Ash Wednesday. 'Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.' Repent! And be quick about it. This could, after all, be your last Lent! Sermon over.
But Lent is really much more about water than ashes. Living Water. Water and Holy Spirit. Baptism. The great stress on the dread of death, the transient nature of life and the fragility of creature-hood is all part and parcel of the season, but it is life eternal that we are after. In fact the Christian is already dead. We have already died 'in Christ' in the baptismal waters and we now live with 'a life that looks towards God in Christ Jesus'. In the second reading today St Paul tells us: 'Do not accept the grace of God in vain... Today is the Day of Salvation'. Every day in Lent, everyday, is a Day of Salvation. This is what Lent is all about.
Since the Second Vatican Council we have come to see sacramental living as not just event but process. Not just the particular definitive act of Jesus in any given sacrament but both our preparation beforehand for that saving and gracing act and also the on-going living out of that sacramental gracing in the days given to us that follow. So obviously the sacrament of matrimony or ordination is not just the splendid ceremony but the long matrimonial or ordained living that follows, with the abiding grace of Christ flowing through the changing ecologies of maturing and ageing, companionship, circumstances and events. So too, the season of Lent calls us back to the living out of a baptismal way of living.
The event of baptism will be celebrated for new Christians at the highpoint of our Lenten journey at the Easter Vigil. Historically it seems that the season of Lent began as a final stage for converts preparing to enter the Church and then it became a time for those of us already baptised to join them in their seriousness and take our baptismal calling more seriously. Are we Christians in name only and not in deed? Do we live out our days in the graced freedom of the children of God? Do we pray as the Spirit guides us? As disciples do we act with courage and hope in our heavenly Father?
Pope John Paul II spoke at one point of the 'permanent novelty' of sacramental grace. The living water of the Holy Spirit flows constantly through our lives but fountains up (as Jesus told the Samaritan woman) in all the ever-changing circumstances of all mortal life. In Lent we are to become more receptive to the new life in all its novelty permanently granted to the sons and daughters of God. We are to strive to rid ourselves of whatever blocks our receptivity – hence the disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. We are to be attentive to the Master's voice calling us to new ways of being disciples and children of God in this point in our lives, in this time and this place.
We do this in the companionship of the whole Church on earth, but also in continuity with our mothers and fathers of the ancient covenants before Christ. In Lent the Old Testament readings have a special role and give us the outlines of salvation history of which we in our generation are an on-going part. So after Adam and Eve we will come across Noah and his ark, Abraham our father in faith, Isaac, Moses and others. Faithful servants, each in their own distinctive time and place. We will hear how our mothers and fathers 'were baptised in the Red Sea' at the Exodus: how we trekked through the desert for forty years, striking water from the rock and receiving bread from heaven.
In these forty days of Lent we are to re-enter
the flow of the baptismal waters which stream from the side of the pierced
Temple of Christ on the Cross. We are to allow them to wash away our habitual
and actual sinfulness through our penance and that sacrament of return,
Reconciliation. We are to strive to put to death the remnants of our sinful
self and in these living waters, become fruitful in the Spirit. Enduring and
persevering in hope in Christ we are to praise the Risen Lord all the days of