We are entering into these weeks of penance, almsgiving and prayer in order to prepare us for the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ. We pray for the grace to open ourselves to Him in a deeper way, so that by being more like Him we may live as better Christians and prepare ourselves for the moment we have all been created for, that everlasting moment when we shall see our Creator as He is.
Psalm 108 is the first Psalm of Lauds in today’s Roman Office, and it gives us something of an insight into the Lenten season. First of all, it begins with a strong testament: ‘My heart is ready’. Our lives are opportunities to become one with our Creator God, to be ready for His arrival. How ready are we? To what degree do we see our lives as a forum for knowing Him?
For a moment, let’s place ourselves ‘inside’ this Davidic psalm; be the writer, the creator of the text. Make the words our own.
We begin by saying that our heart is ready, and what are the manifestations of this? Praise of God, jubilant singing, the sense that your very soul is a tuned instrument designed to give thanks to its Maker. We know that gratitude is a most powerful prayer. Gratitude is also a strength and glue of all relationships – we needn’t be constantly thanking our loved ones for being there, but our everyday words, deeds and actions should be a testament to our gratitude for those people in our lives. It is the same in our relationship with God. Our posture, as we turn towards Him, our dependence on Him, our love for Him, our sense of wonder at the works of creation: all of these are a form of thankfulness and praise. Lent is a time to enter into this thankfulness in a more meaningful way, and to verbalize our gratitude by saying: ‘My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready.’
We are now asking for our dear Lord to come to us, to grant salvation: ‘grant salvation and give answer; O come and deliver Your friends.’ When we start out on our journey into the desert of Lent, we should remember that we are doing what Jesus Himself did, for He spent forty days and nights in the desert in preparation for His public ministry and ultimate sacrifice. More than that, though: He was ‘driven’ into the desert by the Spirit. That is a powerful word. It suggests that, on some human level, Christ was reluctant, that He was fearful. From our accounts of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, we know that Jesus was afraid, yet He always remained true to the will of His Father. Are we, too, being driven into the desert to face unknown spiritual warfare? Are we being asked to deny ourselves the things we love so much – things that in reality do us no real good? Is the Spirit inviting us to lay our cards on the table, by acquiescing to the will of God? Stepping into that unknown territory is part-and-parcel of the spiritual life. It can be unnerving not being in control. But when we do acquiesce, we can turn to God and say: ‘grant salvation and give answer; O come and deliver Your friends.’ He becomes the driving force – yes, the One who drives us into that dark, arid place, but also the One who through this time of preparation releases us from the bondage of sin and darkness, and leads us into His marvellous light.
We now read: ‘From His holy place, God has made this promise: I will exult, and divide the land of Shechem; I will measure out the valley of Succoth. Gilead is mine, and Manasseh. Ephraim I take for my helmet, Moab I will use as my washbowl…’ The Old testament is rich with images of warfare, and in those times it was natural for God to be interpreted as a powerful military leader. The Psalms catalogue the full gamut of human feelings, from deepest love and desire to thoughts of revenge and murderousness. But through the nowadays unpopular perception of God as the avenging war maker, we hear through this ancient people an awareness that many of us today have lost. We hear the ‘fear of the Lord’. In other words, to this ancient people, God was paramount. They saw their own littleness, when set against the God of all. They took notice of Him.
Can we say the same about our own perception of our Creator? How important is God to us? Does He come before everything else? We have the inestimable grace to know the teachings of Jesus, and the first was His commandment – His single commandment – to love. He was known by His forgiveness, compassion and love – a love which challenged the social boundaries of His day, just as it continues to challenge our cultural boundaries of 2019. We set in our minds the awareness that God is our Judge, but we come to Him through the love of Jesus Christ. Is there not a lesson in this ancient people for a modern world that is full of such ego, to take God seriously? As Cardinal Hume wrote: ‘Take life seriously. Take God seriously. But don’t, please don’t, take yourselves too seriously.’
We can lose hope in the desert. And this is when we come to the next part of Psalm 108: ‘Who will lead me to the fortified city? …Have You not cast us off? …Will you march with our armies no longer?’ Life can be a battle, not least the nitty-gritty of life: the relationships, the securing of enough resources to live happily and care for family, the need to work, the trauma of illness and disaster. But the spiritual life, too, is a battle – and this battle continues throughout life. Even Jesus Himself felt abandoned, when He cried the powerful words from the cross: ‘My God, my God! Why have You forsaken me!’ But notice that, through Jesus’ bitter trials, when He felt His Father had deserted Him, He continued to speak to Him. It may have been a cry to the heart, but the relationship was still there: rather than turning away from Him, Jesus still addresses the Father: ‘Why have you deserted me? What about our own trials? Do we graft ourselves onto Christ in all we do, or do we drop Him at the slightest hardship? Do we trust Him even when we find it hard to, or can we be so shallow as to consider ourselves above pain, and turn our backs on God – or even blame Him – when hardship comes our way? Do we use our moments of difficulty to give ourselves to Him, or do we lose hope and think He is no longer with us?
Losing hope is part of the desert experience, and our prayer in that arid landscape is one of trust, of turning to God. ‘Give us rescue’, says the Psalm, ‘…with God we shall do bravely.’ And as we consider what place this re-alignment to God’s love takes in our own lives, perhaps we might wander back to the opening of Psalm 108, where we read: ‘My heart is ready, O God; my heart is ready. I will sing, I will sing Your praise.’ It is often in the darkest experiences of life that we sense the deepest waters of peace and protection. He will use these moments to awake our soul, and to inspire us to turn back to Him. For we are waiting to become part of the dawn that is eternal life, and as members of His Body we are already sharers in the Resurrection, the promise of everlasting happiness.
We pray for a fruitful and recollected Lenten season this year, that we may learn to love without measure, to give without regret, and to reassess our priorities in this life. Amen.
My heart is ready, O God;
my heart is ready.
I will sing, I will sing your praise.
Awake, my soul;
3awake, O lyre and harp.
I will awake the dawn.
4I will praise you, LORD, among the peoples;
I will sing psalms to you among the nations,
5for your mercy reaches to the heavens,
and your truth to the skies.
6O God, be exalted above the heavens;
may your glory shine on all the earth!
7With your right hand, grant salvation and give answer;
O come and deliver your friends.
8From his holy place God has made this promise:
“I will exult, and divide the land of Shechem;
I will measure out the valley of Succoth.
9Gilead is mine, as is Manasseh;
Ephraim I take for my helmet,
Judah is my sceptor.
10Moab is my washbowl;
on Edom I will toss my shoe.
Over Philistia I will shout in triumph.”
11But who will lead me to the fortified city?
Who will bring me to Edom?
12Have you not cast us off, O God?
Will you march with our armies no longer?
13Give us rescue against the foe,
for human aid is vain.
14With God, we shall do bravely,
and he will trample down our foes.