Given at St Mary’s, Cadogan Street, on the third Sunday of Lent:
The season of Lent this year takes on a particular character as we begin now to pray for the election of a new successor to Saint Peter as the Bishop of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff of the Universal Church. In Pope Benedict XVI we saw a man whose own personal holiness and sincere pursuit of the truth was an example to us all in the Christian life, but of particular significance in understanding the spiritual purpose of this great season: a renewal of our sense of reliance on the very person of Jesus Christ whose passion, death, and resurrection we strive to proclaim in every word, thought, and deed. During Lent, we turn to the Lord with a sense of urgency, fixing our eyes on the one who saves: Oculi mei semper ad Dominum. Our eyes are fixed on the Lord, because it is the Lord who set us free (cf. Introit, Third Sunday of Lent; Ps. 24: 15-16).
That reliance on Christ, that need we have for his mercy and his grace, is reflected in this morning’s reading from the gospel according to Saint Luke. In his telling of the parable of the fig tree, the Lord tells the gathered people of their need to repent: ‘Unless you repent’, he says, ‘you will all perish’. If, like the fig tree, we cease to bear fruit – that is we cease to show signs of the life which God has implanted in us through our baptism – then our lives have very little purpose at all. It’s not simply that we may as well not live without that intrinsic purpose, it’s that, like the fig tree, life without fruit is barren and perfunctory. Without the life which God has given us – the life of grace – we risk bearing no fruit, giving nothing to the world, and being – if anything at all – a sign of death and lifelessness.
Just like the fig tree, though, we are given another chance – rather than being cut down there and then – so in the life we lead in union with Christ, we are given the opportunity to revive ourselves, in order that we might once bear the fruits of communion with him. In the season of Lent, with a particular fervour, we are called to that self-examination and honesty, to identify within ourselves where the life of Christ in us is suffering through our own sin, and how we can respond.
Sin, like a disease which infects and eventually kills a tree, similarly infects our spiritual lives. Grave sin, that is sin ‘whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent’ (CCC §1857) – doing something wrong and knowing it – not only infects our spiritual lives, often becoming repetitive and habitual, but it also kills the life of grace we share with God. This is why we rightly call such sin, ‘mortal’. It cuts us off from the life God has given us, not through jealousy or small-mindedness on the part of God, but because he loves us so much that he even lets us choose to be separated from him (i.e. a free will).
When we are in a state of mortal sin, we are unable to receive God’s grace in the sacraments, and the way in which we restore that relationship – that bond of communion – is by admitting our faults with a sense of true sorrow, and by receiving absolution in the Sacrament of Confession.
In Lent, when we are particularly called to an examination of our lives – that is, after all, the true purpose of our lenten fast; to give us more time to pray and make amends – we should not only be preparing to make our pre-Easter confession as if a twice yearly ritual is enough to keep us on the straight and narrow, but we should be asking if we need to be going to confession more and more regularly, as we become aware of the state of our lives and the reliance we have of God’s grace. When we go to confession we receive God’s grace, restoring us to the relationship we undertook with him at our baptism, and growing in our spiritual capacity to avoid sinning again. When we make a humble confession, God does not simply wipe the slate clean, but gives us the grace we need – if we live lives of virtue – to keep it that way.
So as we turn now towards these final weeks of our pilgrimage through Lent, let us simply become more aware of our need of God and his mercy and grace. We cannot hope to enter heaven by our own merits: we need God’s love and forgiveness, in order to be made ready for such a reward. Let us examine our lives and our actions – not simply as a pious exercise in itself, as good as that may be, but in order that we might throw ourselves once more at the mercy of the Lord, in whom we find true peace, and true life – the life of the heavenly kingdom.