This year Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand has taken as its focus a line from the inaugural homily of Pope Francis where he spoke of opening up a horizon of hope for the struggling people in our world and for the earth itself.
On the Sunday before Lent began, we had a double focus in the liturgy. It was a day of special prayer for children and the gospel was the call of Jesus to consider the birds of the air and the flowers of the field.I was reminded of a John Denver song which has a similar double focus on children and flowers. As he ponders the "rhyme and reason" to what is happening in our world he begins with these words:
So you speak to me of sadness and the coming of the winter
The fear that is within now and it seems to never end
The dreams that have escaped you and the hopes that you’ve forgotten….
These words name the reality of struggle that many people experience in life.
Denver goes on to sing:
It is here we must begin
to seek the wisdom of the children
and the graceful way of flowers with the wind.
For the children and the flowers are my sisters and my brothers,
their laughter and their loveliness can clear a cloudy day,
like the music of the mountains and the colour of the rainbow,
they’re a promise for the future and a blessing for today.
For me these words not only seem to echo the message of Jesus, about trust in God, but also tie into the Caritas focus on hope, which is aimed at those whose dreams elude them and whose hopes are forgotten.
We normally associate hope more with Advent than Lent. However, in his homily notes for Ash Wednesday John Shea makes hope his main focus. He speaks of the particular way that Lent invites us into hope. It does not do so by asking us to close our eyes to reality. It does not yield to denial but echoes Denver’s starting point amid life’s struggles by confronting us right at the beginning with the reality of death – "remember that you are dust and unto dust you will return". Opening up to our mortality is never easy but when we allow that awareness in we emerge with a renewed sense that life is short and precious, a gift from God. This can lead us to look at our priorities and seek better uses for our time, energy and resources.
Our faith is an "eyes wide open" way to meet the reality of our world. In his book 'Religion for Atheists', Alain de Botton suggests that atheists might find in art what Christian faith has always provided for believers – a way to face suffering that "increases our feelings of solidarity as well as our capacity for compassion". We are not alone and not entirely unique in our pain. He says, "we all wrestle with the dilemmas of childhood, education, family, work, love, aging and death". Solidarity and compassion in the face of suffering and struggle can open up for all of us a horizon of hope. This is what we seek to learn from the season of Lent as well as from children and flowers.
Columban Fr Pat O'Shea SSC is based at St Columbans Lower Hutt, New Zealand.
Read more Reflections by Fr Pat O'Shea