A time of grace, spiritual nourishment, and self-purification

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, president of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences.

Greetings in the name of Jesus.

With great prayers and hope we enter into the holy season of Lent. This is a time of grace, spiritual nourishment and self-purification. The next 40 days are going to be very demanding with prayers, fasting and almsgiving. I wish you all a great and blessed Lent. 

This Lent comes at the most challenging times of our personal life and the life of the country. During the last Lent all of us went into a lockdown like Noah hoping to come out. After a year we have not come out. Even before we could escape the lock down of COVID, we are locked into hopelessness and despair through the coup. We face great challenges. This is time for prayer. This is time for fasting. This is time for conversion of all of us in this country. This country cannot be always on the way of the Cross of suffering. Let us start our forty days with hope, with prayer for reconciliation to our nation.   

“Forty days” has great significance in the Bible. Today’s Gospel speaks of Jesus forty days in the desert, tempted by the Evil. Jesus won over evil through fasting and penance. The fact that Jesus spent 40 days in the desert is significant. This recalls the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert after being led from slavery in Egypt. The prophet Elijah also journeyed in the desert for 40 days and nights, making his way to Horeb, the mountain of God, where he was also attended to by an angel of the Lord. Remembering the significance of these events, we also set aside 40 days as holiest season for enriching our spiritual life.    

For our consideration of Lent we should take three major spiritual nourishments of forty days.

1. Forty Years of Israelites in the Desert: This is the painful time through which the Jews became the people of God, chosen race. They suffered slavery, they suffered starvation. But amidst this they were taught lessons in human compassion, living in a community and caring for the weak and vulnerable. Remember brothers and Sisters, Lent is a time of thinking about the suffering people in this world. Our fasting, our prayer must make us turn towards human suffering. There are thousands of people who are called "Good Friday people" crucified to various forms of suffering. There are millions for whom lent is not just  40 days but is an unending life time suffering. Our compassion needs to turn towards such people. External observance not enough. Prophet Isaiah warns us of empty fasting:

No, the kind of fast I want is that you stop oppressing those who work for you and treat them fairly and give them what they earn. I want you to share your food with the hungry and bring right into your own homes those who are helpless, poor, and destitute. Clothe those who are cold. (Is 58: 6-8)

2. The second forty is Jesus surviving forty days in the desert and is very relevant to us. Evil can tempt anyone. St Peter says: The devil waits like a hungry lion, to devour us. Jesus himself was tested for forty days in the desert. We are not exempt. Sin is self-destruction, refusing God’s Grace. Sin entered in the first pages of the Bible when Cain in jealousy killed his brother Abel. We are born with great gift for hatred and sin. We need to control ourselves, redeem ourselves in this season of Lent. This is the season of self-purification through prayer, mortifications and alms giving. 

3. The third forty is what we need urgently in Myanmar and in our lives today: that is Hope. This forty comes after Jesus resurrection when he appeared to disciples for forty days. Cross did not end in grave but in resurrection. All our despair, all our hard life will end in glory if we live in hope. For the last one-year various disasters have happened in the lives of Myanmar people. Some say the way of the Cross of the Myanmar people is very long and unending. Even the resurrection looks like an illusion. But we are the hope generating church. Out of the blood of martyrs this church rose. Yes, our suffering looks like those of the Biblical Job. But Job held on to his faith and hope and he was rewarded. These are times of Hope my brothers and sisters, not time of despair.

The Bible does have many more forties - strengthening us in our faith journey.

Noah’s life is a great lesson to the world. In Noah’s time there was a total breakdown of relationship with God and human beings; with man and nature. The society was broken: there was only domination, exploitation, abuse of the weak. Human beings are so powerful that they can make God despair often.

They destroyed God’s covenant made in the Garden of Eden. So, God wanted to save humanity and nature through a new covenant. Noah was chosen because he was a virtuous man. Through him God brought redemption. For forty days, Noah’s family, with the animals went into the “Lock Down” in the Ark. We know the term LOCKDOWN now very well. There were many lockdowns in the Bible. The forty years in the desert, the forty days of Noah. Through this disaster came redemption. After forty days, the rainbow appeared. The longest lockdown, the longest despair, the longest anxiety was over when the dove returned. How relevant to our country!  

The contemporary events are a call for setting our priorities right. It is time to return to God’s plan not man’s plan in this country. As a nation all of us sinned – some more some less. Some are guilty all are responsible. All of us need redemption from hatred, from anger. Pope calls specifically for a new type of fasting: fasting from anger, fasting from mutual hatred, fasting from insatiable hunger for power, fasting from vengeance. Hatred can be a lockdown. Like Noah we need to see the rainbow of peace and prosperity, forgiveness and reconciliation. Let the dove of peace return to our nation. As God made a new covenant with Noah, not to destroy but to nurture the humanity, let this nation rise up to be a new Myanmar of peace and prosperity to all. Let the rainbow of peace and reconciliation rise again. Let the dove of peace return in the new dawn.

In the second letter of Peter comes a warning: Not everyone was saved in Noah’s days; only eight were saved in the Noah’s ark. Faith is not only what we profess in words; faith is what we do in our lives. Death comes for many when they bury in hatred; in power; in exploiting others. There are many men who are really mobile corpses because they have lost their humanity. As a sage said: Many dice at the age of forty and get buried at the age of seventy or eighty. Among the millions, those who forget God are dead already, those who refuse to be good Samaritan to the wounded humanity is dead already, those who are drunk with raw power but no compassion is dead already. Life is only in the Spirit. Peter says beautifully in his letter Jesus was put to death in flesh but he was brought to life in Spirit. This life in Spirit, guided by the Spirit is our aim during this tumultuous lent in Myanmar. Those who live by flesh and arrogance are already dead. For those who live in Spirit there is no death, no prison can hold them.

The Gospel brings warning as well as  unwavering hope. If Jesus, son of God could be tempted, we all could be tempted. For forty full days Jesus struggled against the power of Evil. He fasted; he was in a horrifying desert. He needed total self-abnegation to defeat evil. This is a warning. Those who do not fight evil will become part of evil. Sin is self-destruction. This leads to eternal doom, despite all power and riches. 

We can be dragged by the devil through the power of riches, the insatiable urge to control others and rule over others, constantly pushed to live a lie in life. In Mark’s Gospel, the desert marks beginning of Jesus’ battle with Satan; the ultimate test will be in Jesus’ final hours on the cross. In a similar way, our Lenten observances are only a beginning, a preparation for and a reinforcement of our ongoing struggle to resist the temptations we face in our lives. This holy season started warning us: You are dust unto dust would he return. Only your good works and good life will save you. 

Christ came out of the desert and proclaimed a new kind of Kingdom. That is the hope.

Christ faced troubled times: his people were under the merciless Roman Empire, its cronies, the Herods were persecuting people, the religious elite aligned with the ruling elite and used all laws to punish the innocent. God’s kingdom was suffocated and strangled by the evil power. The rich and the powerful became richer and more powerful. Drunk with raw power, fortified by huge armies, Rome and Herod were ruthless in punishing their people. But they were afraid of the ‘power of empty hands’ – they were so terrified by the moral power of John the Baptist, the man clothed in sack clothes and eating grasshoppers. They beheaded him. Jesus came with the simple message:  Kingdom of God is at hand; repent.   

His message of Kingdom was simple: Changing is coming! A call goes forth:

From the lockdown of addiction to power, come to the freedom of service
From the lockdown of oppressing others, come to the freedom of brotherhood
From the lockdown of hatred come to the freedom of forgiveness
From the lockdown of ruthless power come to the freedom of the power of love
From the lockdown of vengeance come to the freedom of forgiveness
From the lockdown of amazing vulgar wealth come to the freedom of graceful sharing
From the lockdown of wounding and looting others come to the freedom of Good Samaritan
From the lockdown of obsessed with one’s own family treat the whole world as family – God is our Father, we are all brothers and sisters

From the lockdown of storing our wealth in banks and gold, come to the freedom of sharing food with the hungry, shirt with the naked, time with the lonely.  

From the lockdown of despair come to the freedom of hope in this country, for the faith of a mustard seed we can move mountains.  

The Kingdom of God belongs to the meek and humble. Evil has an expiry date; Good asserts at the end. There will be a New Heavens and New Earth, there will be no more tears. Believe and you will see wonders in life.

For this simple message Jesus would be killed. The mighty Herod, the Pilate, the Roman Empire shuddered at a street preacher, ‘who had no place to lay his head’ ‘a carpenter’s son.’

The world is afraid of light because the evil in embedded in human soul. Lent is the time to understand our sin filled fragility and seek  grace filled permanence. It is the time to realize, our humanity and our redemption needs to be earned through self-purification, seeking Christ’s Kingdom. St Peter warned us, in the times of Noah, only eight people were saved. Will I be part of that eight? Or will I be part of the people who perished despite “drinking and making merry during Noah’s day?” 

These are troubled times. Lent is the apt season to set our moral compass. Life is not a permanent bargain. We started Lent with those frightening words: You are dust; unto the dust would you return. Yes. The fragile nature of our life should purify us. If a child dies it might need a grave of three feet, if it grows and dies as an adult it might need six feet grave. All we gain in life after long years is just three feet. Between these three feet, power, money, arrogance, oppressing others takes place. The mightiest powers will fall and their graves may become history. But for the half naked preacher John the Baptist and the carpenter’s son Jesus, millions will follow for millennium.  

Let the Lent open our eyes to this reality. Seek truth and shed the self-delusionary lie in life.