“[This] is the time in the vineyard of the Lord, when, at the planting of the new vines, the old vines are pruned, that they may bear more fruit” (from the Order of Penance, Penitential Celebrations for Lent).
That captures what’s going on in Lent. It’s good to think of vines and wine and the warm south when the days go on so coldly here. And it captures what we call the two-fold character of Lent.
Lent’s a time, first, for the planting of new vines. At the beginning of Advent, T. became a catechumen. Tonight, he’s enrolled as one of ‘the elect’, that is, chosen: chosen to receive here in the Cathedral at the Paschal Vigil the Sacraments of Christian Initiation: baptism, confirmation and first Holy Communion. Would that there were others to accompany him! But if we think beyond our borders, there are. So many entering on these 40 days of final preparation: further catechesis, self-examination, the scrutinies, the receiving of the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and so on. So, T, you’re not alone! This parish is with you, and the whole Church is with you. And on Easter night, you and we will experience the Church’s motherhood: how from the womb of the font she brings the life of faith, hope and charity to birth in us!
And here are we, the old vines. This is the second aspect of Lent: the pruning of the old vines: our ‘sacrifice a contrite spirit. A humbled contrite heart you will not spurn.’ We want to jettison some of the junk clogging the well of living water which our baptism opened up inside us, purify the waters, de-salinate, de-contaminate, de-tox ourselves. Yes, old vines, but freshly watered, pruned, ‘that they may bear more fruit’.
In his Rule, St Benedict wrote a chapter on Lent. It begins, ‘The life of a monk ought always to have a Lenten character, he says. But few have the strength for this. So we encourage the brothers that in Lent they should strive for a life of complete purity to make up, during these holy days, for all the careless practices of the rest of the year’ (RB 49). For ‘monk’ read ‘Christian’. So it is. And among other suggestions, he makes a very appealing one: choose a good book and read it – from cover to cover – during Lent. In other words, let’s re-catechise ourselves.
Every year the Pope sends out a message for Lent. This year’s struck me. It was different. Pope Francis warns against false prophets, and love growing cold: signs of the end of the world. False prophets peddle false happiness. They dress it up. It looks good. ‘Let us try to understand, he says, the disguise [they] can assume. They can appear as “snake charmers”, who manipulate human emotions in order to enslave others and lead them where they would have them go. How many of God’s children are mesmerized by momentary pleasures, mistaking them for true happiness! How many men and women live entranced by the dream of wealth, which only makes them slaves to profit and petty interests! How many go through life believing that they are sufficient unto themselves, and end up entrapped by loneliness!’ He calls false prophets charlatans and swindlers: offering easy solutions, cheap medicine. But something particular strikes me. The snake charmers seduce us, he says, by ‘momentary pleasures’, a ‘dream of wealth’, a belief we’re ‘self-sufficient.’ Three snares. Turn those inside out and what do you have? Surely, in the broad senses of the words, ‘chastity’ to overcome the lure of ‘momentary pleasures’, ‘poverty’ to puncture the ‘dream of wealth’, ‘obedience’ to deliver us from self-sufficiency and bring us into the communion that lessens ‘loneliness’. Perhaps this Lent beside the triad of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we can set this other one: ‘chastity, poverty and obedience’. They are words with multiple meanings. They’re not just for people with vows. They change with our circumstances. They’re actually qualities of Christ. And he’s the grace of Lent.
And what is Lent, for the old vines and the new? Isn’t it all a prayer, just like the Stations of the Cross, just like the Passion of Christ? Isn’t it a ‘sacrifice’, that is, an act of worship? ‘Why should we fast’, say the people in Isaiah, ‘if you never see it, why do penance if you never notice it?’ The Lord answers, saying he wants another kind of fasting: social justice, social charity. Better ‘to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor.’ But the point is, this is prayer too. “Cry, and the Lord will answer’; call, and he will say, ‘I am here’.” Lent is a cry and a call directed to God, for the healing of others and of oneself. Lent is a hunger in the heart, as well as the stomach. The final stretch of the catechumenate that T is embarking on – or reading – or chastity, poverty and obedience – or fasting and almsgiving: it’s all a cry going up in the night of time. Lent is a winter asking for spring. ‘Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offence.’ It’s a cry for the Bridegroom, taken away in his Passion, to come back risen from the dead. It’s a cry for the justice of God. It’s an asking for Pentecost. It’s calling for better things. In Lenten, it’s often said, we unite ourselves with Christ in his Passion. But his Passion was a prayer: ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’. And a good Lent, I think, would be for our lives to realign themselves along this axis of prayer: to live priestly lives in every dimension, united to Christ, offered for the coming of grace, eucharistic lives.
New vines, old vines, both bearing fruit. ‘Blessed are you, Lord God of all creation, for through your goodness we have received the wine we offer you: fruit of the vine and work of human hands, it will become our spiritual drink’.
“[This] is the time in the vineyard of the Lord, when, at the planting of the new vines, the old vines are pruned, that they may bear more fruit.” The grapes of prayer that make the wine of grace that gives a joy false prophets can’t. Let’s beware of them! And let’s be prayer.
(St Mary’s Cathedral, Aberdeen)