18 February 2015

'Repent, and believe in the good news.' Sunday Reflections, 1st Sunday of Lent, Year B

The Temptation of Christ, Tintoretto, 1579-81
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa) 

Gospel Mark 1:12-15 (New Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition, Canada) 

And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Responsorial Psalm (Philippines, USA)

One of my teachers in the Columban seminary in the 1960s was a saintly priest, Fr Edward McCormack. Father Ted, as we knew him, spent most of his life as a priest teaching Scripture to Columban seminarians in Ireland and the USA. But he taught our class Latin.

I vividly remember one occasion when he celebrated our community Mass on the First Sunday of Lent. In the Old Mass Matthew 4:1-11 was always read. That's now the Gospel for Year A. As he was preaching  it was clear that he had a deep, personal sense of the horror of Satan tempting Jesus, God who became Man, of Evil trying to prevail over Love, God himself.

We have daily examples of the power of evil. The recent murder of 21 Coptic Christians, Egyptian men working in neighbouring Libya - like the countless OFWs (Overseas Filipino Workers) - working abroad. They were murdered simply because they were Christians.

In a meeting last Monday with a delegation from the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian, Pope Francis said the following.

I would now like to turn to my native tongue to express feelings of profound sorrow. Today, I read about the execution of those twenty-one or twenty-two Coptic Christians. Their only words were: 'Jesus, help me!' They were killed simply for the fact that they were Christians. You, my brother, in your words referred to what is happening in the land of Jesus. The blood of our Christian brothers and sisters is a testimony which cries out to be heard. It makes no difference whether they be Catholics, Orthodox, Copts or Protestants. They are Christians! Their blood is one and the same. Their blood confesses Christ. As we recall these brothers and sisters who died only because they confessed Christ, I ask that we encourage each another to go forward with this ecumenism which is giving us strength, the ecumenism of blood. The martyrs belong to all Christians.

The vast majority of Christians in Egypt are Coptic Christians and according to tradition they trace their origins to St Mark preaching the Gospel in Alexandria in the very early days of the Church. A minority of Coptic Christians are in full communion with Rome as the Coptic Catholic Church. They number fewer than 200,000.

We can easily shake our heads in disgust at actions that are clearly evil, such as the murders of these 21 men, particularly when they are done 'in the name of God'. But we can overlook our own sinfulness which adds to the culture where evil often prevails. Fr Ted McCormack in preaching to us in the seminary 50 or so years ago conveyed a sense of that. Jesus speaks to each of us individually, not 'to my neighbour' but to me. Repent, and believe in the good news.

The priest may say those words when he puts the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. Lent is a personal invitation from Jesus to each one of us, and to all of us as his brothers and sisters, to let ourselves be driven by the Spirit out into the wilderness as he was, to let our hearts be transformed by the Spirit.

I remember Father Ted telling us one day that when he was young his brother was constantly playing Beethoven's Fifth Symphony on the gramophone - on old 78s. 'I couldn't stand it,' he told us. 'Then one day it all came together and I could experience the beauty of it. But now I can only hear the faults in it.' 

Jesus calls us in Lent to discover the beauty of our faith in him, to discover where that beauty may lead us as we carry on his mission. And just as Father Ted had let go of the majestic power and beauty of Beethoven's music, the Lord may ask us to let go of everything, even of life itself, with his name on our lips, like the 21 Coptic Christians murdered simply because they were Christians.

Their deaths were horrific. Their murders were utterly evil. But those men whose blood confesses Christ, as Pope Francis said, are a testimony to the greater power of God's love.

Jesus, help me!

A Coptic hymn, Lord Jesus, help me, sung in Arabic.

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, First Movement
Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gustavo Dudamel of Venezuela

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