Lent is not something you do but a way of being open to blessings, the Archbishop of Westminster says in his Ash Wednesday sermon.
“The blessings of Lent are God’s doing, not ours” he will tell the congregation at Westminster Cathedral at the start of the 40-day period of fasting and abstinence before Easter. In his sermon, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor goes on to look at the three “well-known practices that help us open ourselves in mind, heart and body” – prayer, self-denial and almsgiving.
Self-denial “is not depriving ourselves of what we truly are, but a way of affirming our true selves”, he will tell the congregation. The blessing of almsgiving, he adds, is the realisation that “we are God’s human family, and the world is full of our brothers and sisters”. Full text of the sermon for Ash Wednesday
(1 March 2006)
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
‘Don’t ask what you can do for Lent; ask, rather, what Lent can do for you!’
The blessings of Lent are God’s doing, not ours; what we must do is, quite simply, open ourselves to those blessings, which God is waiting to give us. The Gospel today indicates clearly the well-known practices that help us to open ourselves in mind, heart, and body.
The first is prayer. I know all of you pray, but these 40 days of Lent are a time when we are invited to open ourselves to prayer in a more generous way. First of all, we give more time to prayer, and persevere in prayer, in spite of distractions or when we seem to be gaining nothing from it. By staying faithful in prayer, we are choosing to listen to God and to proclaim by our listening that we depend totally on Him, which is why we want to praise Him and thank Him and love Him. Prayer is often described as the ‘raising up of the mind and heart to God’. This Lent, make sure that whatever else you do, that you raise up your mind and your heart to God. That way, we come to realise that we come from God and we are destined for God. We find in him our true self; and we find ourselves most truly when we allow ourselves to be found by Him.
The Gospel also tells us that Lent can help us by our fasting. Self-denial is not depriving ourselves of what we truly are, but a way of affirming of our real selves. Our world sometimes gives us the message that what we are comes from what we possess or what we achieve or how far we succeed. But Jesus knows otherwise. Our worth, our value, comes from God. In his love, and in the love which comes to us from him through others, we acquire our true value; we know our true worth. We realise that we are precious in His sight and that we are made for Him. Foregoing creature comforts in whatever way we choose may help us to realise this – to realise who we really are. If it is painful to be deprived of what comforts us, of what we have become attached to, it is because shedding illusions is always painful. But the pain is worth it, because it helps to create the space for the love of God which alone can satisfy us. That is one of the blessings of Lent.
Then Lent invites us to give alms. Each one of you, I am sure, gives generously for the needs of the poor, either those in your own country or overseas. But Lent is asking us to think of ways in which we do not just give to others, but in some way put others first. That too is a blessing. It is a strange thing, but very true, that you can’t buy happiness but you can receive a lot of happiness through giving, through sharing, through discovering the unity of our human family. That means sometimes working for justice and opposing all that diminishes the humanity of others, here at home, in your neighbourhoods, and abroad. To be truly human is to recognise that no one is an island. We are God’s human family, and the world is full of our brothers and sisters. That realisation is one of the great blessings of alms-giving.
So we have three tasks for Lent: three ways in which we can discover what Lent can do for us. We can grow closer to God, and to our essential being, through greater discipline in prayer, and by acts of self-denial which create space and time for this. And we can grow closer to other people because the more we love God the more we will be concerned to help and to love others.
These are all the things that Lent can do for us. Listen again to the words of St. Paul in his letter today: “We beg you, once again, not to neglect the grace of God that you have received. For He says, ‘at the favourable time I have listened to you; on the day of salvation I come to your help’. Well, now is the favourable time. This is the day of salvation”.
Those words should strike at our hearts on this Ash Wednesday. Now is the time to open ourselves to God in generous prayer. Now is the time to be disciplined in mind and heart so as to be open to the Word of God. Now is the time when we hear the voice of those who need our help, our generosity and our love. Now is the time to discover that when we have “done” something for Lent, Lent has done so much more for us.