Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
I want to offer a few words of encouragement this weekend as we enter into the final two weeks of our Lenten pilgrimage. The coming weeks give us a chance to re-focus our prayer, fasting and almsgiving on the generous love that brought Our Lord to give His life out of love for us on the cross. Love lies at the heart of Jesus’ sacrifice for you and me and He calls for a response of love from each one of us. We can never forget that God so loved the world that He sent His only Son.
God’s love accompanies us from the first moments of our existence, throughout our childhood and youth and all along life’s journey. We believe that the Lord is always at our side, at times supporting and comforting us, but often challenging and urging us onwards. During the coming fortnight, often known as Passiontide, we can return Christ’s love for us by placing ourselves at His side, accompanying Him through the events of His passion and death on the cross and into the joy of His resurrection when Easter comes.
When we are at one with Our Lord in His passion we become more compassionate ourselves, because we begin to see other people as He sees them – with love. This is how the world looks from the cross. We realise the need to place ourselves at the side of those who suffer or struggle with the daily demands of living. In our own sinfulness and when we seek forgiveness we also feel for those whose lives are overshadowed by the tyranny of addiction or of sin. Trying to see as Christ sees we become more alive to the compassion that others show in the face of great need or distress.
I was reminded of this recently, during the indiscriminate attack on Westminster Bridge, where nearly fifty innocent people were struck and four lost their lives. The compassion and courage of those who came to help them was a sign of God’s loving presence. Whether they were fellow pedestrians or members of the emergency services, they were clearly moved by compassion to help the injured and the dying. Christ was truly present in the love they showed on that day.
This year, as Passiontide begins, we hear the wonderful story from St John’s Gospel of the raising of Lazarus, with those arresting words of Our Lord, ‘unbind him, let him go free’. In the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass we often proclaim ‘Save us, Saviour of the world, for by your Cross and Resurrection you have set us free’. The raising of Lazarus points us towards the resurrection and reminds us that the Lord has come to liberate us from everything that burdens or ties us down, from the bonds of sin to the shackles of death itself.
In the chapel of New College in Oxford there stands a remarkable statue of Lazarus by the sculptor Epstein. As a singer in the chapel choir forty years ago I would walk past that statue every day and I never failed to be struck by its meaning. Lazarus stands with his body still wrapped in the bands of cloth in which he was buried and facing a door into the graveyard. But his head is completely turned with an expression of wonder, looking towards Christ calling him back to life.
The artist has captured a truth that lies both within and beyond what we can see. Lazarus stands for all of us, caught in the bonds that tie us down: our sinfulness and pride, our selfishness or the circumstances of life that can sometimes hold us back. As Lazarus is called back to life by the Lord so must we find our true freedom in the crucified and risen Christ. That is the invitation held out to us in these final two weeks of Lent.
In our Archdiocese we are blessed by the witness of holy and compassionate men and women who helped others find their freedom in Christ. In his compassionate love for those he came from Italy to serve in Staffordshire Blessed Dominic Barberi had a decisive influence on the life of Blessed John Henry Newman. He offered the example of humility and holiness within the Catholic Church which Cardinal Newman had been longing to see. Perhaps he saw in Blessed Dominic a reflection of that generous love which led Our Lord to die for us on the cross and which Blessed John Henry describes in his hymn Praise to the Holiest.
Blessed Cardinal Newman certainly felt the presence of the crucified Christ in the experiences of his own life. In a beautiful reflection, from his sermon entitled ‘Tears of Christ at the Grave of Lazarus’, he writes: Let us take to ourselves these comfortable thoughts, both in the contemplation of our own death, or upon the death of our friends. Wherever faith in Christ is, there is Christ Himself. He said to Martha, “Believest thou this?” Wherever there is a heart to answer, “Lord, I believe,” there Christ is present.
There our Lord vouchsafes to stand, though unseen – whether over the bed of death or over the grave; whether we ourselves are sinking or those who are dear to us. Blessed be His name! nothing can rob us of this consolation: we will be as certain, through His grace, that He is standing over us in love, as though we saw Him. We will not, after our experience of Lazarus’s history, doubt an instant that He is thoughtful about us.
When Lent draws to a close may you and your parish community be blessed by the presence of the risen Christ, giving us new life and always thoughtful of all our needs.