Sermon 14 February 2016
St Paul tells the Corinthians: “examine yourselves to see whether you are living in the faith”. Lent is a time for self-examination. In this - and other times of reflection such as retreats - we have a chance to take stock, to take account of our failings and our temptations and to grow in our living of the faith. Just as Christ spent 40 days in the wilderness looking temptation in the eye, so we seek to do the same, by looking into ourselves.
However, we have to beware of simply concentrating on self-examination. We need to train our eyes on ourselves but we also need to train them on Christ. St Paul speaks of growing up into Christ, of having the mind of Christ. The liturgy speaks of identification with him, of the Christian people standing together with Jesus.
This means that Lent is a time for identification with Christ in the wilderness, standing with him, rallying to his banner, sharing in his stand against evil and taking part in his dialogue of love with the Father. This is important, because we need to be saved from ourselves. Self-examination on its own can easily lead to self-preoccupation and to centring on the self. On the other hand, identification with Christ alone, without looking into ourselves, can encourage us to avoid or hide from things we need to attend to in ourselves. One-sided identification with Christ at its extreme gives us religious fanatics who are oblivious to what is going on in their heart. So we need both self-examination and identification with Jesus.
What can identification with Jesus boil down to in practice? It’s not a question of sitting down, closing your eyes tight and trying to imagine yourself into Jesus’ shoes. It’s more about plunging ourselves into the Church. Praying with a sense of the Church. That includes praying the church’s prayers. There’s the story of the Lancashire lady who took to saying the Daily Office and exclaimed, “ee, Vicar, it’s changed me life”. It’s about the Eucharist, the offering of the bread and wine, entering into the presence of Christ’s cross and resurrection and receiving Christ’s body and blood into ourselves. Identification with Christ is about going to confession and unburdening ourselves to him in the presence of his representative. It’s all about going out of ourselves. Or rather, these are ways in which we are taken out of ourselves and made bigger than we are. Self-examination on its own can’t do that.
The words “Being taken out of ourselves” don’t do justice to what I’m talking about. So here are a couple of stories. One comes from a novel (I forget the author) set in the Communist Soviet Union of 30/40 years ago. There is a group of people who become so indignant at being infantilised and oppressed that they decide to stage a demonstration in Red Square. They have hardly unfurled their banners and carried out a five-minute demonstration, before police arrive and bundle them into a van, taking them off to decades of imprisonment. They knew what would happen but they could do no other. They simply could do no other.
The second story, from the same country, is the well-known story about Lenin giving an open-air speech in a town to a large crowd. He spends an hour ridiculing the Church and Christianity and demonstrating that God doesn’t exist. Then he invites anyone who wants to come up and speak. A young Priest goes on to the podium and says in a loud voice, “Christ is risen” and the crowd all shout back “he is risen indeed”. The young Priest probably paid for those three words with his life but he could do no other.
So we come to Christ in the wilderness. We don’t know what actually happened but it’s not difficult to imagine that Jesus would want a long time of retreat before embarking on his mission. He would have known that this mission would put him in great danger. There would have been all the temptation to avoid it, just as in Gethsemane he asked that the chalice might pass from him. However, he knew that he could do no other – it was simply what he had to do, whatever the consequences.
We are not going to be in this position every time we keep a retreat or every time we keep Lent but what we are asked to do is to grow up into Christ. To be with him that we may become like him. In our 40 days of Lent we are called both to examine ourselves and to stand with Jesus in his 40 days of retreat. To identify with this Christ who could do no other, as we celebrate and receive the mysteries of the bread and wine, as we are taken out of ourselves, set free from ourselves in making our confession and as we are enlarged by identifying with the Church in our daily prayers. We are called simply to do these things and see what happens.
George Guiver, Superior CR