Pastoral Letter Ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time

My dear people,

I think of a young boy in a Nazareth Street. It’s the sort of bright clear day that only follows thunderstorms and heavy rain in that part of the world. He stops to look at a collapsed house. The older man at his side says: ‘No wonder the floods brought it down. Look at those foundations; useless. And look, you can see the foundations of the house next door; see, firm, anchored to the rock: there’s a bit of damage, but that can soon be repaired.’ Joseph, the structural engineer, misses nothing and is for ever opening the eyes and mind of the young boy entrusted to his care to every wonderful detail.

Lent is about checking our foundations. It is about facing the choice which Moses set before the people: ‘See, I set before you today a blessing and a curse…Life and death: choose life.’

But the strange thing is this: we choose life, by choosing death. The coming 40 days renew us as a people anchored in an encounter with an event which is the death and rising of Our Lord. That is the conviction by which we live, spelt out by St Paul when he quotes the earliest profession of faith known to us: ‘For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.’

Life and blessing for us is inseparable from him who declared: ‘Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.’

I think of these words of C.S.Lewis, an author it seems well-known to Pope Benedict: Lewis wrote: ‘What is outside the system of self-giving is not earth, nor nature, nor ordinary life, but simply and solely hell.’

And Our Lord’s self-sacrificing love was described in these words by the Holy Father on the day he began his service of our Lord and us all as Bishop of Rome: ‘The human race, every one of us, is the sheep lost in the desert, which no longer knows the way. The Son of God will not let this happen; he cannot abandon humanity in so wretched a condition; he leaps to his feet and abandons the glory of heaven, in order to go in search of the sheep and pursues it all the way to the Cross. He takes it upon his shoulders and carries our humanity; he carries us all: he is the good shepherd who lays down his life…we are carried by Christ. And he invites us to carry one another.’

Listen to these words of a hymn for Fridays:

‘We give you thanks, Redeeming Christ,
Who bore our weight of sin and shame;
In dark defeat you conquered sin,
And death by dying overcame.’

We must carry one another; as prices rise, unemployment increases, anxiety spreads, there will be the need for much carrying in coming weeks, months, and, I think, years. But let me suggest how amazing is the carrying entrusted to us. And as I do so I will suggest what it means when we receive the ashes on Wednesday.

The way in to this is to remember our Lord’s assurance, ‘the truth will set you free.’ The truth, no lies, no pretending, no exaggeration. We do not come on Wednesday pretending we are worse than we are. Long ago Father Alfred Wilson, once part of the Passionist Community at Sutton recalled this poem to make us honest:

‘Once in fit of passion,
I cried with fervent grief,
“O Lord, my soul is sunk in sin,
Of sinners I’m the chief.”
Then came my Guardian Angel
And whispered from behind,
“Vanity my little man,
You’re nothing of the kind.”’

With that honesty, allow me to dare to say this: just as Our Lord leapt to his feet and descended as far as hell, so on Wednesday we receive the Ashes in complete communion, compassion, selflessness with and for sinners. We leap to our feet to be utterly one with him whom St Paul will describe on Wednesday as made into sin so that we might become the goodness of God. We will live Lent not judging, condemning, self-satisfied, safe and aloof from sinners. But through, with and in Our Lord we will long to feel the shame, guilt, isolation, fears of sinners, as if they were our very own. Our whole demeanour will be mercy, forgiveness, self-sacrificing love; we will be ministers of that reconciliation with God and each other, accomplished by the carpenter on a wooden cross at the ninth hour, one Friday, on Calvary, with a tomb waiting in a garden nearby.

+Patrick Kelly
Archbishop of Liverpool