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Homily - First Sunday of Lent 2023 A - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 26 February 2023

We have just begun our Lenten journey and it may seem a long time to Easter. Keeping up good resolutions for over six weeks can seem a daunting task, So our first Sunday in Lent faces us with the challenge, the temptations that Jesus faced as he began his public ministry. He had a hard road to walk – and the devil tries to tell him to be sensible and to take a more pleasant road that would win quick popularity. But Jesus knows that the battle against sin involves the Cross. What do we learn today?

Firstly, as human beings, we are capable of great things – and of awful actions. One of our great gifts is free-will. Our greatest weakness is our freedom to be led astray and to make bad decisions. The story of Adam and Eve appears in the first few pages of the bible. They were made equal and, in the image, and likeness of God. But they made a stupid decision that destroyed what they had. We are still made in the divine image – but are capable of being tempted to sin. That is our tragedy. We are called to greatness through God's grace – and tempted by the animal side of our nature to betray our dignity. But Jesus wants to recall us to live in grace, not in disgrace.

We see the mess all around us in unjust economic structures that lead to horrible gaps between the haves and the have nots. We see it in the reality of conflict and war – whether around the world or in our homes and on our streets. Lent is thus not just a time for prayer, fasting and almsgiving, as if they were stand-alone good deeds that gain us merit before God. The self-discipline of Lent is a challenge to the devil within us that says all we can hope for is to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. Lent is a time when we walk with Jesus in his battle with the devil who does not want the Kingdom of Heaven to reign on the earth. The greatest battles do not take place out there with someone else. The biggest struggle takes place within our hearts as we train ourselves to listen to the voice that calls us to sanctity and not to stupidity. Lent is meant to be a tough journey. Are we ready for that? Or are we easily tempted to take shortcuts and expect little new life from God, ourselves and Lent?

Secondly, it is difficult for us to take seriously the Lenten message. The culture in which we live and breathe is driven by a compulsion to consume. In order to serve the market, we are constantly told that we must obey our thirst, never say' 'no', and feel good. In a culture that promotes a sense of victimhood, it seems crazy to be taking on penance. Self-denial is portrayed as positively anti-human and unhealthy. And yet we live with the knowledge that we have created a society that is destroying the environment, wasting vast amounts of food, suffering from high levels of mental distress and addiction. And, still, we are told we need to keep consuming more.

In the middle of that mess, many of our political leaders peddle the shallow message that we are coming from a dark period dominated by religion and moving inevitably to a bright future, born of free choice in everything. But the Original Sin of Adam and Eve is an uncomfortable and unwelcome reminder that we can easily be led astray by short-term temptations to do stupid things. Freedom does not guarantee flourishing. Freedom is sometimes little more than a cover for the strong to take advantage of the weaker and more vulnerable. A society will flourish when we have leaders who are not too embarrassed to talk about right and wrong, about wise and generous decision making, about morality. We cannot build a stable future for our young people if we promote a culture where there is freedom but no shared values. In a moral wasteland, Lent challenges us to promote virtue – however unwelcome that message may be.

Thirdly, all of this feeds into how we become a synodal church. It was easy for Adam and Eve to be convinced that their decision was right and sensible. The devil was equally subtle in trying to convince Jesus to take the road of least resistance and to court popularity. We are still prey to the same temptations as we face decisions about how we are faithful to Christ in our day. The fight against sin means taking up the Cross, not avoiding it or substituting something that modern culture tells us would be more palatable. If our first parents were capable of being blinded by subtle arguments, we must be very aware of our capacity for self-deception. Only when the church is steeped in prayer and grace will we be led by God and not by the subtle voice of the devil. If we have ears only for the strong voices from the centre, we will miss the little voices in the wilderness, who reveal where Jesus often is trying to lead us. This year we need to pray especially for divine wisdom amid all the voices that would blinker us and promote short-term decisions and self-interest.

St Paul tells us that we are not facing a hopeless battle. Sin may have entered the world through the stupidity of Adam and Eve. Jesus has come to take away the sins of the world. Because of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the victory has been won. We can be led to make wise, grace-filled decisions. Our belief in the Original Sin of Adam and Eve - and our Lenten practices - are a challenge to our society that glorifies its own often destructive self-indulgent message that I know best. On Ash Wednesday, Jesus encouraged us to practice fasting, prayer and almsgiving with a smile on our face. Lent is a time of liberation, not of self-hatred. Lent is a time when we take seriously Jesus' battle against sin and its effect. We take on the Lenten battle because we believe that the struggle can be won. Jesus wants to free our young people to believe that life is much more than adolescent partying and bungee jumps followed by boring later years. Jesus tells us that the devil has not won and that we are capable of becoming saints with God's forgiveness and grace. Scripture tells us that this is not something we have to work for. It is a free gift. Lent is just a time when we make space for that gift, that grace. Trust Jesus. Do not be put off from fasting and self-discipline. We can change. Do not be afraid of prayer and silence. God will speak to your hearts. Do not be put of almsgiving. The injustices of our world can be tackled. Lent is a time of grace. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.

+ Donal McKeown

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