Lent is one of the most important times of year for Christians around the world, held at a similar level of importance to Advent – the build up to Christmas.
While Advent is a celebration and a time of great anticipation, Lent is more frequently seen as a time of solemn observance and preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus at Easter. From its start on Ash Wednesday until its conclusion on Easter Sunday, Lent has been a traditional time for fasting or abstinence or giving something up. Just as we carefully prepare for events in our personal lives, as a wedding, or birthday; Lent invites us to make our minds and hearts ready for remembering Jesus’ life, death and bodily resurrection.
This does not mean that it must be six weeks of doom and gloom. Our focus during Lent should be on celebrating: -
1. The practice of Faith: through prayer, reflection and paying attention to Mass readings and gospels, developing and deepening our understanding of what we believe and what Jesus has given us;
2. Living in joy embracing Hope of salvation, rather than fear of damnation. Christ died so that we would live in bright sunshine, expecting to enjoy God’s love, rather than under guilt’s dark clouds;
3. Lovingly sharing our faith and hope through Charity in helping others in need, whether our immediate neighbours or those far away. Fasting and abstinence can be an act of love rather than a self-punishment.
PRAY FOR OUR ENEMIES
“Too often we become enemies of others: we do not wish them well. And Jesus tells us to love our enemies! And this is not easy! Let me just answer this question and let each of us answer it in our own heart: ‘Do I pray for my enemies? Do I pray for those who do not love me?’ If we say ‘yes’ I will say ‘Go on, pray more, you are on right path.”
Pope Francis - Vatican Radio
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
There are many myths about the origins of the snowdrop. Among these is the story of Eve, who was distraught after God had expelled her and Adam from the Garden. As Eve sat weeping, an angel appeared to comfort her. The angel caught a snowflake and breathed upon it. The snowflake fluttered to the earth and gave birth to the snowdrop. Thus did this delicate bloom come to symbolize hope and rebirth.
Snowdrops bloom in late winter and so it is no wonder that they are regarded as indicators of forthcoming Spring and better weather. They also have a special meaning for Christians. They bloom before or at the beginning of Lent, the season in which we remember Christ’s sacrifice to redeem us, and when we anticipate the glory of Easter and the Resurrection. It is perfectly proper then that we rejoice in the blossoming of snowdrops, for they give us hope, reassure us of rebirth and provide consolation as we recall our Saviour’s suffering.
On Sundays and special feast days the Church requires the singing of the “Gloria.” It is an ancient hymn, one that started out very humbly as a personal poem, imitating the Psalms, seeking to praise God.
The initial words of the Gloria are straight from the Bible and part of an angelic hymn to God on that first Christmas night. (Luke 2:14)
However, after that line everything else was composed separately. Who com-posed it? There is no known author, but it can be traced back to the third century., “The Gloria, like the Kyrie, was not created originally for the liturgy of the Mass. It is an heirloom from the treasure of ancient Church hymns, a precious remnant of a literature now almost buried but once certainly very rich.”
Joseph A. Jungmann in The Mass of the Roman Rite
These early hymns were called, “psalms by private persons” and were not written for any particular liturgical use. At first it was used in the East as a morning hymn in the Little Hours of the Divine Office, as a general hymn of thanksgiving and praise used outside the main liturgical events. One of the first instances of its use during the Mass was at the Mass of Christmas night. Later it was added to Sundays and feasts of martyrs. As the centuries went by this particular hymn became more and more a central part of the Mass and was obligatory on certain days by the 5th century.
The current General Instruction of the Roman Missal explains its vital importance:
The Gloria in excelsis (Glory to God in the highest) is a most ancient and venerable hymn by which the Church, gathered in the Holy Spirit, glorifies and entreats God the Father and the Lamb. The text of this hymn may not be replaced by any other.
It is a glorious song, one that invites us to complete the hymn of the angels and to add our voices in thanksgiving for everything that God has done for us.
“It was revealed to Abba Antony in his desert that there was one who was his equal in the city. He was a doctor by profession, and whatever he had beyond his needs he gave to the poor, and every day he sang the Sanctus with the angels.
ST ANTONY THE GREAT
Re-reading this episode about the life of St Antony of the Desert is always refreshing. One wonders who is worthy of greater admiration: Saint Antony, the father of monks, who with deep humility recognises the holiness in another and rejoices in it: or the admirable evangelical witness of this doctor’s life, who strove to live by God’s word in the midst of the wicked world of his times!
Both lives, one lived in the solitude of the desert and the other amid the distractions of the world, spring from the same love for God, the same purity of intention in God’s service, possess the same love for the poor in whom both recognise the person of Christ, and practise the same detachment in giving up what is superfluous in their lives.
Because of this, both Abba Antony in his austere desert solitude, and the humble doctor in his noisy city environment are equally pleasing in the sight of the Lord and are given the equal joy of praising God unceasingly, singing daily in the company of the angels the thrice-holy hymn: Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Brother Victor-Antione d’Avila-Latourette: Blessings of the Daily
At the end of the fourth century, a woman named Etheria made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Her journal, discovered in 1887, gives an unprecedented glimpse of liturgical life there. Among the celebrations she describes is the gala procession in honour of his Presentation in the Temple 40 days later—February 15.
This feast emphasizes Jesus’ first appearance in the Temple.
The observance spread throughout the Western Church in the fifth and sixth centuries. Because the Church in the West celebrated Jesus’ birth on December 25, the Presentation was moved to February 2, 40 days after Christmas. At the beginning of the eighth century, Pope Sergius inaugurated a candlelight procession, which has become part of the celebration, giving the feast its popular name: Candlemas.
After celebrating the Nativity of our Lord, with its splendour in both the Church and the popular culture, it would be easy to overlook the significance of this feast. Yet Joseph and Mary’s presentation of the baby was no pro forma event. They did this to conform with the Law and in doing so God enters the Temple. The words of the prophet Malachi are fulfilled in the poor parents presenting their firstborn son along with their humble sacrifice of two turtledoves.
Simeon and Anna, having spent their lives in prayer and waiting in the Temple for the Messiah, have their ‘moment’ with the glorious Nunc Dimittis of Simeon. With Candlemas we celebrate the coming of the Light of the World. But a shadow also passes. Simeon not only proclaimed that he had seen his salvation, but also told the Mother of our Lord that her share would include a sorrow-pierced heart.
“I think there is no labour greater than that of prayer to God.”
These are the words of Abba Agathon, one of the Desert Fathers, the founders of monasticism. Prayer for the desert monks was a constant practice. Every form of prayer came from and resided in the recesses of their hearts. They did not use long formulas or prayer books as we might today. Instead they prayerfully read the Scriptures, especially the Gospels and the Psalms, drawing from short prayers, such as “Lord, have mercy.” `these brief prayers would be uttered repeatedly throughout the day until they became part of the monk’s being.
We can learn much from the desert monks (without having to imitate all their practices. Start with the basic question What is prayer? Or, specifically, what is praying to God?
Essentially it is a conversation - “A talk, often informal, between two or more people” (OED) - i.e. between God and you. Does this really happen? Too often, I find myself conducting, not a conversation, but a monologue, especially with long, formulaic prayers that go on and on. And I don’t think I’m unique. [I suppose one proof that God loves us is that He can listen to all this, not nod off and still be patient with us!]
So prayer, as a conversation, is two-way: not just praying to God but also with Him and listening for His response- at the very least pausing in case He wants to say something.
A successful and meaningful conversation means that the participants really mean what they are saying. In praying we always have an obstacle to face - the more familiar the prayer, the more the risk that the words come out but our minds are somewhere else. Familiarity can breed superficiality, where what’s said is correct, but the saying is empty of real meaning. One short prayer in which you concentrate fully on the meaning of each word may be harder at first, but more fruitful in its outcome, than a long over-familiar one that trips off the tongue before meaning can catch up. One test of this to say a prayer then ask yourself what you just said, what you were telling or asking from God.
Short spontaneous prayers can be powerful. A short prayer may be exactly what God wants to hear, so that by talking to him we can avoid the banana skins Satan puts under our feet. Here are some:
Prayer: ... So that you can:
"Thank you for this breakfast, Lord." .............. ... Remember how He blesses us in practical ways.
"Help me stay calm in this traffic jam." ........................................... Keep cool and manage anger.
"Help me love this person now." ................................. Show respect & avoid scorn/hatred/ anger.
"Lord, show me what to do." ................. Discern God’s will; avoid one’s own impulses and wants.
"Lord, I love you. Be with me!" ................... Have courage to protect myself from fear or negative reactions.
"Lord, let me be honest." .............................................. Avoid deceit, conceit & misleading others.
“But if you faithfully obey the voice of your God, by keeping and observing all his commandments … all these blessings will befall and overtake you…” Deuteronomy 28: 1-2
Blessing is the enjoyment of God’s divine favour. It isn’t just about having more stuff; it’s being able to enjoy what you have. Blessings aren’t necessarily material things. We should remember this at Christmas. Which gift would you prefer - an iPhone X(S) or the embrace of someone you love?
When the Bible was first translated into English, blessing was used to equate to the Latin benedicere, meaning to speak well of. So, blessing became an expression of a key feature of the relationship between God and humanity. When, at the end of mass, the priest gives us the blessing, he asks God to favour us.
What form may this favour take?
First, we can expect God to hear our prayers.
Call on me in the day of distress.
I will free you and you shall honour me. Psalm 49: 15
Second, we can also expect God to meet our needs. God knows all we need even before we do, and has all the resources of the universe! Of course, what we need may be different from what we want!
Third, we can expect God to guide us, not only in dealing with important issues or major challenges in life, but also in our day-to-day work and leisure.
Blessed by all things
wings of breath,
delight of eyes,
wonder of whisper
intimacy of touch
eternity of soul,
urgency of thought,
miracle of health
embrace of God
May I live this day John O’Donohue: Eternal Echoes: Matins
Finally, we can expect a life of joyous celebration of God’s blessings to bring us the peace and calmness that nowadays it is fashionable to call “wellness” - and we don’t have to spend a penny or eat a strange diet or sign up to an expensive club to achieve it! TC
“The Trinity” is the most famous of Andrei Rublev’s icons and the most famous of all Russian icons.
Painted in the 15th century, the icon depicts the three Angels who visited Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-8), but it is usually interpreted as representing the Holy Trinity, with God the Father on the left, blessing the cup on the table. His hand is painted as if he is offering the cup to the central person, Jesus, who in turn blesses and accepts it with a bow indicating his acceptance of the Father’s will. The Holy Spirit stretches his hand in blessing too and observes the interaction of Father and Son.
The three figures form a circle, with one space free. Rublev’s intention here appears to be to invite the painting’s observer to take the fourth place in adoration of the Trinity and as an act of commitment to follow Jesus.
The icon is full of symbolism and well worth studying as part of a meditation on the Trinity. It is currently held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. Copies of it are easily found on the Internet. For a clear explanation of the icon go to:
This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.
U A Fanthorpe
Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, O Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem star may lead me
To the sight of Him who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord. Thou art holy;
Make me meek. Lord, thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day
Gerard Manley Hopkins
The story of the Messiah in the Bible is a complicated one. In the earliest biblical texts, the word originally referred to the king of that time. It later came to refer to some future ruler, then eventually a heavenly redeemer along the lines of the archangel Michael before, in the New Testament, Jesus is born and the mantle of Messiah falls firmly on his shoulders.
What does ‘Messiah’ mean?
It means “anointed one.” The term was originally used to refer to the king. Over time the word developed the connotation of something in the future—of a time when there is no longer an actual king. To call somebody anointed meant that he had a special role to play, whether or not any anointing oil was used.
How did the word messiah come to mean a future saviour figure, as we understand Jesus Christ today?
2 Samuel, Chapter 7 tells the story of God’s promise to David that one of his sons would always sit on the throne in Jerusalem. That promise held good for about 360 years, which maybe is a reasonable approximation of forever. But then the Babylonians came in and put an end to the native kingship in Jerusalem. The people had a record of a divine promise that something would last forever and had to face the fact that this was actually not the case. This is what gives rise to the hope that God will restore the monarchy, which is to say bring a new messiah, a new anointed king. People’s original messianic expectations were the hope for the restoration of the monarchy.
It should be noted that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. This was what the crowd called him when he entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. After his death, his followers concluded, yes, he is the Messiah, but not the kind of messiah that everybody was expecting - i.e. not a political ruler. Jesus made this quite clear to Pontius Pilate when he explained that his Kingdom was not of this earth. Jesus is a messiah who has to die first and then come back - which is what happened.
So, as we anticipate the Lord’s birth, let us remember that he comes not to stand in for those who rule (in any sense) but to bring forgiveness, and joy as we journey towards paradise.
Felix of Burgundy, also known as Felix of Dunwich (died 8 March 647 or 648), was the first bishop of the East Angles. He is widely credited as the man who introduced Christ-ianity to the kingdom of East Anglia.
Felix travelled from his homeland of Burgundy to Canterbury before being sent by Honorius to Sigeberht of East Anglia's kingdom in about 630. On arrival in East Anglia, Sigeberht gave him a see at Dommoc (possibly Walton, Suffolk or Dunwich in Suffolk). Felix helped Sigeberht to establish a school in his kingdom "where boys could be taught letters". He died on 8 March 647 or 648, having been bishop for seventeen years. His relics were translated from Dommoc to Soham Abbey and then to the abbey at Ramsey.
Patron saint of sailors, merchants, repentant thieves, archers, children, brewers, pawnbrokers, and students
On December 19th, we celebrate the memorial of St Nicholas. Like many early saints we know little about St Nicholas. He was born (c. 270) into an affluent Greek family in Myra (now Demre, in Turkey) and, after becoming a priest at an early age, became Bishop of that area, and served there until his death c.343. Over the centuries, many tales have been told about his life and miracles, although there is little evidence to support the claims made for him in most of these.
The most famous story is about how he rescued three sisters from the threat of becoming prostitutes. He heard about a devout man who had lost all his money; his three daughters had no dowry and no prospects of marriage. Instead, they would be sold into prostitution. Rather than humiliate the man by a display of his generosity, Nicholas visited the man’s house over three nights and, on each occasion, threw a bag of gold coins through an external window. This meant that the girls would each have a dowry and could marry. From this and other tales, he became renowned for his generosity, modesty and discretion.
St Nicholas’ descendant is, of course, Santa Claus, who secretly visits families at Christmas to give them gifts. As the commercial world has kidnapped Santa,
Saint Nicholas’ purpose in helping the poor has disappeared under an avalanche of goods. This misses the point: St Nicholas was motivated by two things: first, following Christ in aiding the poor (”Blessed are the merciful’); second, following Christ in respecting the poor. So, as you go about giving presents this year, think like St Nicholas, not ‘Santa’, and seek out someone who needs your gift. This doesn’t have to be money…A CAFOD World Gift given under a relative’s name may be a blessing for a poor person elsewhere and a blessing for the relative. Or again, ten minutes talking to a lonely person may be a bigger, better gift than a box of chocolates.
Doctor of the Church
Remembered especially on January 28th.
A man who dedicated his life to the service of abandoned young people. Founder of the Salesians of Don Bosco.
Remembered especially on January 31st.
Patron saint of virgins, chastity, and gardeners.
Remembered especially on January 21st.
Patron saint of writers and journalists.
Remembered especially on January 24th.
Remembered especially on January 26th.
He was an Irish monk who did much to establish Christianity throughout the British Isles and particularly in East Anglia. Born in Ireland, he established a monastery at Rathmat, on the shores of Loch Corrib, and then journeyed to England where he founded another at Burgh Castle, near Yarmouth.
Remembered especially on January 16th.
St Antony is the originator of the monastic life. He was born in Egypt: when his parents died, he listened to the words of the Gospel and gave all his belongings to the poor. He went out into the wilderness to begin a life of penitence, living in absolute poverty, praying, meditating, and supporting himself by manual work.
He suffered many temptations, both physical and spiritual, but he overcame them. Disciples gathered round him, attracted by his wisdom, moderation, and holiness. He lived to be 105, and died in 356.
Remembered especially on January 17th.
Remembered especially in January on the first Sunday after the Christmas period.
Patron saint of Ireland
Remembered especially on March 17th.