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Dear friends in Christ,
Last Wednesday many Catholics began Lent by going to Mass to receive ashes, which is the outward sign of our desire to turn once again towards God. In this season of repentance the individual Christian turns again to Our Lord. It is an opportunity to put our lives in order and resolve through the traditional practices of almsgiving, works of mercy, fasting and prayer to make a difference, not just to ourselves, but to the lives of the community in which we live. We look beyond the cross, on the hill of Calvary, to the resurrection of Jesus, the source of eternal life. Therefore I strongly urge you to make a good start to Lent by making a pilgrimage to the Holy Door at the Cathedral or to one of our designated churches, and to receive the grace of the sacrament of penance.
I am often asked what is the value of fasting? Unless we are trying to lose weight it can seem rather pointless. A spiritual answer is that to make ourselves feel weak and hungry can help us realise that, even in this highly technological age, we are ultimately dependent on God. It creates a longing and yearning within us for Christ to come into our lives and satisfy our need for Him. But there is also a very practical answer to the question of fasting. Giving up something for Lent enables us to give the money saved to those who are in need. Fasting can also help us understand the plight of the less well-off members of our society by suffering with them. Sadly, it is not uncommon for people in our society to go hungry. That is a very damning indictment of the times in which we live, but it is also an opportunity to be merciful like the Father, the theme of this Jubilee Year of Mercy. So please help the food banks in your area.
In the Gospel today Jesus is tempted to turn a stone into bread. I am sure that many people caught up in the war in Syria, or nearer home those who run out of food for their family as the month ends, would understand that temptation at first hand. But Jesus makes it clear that we do not live on bread alone. This doesn't seem to make much sense, especially to people who are hungry and literally do not know where the next meal is coming from. When we put this response alongside the next temptation it starts to make sense because food or bread should not be used as instruments of manipulation and power. Furthermore, despite our immediate needs, we retain our God-given dignity if we remember that God creates us all in his own image and likeness.
I am sure that like me you have been impressed by the conviction and dignity of the parents from war-torn areas of the world who have taken risky boat journeys across the Mediterranean so that their children can eat and have a safe future. We cannot fail to be deeply moved by the television scenes of parents standing on the beach of a Greek island having risked the lives of their families so that they can find a place of peace. Their journeys are truly an exodus as they crossed the waters in search of new lives.
At Easter our catechumens will find freedom from their past and enter into the new life of Christ, as they join the new people of God through the waters of baptism; and those already baptised will be confirmed in their faith alongside them. They are truly confessing that we do not live on bread alone, and that the God we worship is found in Jesus Christ. Today, in cathedrals throughout the world they will gather to meet their bishops at the Rite of Election, as they set out on the last stage of their journey: the six weeks of Lent. We can accompany them by our prayers and good works, so that when we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord at the Easter Vigil or on Easter Sunday we will be able renew our commitment not to live on bread alone.
What sign will we give to the world that we are members of the risen Body of Christ, the Church, and that we do not live on bread alone? The ashes will have been washed from our foreheads many weeks before. We can take our cue from Pope Francis who in giving us this Year of Mercy wants us to be known by our actions as people of mercy. Sometimes we do not receive the mercies that we were hoping for and we give up and turn from God. We all know people who have done this. Some Catholics in a second marriage for example will be disappointed that the recent Synod of bishops did not ask the Holy Father to allow such people to receive Holy Communion. But nevertheless a different but very real way of being in communion with Jesus is to become more merciful. This is a very hard test of faith for many couples. Other areas of Church teaching can also challenge our faith. But it is not just Church teaching that tests our faith. We are tested in many other ways too: by unemployment, death of a loved one, abuse or rejection to name a few. But even if, with our rather limited human understanding, we cannot always see a way forward, we should remember that God’s mercy is boundless and we should not lose heart.
So this Lent let us all try very hard to do just that – not lose heart by becoming more merciful. Can we be less critical of others and more understanding of them? Is it possible for us to share our food through food banks, even if we do not have that much ourselves? Can we find a few more minutes in the day to speak to and listen to God in prayer? I know that these are ways to become merciful like the Father.
With my prayers and every good wish for you and your families for a blessed Lent and a happy Easter,
Most Rev Malcolm McMahon OP
Archbishop of Liverpool