptures is ignorance of Christ.
Pope Francis in the last paragraph of his 2016 Lenten message exhorts us: “Let us not waste this season of Lent, so favourable(sic) a time for conversion!” Recalling God’s words of mercy written all over the Bible we too should become missionaries of mercy in this year of mercy.