If You O Lord Should Mark Our Guilt, Who Will Survive? (Ps 130:3)
The Lord of Mercy
IN 2008, a woman phoned to complain that her youngest daughter had decided to leave their Pentecostal Church to which they had been affiliated to become a Catholic. Her daughter, she said, was even beginning to teach them how to recite the Rosary. Since they could not talk her out of it, her mother decided to bring her over to me. When they came, I asked the young lady why she wanted to become Catholic. In the presence of her mum and sister, she said to me: Father, our pastor always shouts in the Church as if God is deaf. Secondly, he is always commanding God to do this and do that as if God is his servant. When I tried to explain to her that we Catholics also often plead with God aloud too, she retorted: Yes, I know, but I like the Catholic Church because when they pray, they always bow down and say, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
I was taken aback by this incident because in the same sitting room, some two years earlier, my friend, Dr. Magnus Kpakol had repeated basically the same thing to me. As the Poverty Alleviation Co-ordinator, he had come to Kaduna on an official visit. True to his word, he had come to visit me and explain how he was planning to explore ways of working with the faith communities in his anti-poverty efforts. Somehow, in the course of our conversation, he began to speak about his admiration for the Catholic Church and how much it had worked in helping the poor. He said he admired our structures and we could really collaborate with his Agency. Then he went on. I like the Catholic Church, and I am always humbled by how they do not lay so much emphasis on the acquisition of money but focus on helping the poor. I have always been attracted by the nature of Catholic worship. I like the words, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy. This message is about Lent, a period of repentance and penance before God.
Ash Wednesday: Lent and the Call to Repentance
Lent is here again, a time for us to pause, a time to come down from the high horses of our human arrogance inflated by the comfort of our material possessions and power. It is time to remind ourselves of the difficult-to-swallow but painful reality that we are here today gone tomorrow, that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. On Ash Wednesday, the priest will put the ashes on the forehead of all worshippers repeating the words to each worshipper, Remember that thou art dust and unto dust thou shall return. Nothing could evoke a greater sense of Lord have mercy than these words.
The prophets, Amos, Jonah and Joel among others present us with the most dramatic encounter between the love and mercy of God and his justice at this time. The prophet Amos stridently indicted the people of Israel because they had become blinded by prosperity and turned their backs on the poor. The rich were not content with their wealth as a blessing from God. Their wealth also elicited a false sense of visible holiness as shown by the outward show of fear of God, keeping the Sabbath and other holy days. But all this was a cover for evil because deep down, according to Amos, they said: We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so we can sell our corn. When will the Sabbath be over so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and tamper with the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell our worthless wheat for a high price. We’ll find the poor person who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave (Amos 8: 5-6).
Jonah, on the other hand, helps us appreciate how God’s love and mercy trumps our human waywardness and foibles. Despite Jonah’s reluctance, God is able to overlook the sins of the people and grant them forgiveness. This does not seem reasonable to Jonah, a man with a rather bad temper. His temperament explodes over something he had no power over (a plant), a sharp contrast to the patience, mercy and love, which is shown in God’s forgiveness of the people of Nineveh, who had sinned so much (Jonah 3:10). This shows that the mercy of God is the fulfilment of his Justice.
In Joel, we see the call of a loving God to a wayward people seduced by sin. God’s appeal in the book of Joel draws attention to the fact that God sees beyond human hypocrisy and dubious religiosity. Thus, God says: Repent sincerely and return to me with fasting and weeping and mourning. Let your broken heart show your sorrow, tearing your clothes is not enough (Joel 2: 12).
Prayer and Devotion at Lent
It is rather sad that today, Christians have become rather slack and non-challant over their personal and community obligations in the Lenten season. The Catholic Church has laid out a series of devotions for this period such as the Stations of the Cross, the recitation of the Rosary, Fasting and abstinence among others. Today, however, we seem to merely gloss over this important period, which calls for deep individual, family and community introspection.
This is why all Catholics should move the Sacrament of Penance, Confession, which today suffers the same neglect, to the front burner. Imagine if we all seriously spared a thought to examine what we have done as individuals to bring Nigeria to where it is today, one way or the other. When we as Catholics say, behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world before the Eucharist (Jn. 1:29), we are re-affirming our unworthiness, but also repeating an old custom, which Moses enacted on behalf of the people of Israel every year.
On the feast of Atonement each year, the high priest of ancient Israel used to take two goats into the temple in Jerusalem. He would slaughter one for sacrifice and on the other, he would confess the sins of the people of Israel and send the goat to the desert with the sins of the people. The people then would go home with the belief that their sins had been taken away when the goat is released and driven into the desert. (This is the origin of the word, scapegoat, the goat has escaped). Atonement was, another way of saying, at-one-ment, that is, returning to God, believing that forgiveness has now made us one with God. We, therefore, atone for our sins so we can renew this relationship. This is at the heart of the Lenten season, a period that the Church sets apart for us as Christians to each seek closeness to God.
To Be Continued
• Lenten Message by Matthew Hassan KUKAH, Catholic Bishop of Diocese of Sokoto
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