“Rend your hearts, not your garments, And return to the Lord, your God…” Joel 2: 13
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I thank our Heavenly Father for giving me, in his goodness and mercy, the grace of being able to share with you the blessings and deep joy of Lent that come from the Sacred Heart of our Lord Jesus Christ.
1. The Lenten Spring
This year’s “Ash Wednesday”, the first day of Lent, falls on February 14, which happens to be two days before the start of the Chinese New Year or “Spring Festival”. It also happens that “Lent” originally means “Spring”.
Spring is a season of rebirth and transformative change. “Come, let us return to the Lord…He will come to us like the rain, like spring rain that waters the earth” (Hosea 6: 3).
Lent reminds us, especially for those who are preparing to receive, on Easter vigil, the sacrament of rebirth. The Lord calls each and every one of us by name. “I have called you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1).
2. “Repent, and believe in the Gospel”!
After his baptism at the Jordan, Our Lord prepared for his public ministry by spending 40 days in fasting and prayer in the desert and was “tempted by Satan” (Mark 1: 9-13). He then went forth into Galilee and proclaimed: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.” (Mark: 1:15).
These words reflect the ever-urgent and continuing call to conversion of heart and renewal of faith in the gospel. To capture fully the meaning of “metanoia” in the Greek New Testament, “repent” must be understood as a call to a radical conversion of a person’s whole being – of heart, mind and soul – to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and fidelity to the gospel. “Return to me with your whole heart “(Joel 2: 12).
To return to the Lord with one’s whole heart is to surrender oneself to him completely, with unwavering trust in the Divine Mercy.
3. “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Joel 2:13)
The prophet Joel is speaking here of a truth of central importance in our relationship with God and neighbour, that God looks at what is deep inside us, at our innermost dispositions, rather than just at outward shows. Moreover, it is a “contrite, humbled heart” (Psalm 51: 19) which is most open to God’s redeeming grace, not a hard and stony one which has yet to be broken.
But if we rend our hearts with genuine grief for sin and return to the Lord, he who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love, and relenting in punishment” (Joel 2:12), we can confidently expect God to do what he has promised: “I will give you a new heart and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36: 26)
It is with such a new heart and spirit that we can love God with every fiber of our being and love one another as Christ loves us (cf. John 13:34).
4. The Lenten Experience of “Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving”
Our Lenten prayers should not only be confined to a series of formulated recitation but take on greater intensity as we journey with the Lord towards Jerusalem and his Passion and Death on the Cross.
Just as the Spirit “drove” Jesus into the desert to fast and pray (Mark 1: 12), so our prayers should be Spirit-filled – especially when joined with fasting and abstinence or with sacramental confession. For it is the Holy Spirit who can help us to experience what it means to encounter and follow Christ the Lord.
“Fasting” is intended to sensitize ourselves to the plight of the poor and needy and motivate us to help them. At the same time, Isaiah speaks strongly of “true fasting” as consisting of “setting free the oppressed”, “sharing bread with the hungry”, “bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house”, “clothing the naked” etc. (Isaiah 58:3-12).
“Almsgiving” is one of many aspects and ways of expressing our concern and care for the poor and others in need of our help either for themselves or in support of charitable causes. St Paul speaks of “an abundance for every good work” after saying that “God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7-8). He enjoins us to keep in mind the words of Jesus himself: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35).
Hence it is no coincidence that Pope Francis, when speaking in his New Year message of the plight of migrants and refugees, urged people and nations positively to find ways and means of “welcoming” them, of “protecting” them, of “promoting” their human rights and/or of “developing” their human potential and of “integrating” them into the community. I strongly believe that the words of the Holy Father have wide and even general application to our care and concern for the poor and needy and vulnerable people, including “the Last, the Least and the Lost”.
5. A Challenge to All
Without “metanoia“, there can be no “New Evangelization” – one which is, in the words of St Pope John Paul II, new in ardor, new in its methods and new in its expression. This requires, among other things, a new focus on the re-evangelization especially of people who have fallen away from the faith or whose faith is in crisis.
Nothing could replace the “re-thinking”, the change of attitude and heart, the exemplar factors that must accompany people on our way or pilgrimage to true Conversion (Metanoia). When St Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council to strengthen the missionary spirit and in response to all the challenges of the modern world, he spoke of the need to open windows to let in fresh air.
Let the fresh air come in so that we may have an open heart to embrace, to dialogue and the courage to change. Let us not be disheartened by harsh realities or be confused by conflict or controversy but continue to hope and trust in Jesus, the Lord of history and of change. Whilst staying united in the faith as Catholics, we constantly need new ways and a renewed spirit to evangelize, both “in and out of season” (cf. 2 Timothy 4:2), so that the seeds of the gospel may take root, grow and yield abundant fruit.
6. A Special Word to Youth
We are in the Diocesan Year of Youth, declared in my Pastoral Letter for Advent. I wish to pray especially for and together with you this Lent. In this digital age of virtual reality, it is salutary for all of us to do “a reality check” now and again. Lent is a good time for this.
Even in the midst of the greatest difficulties, disappointments and frustrations, let no one give up but, instead, take encouragement from the merciful Lord, listen attentively to the promptings of the Spirit and learn to read the signs of the times.
Pray that we will all see the spring in Lent and have new life. Lent, like spring, is indeed a season for re-awakenings and new beginnings. So let us begin the journey, not alone but together.
7. Lent and Our Blessed Mother
I cannot conclude my Lenten message, which speaks repeatedly of the heart, without invoking with filial love the help and blessing of our Lady of Sheshan. She allows the sword of pain to pierce her heart. She shows us how to do likewise and live the Lenten experience as we journey with unfailing trust towards the dawn of Easter.
Pray for us, Blessed Mother, so that through your guidance and protection, we will be fully converted and configured to the Sacred Heart of your Son our Saviour!
May the Peace of the Lord be with you all!
Bishop of Hong Kong
2018 Ash Wednesday