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Surely the reading of this account in our Gospel today stands as one of my favourite childhood scriptural memories. I remember being enthralled looking at one artists rendition in the Good News Bible, men ripping open the roof to lower down a paralytic into the middle of a crowded room, all so that their friend could be healed by Jesus. The attraction for me to this story was twofold:
- The faith of the men, and
- The compassion of Jesus.
Our faith in Jesus will always be rewarded. As believers, we live by faith, not by sight (2 Cor 5:7).
Now, it is interesting that this portion of Scripture comes to us as Lent is about to begin. It is, in point of fact, a rather timely lesson.
Pope Benedict XVI in his recent Lenten message (2012) called on the faithful to care for others. We are to be concerned about one another and not to remain in ‘isolated’ or ‘indifferent’ to the needs of other people. Concern for others, he said, means wanting what is good physically, morally and spiritually for one’s neighbour, and this, in a contemporary culture that ‘seems to have lost the sense of good and evil.’
Wanting that which was good physically, morally and spiritually for one’s neighbour, was what prompted the men in the Bible to help their paralytic friend – his needs moved them to action. So determined are they that they carry him up a roof, dig a hole in it, and lower him down on a stretcher.
So perhaps, you can now see how timely the lesson is?
As we are about to make our way through austere Lent, we are called upon to have faith and like the men in the Gospel, to see the plight of other, to carry our neighbours in need. And we carry them to Jesus, the Great Physician, the One who can heal and attend to every need. We don’t just do this in a physical sense, through acts of charity and love, but also spiritually, through our prayers and forgiveness.
Lent calls upon on us to dedicate ourselves anew to Christ. It is a season of reflection and stock-taking, for deep soul-searching and repentance, and for living out the commandment: ‘Love thy neigbour as thy self’ (Mark 12:31); to have a heart of compassion, not a heart of stone.
So many Christians sadly walk around with hearts of stone. Oblivious to the needs and wants of others. Uncaring and unsympathetic. Self-righteous. Perhaps a bit like the Scribes present in the Gospel. Watching Jesus’ every word and every movement. Criticising. Others are mercifully less so. But all of us need our hearts broken from time-to-time. And Lent is such a time.
A time of fasting and prayer, a time of self-denial and confession, a time of whole hearted devotion to the Saviour of our souls, and a time to help others too, to make their way to the Cross.
Our forebears used to keep really strict Lents. They would fast and pray throughout. No meat or meat products were to be eaten for the 40 days of Lent, and only one meal a day was allowed, eaten after 3pm (the hour of mercy). And strictly no alcohol. This applied not just to clerics, but to all laymen. These days, we only fast on Ash Wednesday, and Friday’s are supposed to be meatless.
It is however, still a good thing to plan for Lent. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday. We’ve already seen the importance of recognising the physical and spiritual needs of others. But often in order to do so, for our eyes to be opened, lifted off our selfish selves, we need to break with sin. And we can do so by offering sacrifices to Christ during Lent.
Sacrifices? Yes. First start by prayerfully planning. Go and ask Jesus what He desires from you. Speak to a Priest. Seek spiritual direction. Formulate a plan and then stick to it. Some of the more traditional forms of penance – the works of satisfaction imposed on or recommended by the Priest, or acts that a believer imposes on him or herself outside of the Sacrament – include:
- Abstaining from meat
- Abstaining from all alcohol
- Abstaining from luxuries
- Abstaining from TV, music, radio, and/or movies
- Intense Prayer
- Daily Rosary
But as you research these things, you’ll soon enough find that other known recommendations (amongst others) include:
- Waking up in the night for a prayer vigil
- Sleeping without a pillow
- Sleeping on the floor
- Taking cold showers
- Putting a pebble in your shoe
- Carrying a cross in your pocket
Remember the goal of penance, the mortification of flesh, is to deny oneself in order to attain a spiritual goal.
Fr Michael Geisler, a priest of the Opus Dei, explains:
Self-denial helps a person overcome both psychological and physical weakness, gives him energy, helps him grow in virtue and ultimately leads to salvation. It conquers the insidious demons of softness, pessimism and lukewarm faith that dominate the lives of so many today”
– (Crisis magazine July/August 2005).
Saint Paul says:
I preach that they should do penance and turn to God, doing works worthy of penance.” (Acts 26:20).
And so my prayer for you and I, as Lent is to begin in three days time, is it that we would perform ‘works worthy of penance.’ That we would determine to see the need in ourselves, and the needs of others. That we would stop at nothing to get ourselves right with God, and help others get right with Him too. To grow in holiness, as we live for Jesus. And in all that we do, and all that we say, give glory to God our Father through Jesus His Son.
Allow me to conclude with a quote by St John Chrysostom:
Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works.
If you see a poor man, take pity on him.
If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him.
Do not let only your mouth fast,
but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands
and all the members of our bodies.
Let the hands fast, by being free of avarice.
Let the feet fast, by ceasing to run after sin.
Let the eyes fast, by disciplining them not to glare at that which is
Let the ear fast, by not listening to evil talk and gossip.
Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism.
For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes, but bite and
devour our brothers?
May He who came to the world to save sinners, strengthen us to
complete the fast with humility! Have mercy on us and save us.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,