Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent

The time is fulfilled, Jesus says, and the kingdom of God is close at hand.  The time is fulfilled!  The universe has been waiting for this moment.  Slowly evolving over billions of years.  Instinctive life crawling out of the slime, human life over thousands years, then Noah, Abraham and Sarah, later Moses,  king David, the prophets… and now finally, the moment has come, the definitive breakthrough of the divine presence into the world.  Jesus is standing there saying: Now is the time.  All that the world has longed for, has striven for, has dreamt of, is at our fingertips.  The kingdom of God!

But there may be a problem.  It’s hard to believe.  We see corruption in every walk of life, we see crime, injustice, the break-up of families; even the Church seems to be just as broken as everything else; the pandemic. Where is the kingdom of God in all of that?  It’s as if Jesus is describing the colour blue to people who are blind, or the sound of a trumpet to people who are deaf.  It’s as if Jesus has another wavelength that our minds don’t seem able to tune into most of the time.

That’s why his next word is ‘repent’.  The word repent may conjure up some form of grovelling and self-laceration, but that’s not what it means.  What it really means is a change in our mind. Something has to change in how we perceive.  We are looking for happiness, for peace, for joy, but we are somehow programmed to look for it in the wrong place, and when we don’t find it, we say, ‘there is no kingdom of God’  because God is not playing along with our illusions.  Instead Jesus is telling us we need a fresh mind!

Love is standing at our door, but we don’t see it!  Providence is there to mind us in every situation, but instead we fret every time we lose something which we think holds our happiness.  We only half  believe that God looks after us the way he looks after the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.  Jesus says: get a new mind and start believing!  He had the same difficulty with his inner circle of disciples; and he would have to say, ‘Can’t you see?  Don’t you perceive?’ ‘Why are you slow to believe’  We are told that in his home town Jesus couldn’t work many wonders because they simply didn’t believe him.  He was amazed at their lack of belief, which rendered him powerless.  At the shallow end of a swimming pool a young child is learning how to paddle, and her father is holding her completely safe, but she splutters and thrashes as if she’s drowning. That’s us, some of the time!

One commentator has said that we are like people at the movies.  If the film is really powerful, we forget that it’s only images on a screen, and sound from a loudspeaker.  We lose sight of the human reality of ourselves and of people around us in the seats.  We know at some level that it’s only a film  but we get totally sucked into the drama which is, ultimately, imaginary.  I suppose that, when we look out at the world, so often we project onto our mental screens lots of things that simply aren’t there, and we don’t notice what is actually there.  We don’t notice that God is like a friend sitting there beside us all along, wanting to share his popcorn -the wedding banquet of the Lamb!.  

So maybe Lent is a time for some spiritual therapy for our minds:  get a new mind; believe and trust.  How might Lent happen for us?  Look at what happened for Jesus.  We are told that Jesus was literally driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit.  There is a loving energy there ready to get to work the minute we open the door even a crack.  Maybe we don’t believe much, but even the little we believe is enough for the Spirit to start.  Even if our belief is as small as a mustard seed, Jesus says that’s enough.  Lent is mostly about what the Spirit will do, not so much about our special projects for self-improvement.

Jesus was with the wild beasts.  The desert was not a safe place.  Wild beasts can devour you.  But the prophets had predicted a time when the violence in nature would come to and end, when you would be as safe with a snake and a lion as you would be with a kitten.  Jesus was with the wild beasts but, seemingly, he was safe. 

We have our own wild beasts, and the Holy Spirit puts us among them.  Maybe lockdown is part of this. It’s a very real desert for many people.    When we get into the cinema of our mind with the projector already turned on, we look around our family, our home, our workplace and we see what we think will bring us happiness and we also project what we think will be the cause of our unhappiness.   If we find ourselves getting angry or upset it may be because we are looking for happiness in the wrong place.  Jesus was put into a testing situation but was totally safe.  This Lent maybe we will finally notice that, underneath us, are the everlasting arms of God.  Now that would be a new mind.  That would be the kingdom of God.

Even more than that:  the angels looked after Jesus.  And it happens elsewhere in the gospels too.  

I think we can take it for granted that, if this Lent puts us among the wild beasts of our fears, our weaknesses, our inability to change for the better, or if our plans get battered, somewhere along the way we will also discover that God himself sends help, something much stronger and much deeper than anything we could muster up ourselves. If Jesus got help, we, in our weakness, are going to get far more. With Christ the time is fulfilled.  The kingdom of God is close, all around. Get a new mind, and believe the good news!

Fr Columba McCann OSB

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