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Archbishop’s Lenten Pastoral Letter 2013 – Visions of the Night

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Dear brothers and sisters,

In the end, the Bible is a gloriously jubilant book. But it doesn’t begin that way, because it’s also a grimly realistic book. Its pages are often full of darkness – the murkiness of human affairs, but above all the murkiness of the human heart. The story begins in physical darkness which, we are told, “was over the face of the deep” (Gen 1:2). But the darkness quickly turns human, as human freedom clashes with divine freedom in the story of the Fall. At that point, violence appears as Cain kills his brother Abel; and from then on the Bible tells an unvarnished tale of murder, adultery, duplicity, betrayal and injustice of every kind. It’s the world as we know it rather than the world as we might want it to be. But it looks to the world as God wants it to be.

Scripture presents a world where human plans collapse consistently, and a world in which human beings think that God’s plan collapses as human plans come to nothing. We may think that God’s plan depends upon our plans, that the two rise or fall together. But not so for the Bible. In Scripture, God’s plan continues on its triumphant way as human plans collapse and human expectations are defied. A large part of the Bible’s purpose is to enable human beings to see that truth. It teaches us to see in the darkness, as we acquire a kind of night-vision which allows us to see that, in the maelstrom of the human heart and human affairs, God’s plan does in fact unfold. It’s that vision which enables true jubilation, the joy of Easter.

The Bible rubs our nose in human contradictions and inconsistencies, our violence and venality, our double-dealing and duplicity. But Scripture leads us beyond these to another vision and experience of the divine embrace of human beings just as we are rather than as our fantasies and ambitions might want us to be. Beyond those fantasies and ambitions, Jesus crucified and risen reveals what God intends the human being to be; and the purpose of the divine embrace of us in our sinfulness is to draw us to into Jesus, so that we may become what God has always intended us to be.

This is why we need to become a more biblical Church. That is certainly true if there is to be a new evangelisation. To become a more biblical Church is to become more skilled in seeing in the darkness and therefore more open to joy. To read the Bible well is to learn to read the Church and the world well. Like the Bible, the Church can seem dark, as we have seen with the revelations of sexual abuse. These have been shocking and humiliating for all in the Church, but the wound has surely been deepest for those who have been abused and for their families. They are like Abel whose blood cries to God from the earth (cf. Gen 4:10).

Faced with this – not just from time to time but relentlessly through recent years – we can feel that God’s plan for the Church and, though the Church, for the world has been de-railed. It can seem even that God has abandoned the Church and that we should do the same. But for the Bible, the question is always: Where is God in the darkness? In Scripture, the darkness is undeniable, but the faith is unshakeable. Whatever the darkness, God is here, somewhere, somehow; and the question is: Do I have an eye that can see God in the darkness? Or do I see only the darkness? If I see only the darkness, then hopelessness takes hold and the darkness grows deeper until there is nothing else. But if I peer into the darkness in the belief that God is there to be seen, then a pin-head of light appears; and if I keep looking with the eye of faith, the pin-head of light begins to grow and becomes in time the blazing fire of Easter.

The Bible makes it clear that God is not darkness. In 1 John 1:5, we read that “God is light; in him there is no darkness”. Yet earlier in Scripture we hear Solomon exclaim, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness” (1 Kings 8:22); and the Psalmist tells us that God “made the darkness his covering” (17:12). In the Book of Daniel, the prophet, we are told, “gazed into the visions of the night” and “saw coming on the clouds of heaven one like a Son of Man” (7:13); and there is the pin-head of light. There is no darkness in God, but God is in the darkness. It’s there that God is seen; it’s from the darkness that God comes as the light which no darkness can dispel (cf John 1:5). That’s the Gospel.

The experience of “gazing into the visions of the night” is at the heart of our journey through this Year of Grace and Faith. Were this Year of Grace and Faith not an experience of “gazing into the visions of the night”, then it would be little more than an escapist fantasy which the Bible forbids. At this time, for instance, Scripture summons us to see the Royal Commission as grace of a kind – and even, however disconcerting this may sound, to see the whole crisis of sexual abuse in the Church as grace of a kind.

This is a painful grace, a love that scours the very depths of our soul. But to see grace in any other way is to turn it into something else. The God of the Bible promises joy but is not “nice”. At times the divine love comes at us out of nowhere like a tsunami: “your torrents and all your waves swept over me” (Psalm 41:7). Or it comes as a deep and bitter wound: “you have wounded my heart” (Song 4:9). In the Prophets, we see that the divine love has its violence; or at least we experience it as violence because it demands of us everything when we want to give God only something. A God who claims everything is not only uncomfortable but downright threatening. That’s the God who comes to us now. It’s the God of Calvary in whom alone true joy is found.

To see grace as it really is, we need faith; and in Lent faith becomes action, in particular prayer and penance. I want to urge you at this time to be more intent than ever in committing to prayer and penance through the forty days of Lent, so that you will come to Easter seeing more clearly in the darkness, seeing that God has not abandoned us and that the divine plan has in no way been thwarted but continues to unfold, though in ways we neither expected nor sought. This is the purification we now need if we are to find our way to the joy of Easter.
Part II
As we look to Easter I ask that you make the Fridays of Lent special days of prayer and penance, days in which we look more intently than ever to the Crucified and therefore enter more deeply into the suffering of people who have known too much darkness and too little light, like those who have been abused and those have been battered again by the floods.

  • Prayer and penance will both need to be adapted to your circumstances of life, but let me propose some particular forms of prayer and penance. For prayer, the celebration of the Eucharist is supreme, and you might attend Mass each Friday of Lent or even more frequently. You might also consider one or some of the following, any of which could be done either alone or in a group:
  • Praying the Morning Prayer of the Church or part of it, perhaps a meditative reading of Psalm 50 [51] “Have mercy on me, God”
  • Praying all or some of the seven Penitential Psalms, which are Psalms 6 “Lord, do not reprove me”; 31 [32] “”Happy the one whose offence is forgiven”; 37 [38] “O Lord, do not rebuke me”; 50 [51] “Have mercy on me, God”; 101 [102] “O Lord, listen to my prayer”; 129 [130] “Out of the depths” ; 142 [143]:1-11, “Lord, listen to my prayer”
  • Reading one of the four Passion Narratives of the New Testament (Matthew 26-27; Mark 14-15; Luke 22-23; John 18-19), perhaps taking a different one each Friday
  • Following the Archdiocesan Lenten programme, “We wish to see Jesus”
  • Making the meditative journey of the Stations of the Cross
  • Praying the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
  • Praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet (if possible at 3pm, the hour of the Lord’s death)

For penance, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is supreme, and I would urge you to draw upon the unique grace of the Sacrament through this Lent. You might also consider one, some or all of the following on the Fridays of Lent:

  • Skipping lunch (think of the Muslims who, through Ramadan, fast from dawn till dusk each day)
  • Abstaining from meat
  • Abstaining from alcohol
  • Abstaining from tea and coffee

I would also ask that in the parishes and communities of the Archdiocese the following intercession be included through Lent at Mass, especially on Sundays:

  • For the Church in Australia at this time and the work of the Royal Commission:

• That the Royal Commission will help the Church and the whole of society to know the truth, to do what justice requires and to bring healing to the many wounded by sexual abuse.

Lord, hear us.
Lord, hear our prayer

I would also ask that at the end of every Mass in Lent (when there is no final song), the “Hail, Holy Queen” be said or sung, asking Mary, Mother of the Church, Mother of mercy to sustain us with her love at this time:

Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy,
hail our life, our sweetness and our hope!
To you do we cry, poor banished children of Eve,
To you do we send up our sighs,
mourning and weeping in this valley of tears.
Turn then, most gracious Advocate,
your eyes of mercy towards us,
and after this our exile show unto us
the blessed fruit of your womb, Jesus.
O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.

Pray for us, O holy Mother of God,
that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Finally, I offer you a prayer for public or private use, seeking the intercession of St Mary of the Cross, patron of the Archdiocese of Brisbane and just recently named co-patron of Australia with Our Lady, Help of Christians:

To you we turn, St Mary of the Cross,
at this troubled time in the Church,
for you are our advocate,
patron of the Archdiocese and of this land.
To you we bring the pain of those abused
by people whom they trusted.
We bring our own sorrow and shame,
our anger and our fear,
our desire for a Church made whole.
All this we place in your hands,
the hands of a loving mother
who knows the Australian heart.
Plead to God for those abused and intercede for us,
that wounds may be healed, that new hope may come,
and that, through suffering, the Church that we love
may be purified by Jesus Christ
the living truth, the sun of justice
“risen with healing in his wings” (Malachi 4:2).

In the midst of all our trials and sacrifices, may the joy of the Lord be our strength (cf Nehemiah 8:10).
Most Rev Mark Coleridge
Archbishop of Brisbane

Ash Wednesday
The Year of Grace and Faith 2013

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