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Wednesday 22 February 2023
Ash Wednesday

07 February 2023

God’s Unrepeatable Offer

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b- 6:10; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

By Paul Hendricks
Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop, Archdiocese of Southwark

Context: a mixture of regularly practising weekday Mass attenders together with some for whom Ash Wednesday is one of the few times they come to church

Aim: to motivate the listener to seize the opportunity that Lent gives

Have you ever seen a street-trader at work, calling out to the passers-by in order to attract their attention? I’m not thinking of the more ordinary stallholders, selling commodities like fruit and vegetables. This trader is selling some amazing new product or offering some famous brand at a ridiculously low price. ‘Buy now!’ he cries. ‘This offer will not be repeated!’

In today’s second reading, there is a similar sense of urgency. ‘We beg you not to neglect the grace of God that you have received . . . Now is the favourable time, this is the day of salvation.’

In a way, we are already used to the idea that certain times and seasons present us with special opportunities — and Lent is certainly one of those times.

One reason for this is that we observe Lent together, as a community. The first reading captures this mood. ‘Proclaim a solemn assembly, call the people together, summon the community, assemble the elders, gather the children . . . Let them say, “Spare your people, Lord!”’

I’ve often found that praying together can be a more powerful and intense experience than praying alone. In the same way, when we turn to God as a community, in a spirit of repentance and renewal, there is a feeling of solidarity and mutual support, which seems to take us to a new level of motivation.

And we know from experience that, if we don’t seize this opportunity right from the start of Lent, then it is all too likely that this time of grace will pass us by — at least, for another year.

Coming back to that image of the market trader, we might say that this offer will not be repeated — until this time next year.

On the other hand, if we reflect a little more deeply, I think it might well be true to say that this offer will not be repeated . . . ever. It’s true that God always welcomes a repentant sinner, but there is a sense in which this precise moment will not be repeated.

Imagine that you are following a route and aiming to get to a particular destination. Suppose you miss a turning. You might be able to take a later turning, but your route may well be less favourable. You may have to struggle to get back on target. It may even be that, once you have missed the turning, there is no alternative route to your destination. You may have to turn around and go back to the turning you missed.

That is possible, if you are on an ordinary journey, whether you’re walking or driving. But what happens if we apply the same idea to our journey through life? On that journey, time is constantly moving forward. If you miss an opportunity, you may be given a second chance — but by then, life has moved on. You are no longer in the same situation — not quite the same person as you were before. In that sense, you can’t go back and take that turning. It is more like pressing on and taking an alternative route — if you can find one.

This Lent will present you with certain opportunities. If you miss them, God will not reject you, but these particular circumstances will not be repeated. Next time it will be different — and possibly more difficult. Very likely so, as failing to change will have reinforced existing habits.

On this journey, we cannot stay where we are. If we don’t take the opportunity to move forward, it is all too likely that we will fall back. For this reason, too, the offer that God is making us this Lent is one that, really and truly, will not be repeated.

Behind all of this, there is the implication that it is possible for us to turn away from God. This freedom we have is an awesome responsibility. Our future hangs in the balance — and it is our choice that will determine the outcome. God loves us with an everlasting love, and his greatest desire is that all should be saved and come to the knowledge and love of him. But he cannot force us to love him.

Would I ever walk away from God, turning in on myself and lapsing into an attitude of selfishness? I don’t think so, but how can I know?

If God really were that street-trader, I think I know what he would say. ‘Why take the chance? Why risk losing out? Take this opportunity, while it is still on offer.’

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