Rev. Fr. Augustine Vallooran V.C.
The one message resounding from all the pulpits during the season of Lent is “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) Indeed this was the first message with which Jesus inaugurated His public ministry. Repentance means turning to God. It involves a turning away from everything other than God - orienting one’s attention to God alone. God becomes the one and only purpose of our existence and the joy of living. Repentance therefore requires a total change of the heart.
“Rend Your Hearts” (Joel 2:13)
The invitation of Jesus to build our lives on God is coupled with a promise that the Kingdom of Heaven will be ushered in. To declare the “Kingdom of God is at hand” implies that God’s reign is coming upon our lives. God is taking charge of our lives to leading us to all that is beautiful and life-giving. St. Paul spells out that “The kingdom of God is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:17) This movement of the Holy Spirit making us right with God and filling us with Divine Peace and Joy is definitely a deeply personal experience. But the consequences are in no way limited to the individual. The experience of the infilling of the Holy Spirit is so tremendous, it fills the heart and flows over to everyone around in such a way that a community is formed in the grace of the Lord. Hence, the promise given to us this Lent is that God is working to turn us and everything around us into His Kingdom - whereby our families, our neighbourhoods, our parishes and everywhere we live gain a Divine milieu.
This indeed is a message of hope to a world that is darkened by the bad news of rivalries, conflicts, violence and war. Relationships are strained in families, unjust structures are cropping up in societies, corruption prevails in the political realm and ruthless crimes have become commonplace. There is an air of despair in the thoughts and conversations of people. Each sees a need of change in the other imagining himself to be the unfortunate victim of all the discrepancies.
It is in this context that the season of Lent breaks in with a vision of the Kingdom of God - a reign of goodness in which everyone is right with the other with peace and joy prevailing in our hearts and in our midst. It is for this vision to be actualized that Jesus turns to us to return to Him with our whole heart and mind. Indeed the change must begin with me! The greater I feel the need of change in my society, the greater must be my own response in turning back my heart to be right with the Lord.
“Seek First The Kingdom And His Righteousness” (Matthew 6:33)
A young man met me during a retreat. He began to share his concern at how the world was becoming a miserable place to live with nothing good to hope for. He pointed out that even in the Church, things are not going the right way. He said he enjoyed being in this retreat centre where he did not know anyone and could isolate himself to relish the pure holiness of God untainted by the world. He could sit quietly and listen to the Word of God and take part in the liturgical celebrations.
Then he began sharing how in his parish it was very different. The parish was torn by dissensions and constant wrangling between two communities. Every Sunday after the Holy Mass, without fail there would be an ugly showdown. When the parish council meets to deliberate on the policies and celebrations of the parish, there would be angry exchanges and ugly accusations. They could never come to any agreement. The parish priest found it impossible to lead the people in harmony. This young man himself was in the leadership of one of the groups. He concluded saying that if only his opponents had cared to listen to his viewpoints and thus become just before God, much good could have been accomplished.
I prayed with him and the message I sensed the Lord prompting was precisely the message of repentance. I conveyed this to him. He was shocked and disbelieving. He thought I had missed his point just as his parish priest always did. I explained to him that there was evil in the whole situation. The anger and hatred, the calumny and disruption was definitely not from God. St. Paul draws a sharp distinction between the fruit of evil and the fruit of the Holy Spirit. “Now the works of the flesh are plain:… enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:19-23) I pointed out to him that it was clearly not the Kingdom of God but the kingdom of evil that was flourishing in the parish community. From this ungodly situation, it was God who brought him for a retreat for the Divine plan to use him as an instrument to usher in God’s Kingdom in his parish community. To him was assigned this crucial service to his parish and to God.
What was needed now was for him to abandon his life in the Hands of God that God may be able to use him for the heavenly mission. It was no more an individual agenda or human working that was to be pursued. In fact, all these had to be set aside for him to be available for God to work through him. The one thing I advised him to start with was to fast and pray because Jesus said it is by fasting and prayer that evil powers are cast out (Mark 9:29).
“We Are Ambassadors For Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:20)
He returned home with a hope that he could be of some help to God to bring peace to his parish. He took the advice given seriously and prayed for the whole parish - taking part in the Holy Mass daily. He refrained from arguing with anyone. He fasted once a week. Very sincerely, he asked God to usher in the Promises of the Kingdom of God into his parish. At the end of the second week, he called me and told me that no hint of a change in the scenario. I asked him to persevere in his spiritual exercise. A month later, I receive a call from this young warrior! His tone was lively as he described joyfully that there was a change but not in the others but in himself. Earlier even during his prayer, there his mind was filled with thoughts despairing at how his opponents could take such unjust postures and how the parish priest was being imprudent in his decisions. But now he began to realize that there was much that was wrong in himself. His stubbornness and his prejudices were unfounded and a stumbling block to any reconciliation. He felt drawn to the Sacrament of Confession and it was to the parish priest that he confessed his sins. He realized that as he was getting more genuine with God he was also becoming open to the ideas of others. He concluded saying, “I can feel a lot of change in myself.” I assured him that this was a sure indication of the real miracle God had decided to work in this place. The fact that he felt convinced of his responsibility was the beginning of the greater transformations God was to work. The inner transformation precedes external change.
A few months later, the annual parish feast was due which used to always be an occasion for rift and turmoil. As a result, all spirituality would drain off leaving only a bitter taste. Everyone had a tale to tell and a wound to nurse. This young man decided that the upcoming feast should be a spiritual celebration. He brought a few youth from his parish for the retreat here and at the end of the retreat he revealed to them his vision. All of them agreed to make the annual feast of the year an event of reconciliation.
They began praying together and suggested to the parish priest that a retreat be held for the parishioners. Their suggestion was immediately accepted by the parish priest and by most of the families. They organized an intercessory prayer group to pray daily for the success of the retreat and they printed prayers and distributed this to all the families in the parish. They prevailed upon the Reverend Sisters of the parish to visit all the families and invite them personally. During the retreat, the parish priest took special interest to visit the families who were spearheading the conflict.
There was an outpouring of the Holy Spirit during the retreat. On the evening prior to the final day of the retreat, there was a session of testimonies. Here the young man who initiated the process of renewal in the parish came forward and asked pardon from everyone - confessing his responsibility for the ill-feelings and problems in the parish. Tearful testimonies followed. The final program of the day was the Holy Mass. The parish priest was the chief celebrant. As the Mass was in progress and it came to the act of Confession, before the congregation could pray the “I confess”, the parish priest paused and then turning to his flock he said in a choked voice - “I confess to God and to you that I failed in my mission to keep the parish community united in love.” At the end of the Mass he publicly thanked the young man who opened his heart to be anointed with the Holy Spirit to become a supple instrument in God’s Hands to renew the parish.
“The Lord Looks Down To See If Even One Seeks God” (Psalm 14:2)
The Bible testifies that Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed because God could not find even a few men in these thriving twin cities to stand for righteousness. Scripture also records that when one virgin in Nazareth offered her life in the Hands of God, God could take the form of flesh and accomplish the eternal plan of salvation for the whole of humankind. What the angel described to Mary bears great significance. She could not understand how she could become a mother when she was not living with a man. The angel explained that nothing was impossible for God. Mary immediately and totally surrendered her life to God saying, “Let it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) It is enough for God if one person can surrender in trust to God for the work of salvation to be initiated. Five loaves and two fishes placed willingly in the Hands of Jesus were enough to feed the multitude of five thousand. A little leaven would suffice to change the entire mass of dough (Luke 13:21). A little candle is enough to quench the thickest darkness.
The angel of God explained to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” (Luke 1:35) The Holy Spirit is the key to understand the mystery of salvation but the Holy Spirit needs to work in and through someone. In every difficult situation, God is seeking willing individuals who will open their hearts to the Holy Spirit. When God does not find any, it is then that the powers of sin have free rein and wreak destruction. Hence the pain in the voice of God crying out in the temple: “Who will go for me?” One young man opened his heart to hear the voice and became a prophet to generations (Isaiah Chapter 6). This young man Isaiah was himself overwhelmed by the sin that had afflicted the community he came from. He cried - “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5) His confession brought him the assurance of God’s forgiveness which he experienced as a burning sensation on his tongue.
often complain that evil is gaining the upper hand and the innocent are being
persecuted; the rich and the powerful perpetrating unjust structures and the
poor being driven to destruction. This cry, however, is a careless lament, an
excuse to disown responsibility. Lent is
an occasion when God holds us responsible for the renewal of the community we
are part of. Our insufficiency due to lethargy in seeking holiness should not
pull us back. God is asking us to open our hearts to Him to enable Him to work
in AND through us. He will surely usher in His Kingdom in us and around us.
One of the pioneers of herbal medicine in Kerala has pointedly affirmed that for every ailment a man may suffer, there is a herb planted by God in the vicinity, carrying the healing antidote for the sickness. So also for every ailment in our society - God can work restoration through one person who opens his heart for the Kingdom of God to take root. Lent is the sacred season when God reveals His plan to despatch us with the good news of salvation.
Let Us Pray:
God of Mercy, we come to You seeking Your pardon. Place Your Hand upon us and burn away all that is unworthy in us. Till this day, O Lord, we have complained of every discomfort and failure. We gave up on goodness. We justified our own failures by accusing everyone else. We refused to accept the mission You had placed before us. We have disappointed all those who trusted in us. We have drained our hearts of love and replaced these with ill-will.
Today, O Lord, we look to You with praise and thanksgiving for great is Your Goodness. Far more powerful than all the evil is the plan of goodness You hold. When we see You, we gain courage to hope for light in the dark valley of sin that we have been dwelling in. Forgive us O God, and quench the evil in our lives and in our midst. We surrender our calculations and conditions and seek Your Will in our lives. As we place our hearts before You, fill our hearts with the fire of Your Love that we may be the aroma of Christ spreading life, love and goodness wherever we go. May Your Kingdom come on this earth. We praise You, O God, our King!