Have you decided on your Lenten practices yet? By talking with some of my friends I guess they have although, sticking to the piece of advice given by Jesus on Ash Wednesday, they keep their resolutions to themselves rather than trumpeting them loudly. I’ve accidentally been forced to disclose mine to a handful of people; the only other options open to me were to make excuses or to fib. But I’m a Catholic priest, so I cannot tell a lie, can I? Anyway, having Lenten resolutions and trying to stick to them is a good thing, surely. These can bring spiritual and mental benefits as well as improving our health and our wealth. The latter are such incentives that even people who claim to be non-believers in a religious sense tend to keep some Lenten observances.
It’s all jolly good. However, today’s readings don’t support the idea of self-restriction, self-denial or giving up things: they actually don’t mention any particular religious practices at all. The act of cutting the sacrificial animals in half, described in the first reading, was linked to trade practices. When two parties entered a contract, they walked between the halved animals to underpin their commitment, as if they were saying: ‘may the same fate meet me if I don’t fulfil my part of the contract.’ But although this contract was binding, it wasn’t a religious ceremony as such. In the Bible there is just the one instance of this particular procedure; it never became part of Judaism or Christianity. Nevertheless, it tells a compelling story about God’s unconditional love.
First of all, God takes the first step and promises Abram that he will make him the founder of a people as numerous as the stars in heaven. Nowadays such a promise would make many tremble with fear, but in the ancient cultures of the Middle East, having many sons was a source of limitless pride. We have to realise that this promise is made to an elderly man who is well past his prime, with no male offspring and married to a woman who’s been barren for all their life together. Some would consider such a grand promise way off the mark. Even Abram’s wife Sarah laughed when she overheard the pronouncement that she would bear a son in a year’s time. But God does indeed make such an unbelievable promise and – as the biblical author puts it – ‘Abram put his faith in the Lord.’ Then Abram asks God about some ‘technicalities’ regarding that promise. In response, God orders him to arrange the halved sacrificial animals in the way that we heard, and the pillar of smoke goes between them, making the promise rock solid. Interestingly, Abram doesn’t emulate God’s action: his pledge to trust in God is taken as sufficient by the latter.
And here we touch upon the essence of Lenten observances, and in fact upon the very essence of the Christian religion. It’s expressed in a nutshell in the words addressed to the Apostles Peter, James and John on the mountain, as we heard in today’s gospel: ‘This is my Son, the Chosen One. Listen to him.’ These are words about Jesus, not about Jose Mourinho! Essentially, being a believer is about placing one’s whole trust in God who – on his own loving initiative – comes to meet each and every one of us, and is totally committed to our well-being. If there is anyone who wants you to be fulfilled, happy, appreciated, respected (add your own adjectives), it is God first and foremost who wants these for you. The main – or even the sole – challenge is to trust him and his ways more than your own: to heed his voice and follow his path even when it seems to be counter-intuitive, or old-fashioned, or improbable, or downright daft. All religious practices, our Lenten observances included, ought to be kept not for their own sake but as the means to grow in faith and trust in God. It’s not about putting up tents on the summit, as Peter offered to do; it’s about going down the mountain with Jesus to his bitter end, and experiencing his glorious return to life.