With the arrival of Lent people think of giving up little indulgences. It might be better if we thought of taking up new commitments.
The commitment we need to make above all is to love. To love our neighbour more, to love God more.
Easy words, but what do they mean? We can hardly love 'to order'; it's not like going into a shop to buy a ready-made suit. It's surely more like a mania, even an ecstasy, possessing us from outside?
That is certainly one kind of love, and lucky are those who are possessed by it. It is, alas, not likely to last, though it may grow into something deeper, tested and lasting to the end of life. Then it becomes more like the love I am speaking of, a love which is turned outwards, to the other.
Of course the ecstasy of love is itself taken up with another, but only to absorb him or her into oneself. The love I mean is more outgoing -- the recognition that the other makes claims on us as 'other'; it accords to him or her the right to make demands. It is the recognition that I do not exist on my own, the discovery that I am dependent.
The love of God knows that we cannot answer for our own existence, that God is there, that he has claims on us. The love of neighbour is not much different; it means again the discovery that we are not on our own, that we depend on others, and they on us. You might say that this love is the very opposite of arrogance.
We are told in today's Gospel:
The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.
The Good News is that God has sent his Son into the world to die for us and rise to new life. To believe in that is to recognise that God's infinite self-giving love has become incarnate, has entered into our world, emptied of the arrogance we might have expected of God, and established the kingdom of God in our midst.
For that reason we are called to repentance, which means a complete reversal of the arrogance to which our self-love inclines, making way for God in all his otherness, for his claims on us, making way, in short, for love. That love acknowledges not only God's claim on us, but our neighbour's; we are not on our own, we belong to a whole community to whom God's saving love is extended. There is no love in isolation.
As we stand on the brink of war it is useful to remind ourselves that war is the ultimate arrogance, thinking that by violence we can overcome violence. True enough, our impaired humanity has to rely sometimes on force to counter the force practised by evil men. That is why civilised communities have police whose ultimate deterrent is force.
But this is in no way a solution; it signals the breakdown of humanity. Sooner or later the broken pieces have to be mended if we are not to founder into total inhumanity. That is why the Pope has said
War is a defeat for humanity.
If we are led into war it will be for each one to decide that it is in fact the ultimate step, all negotiation failing. There is likely to be little agreement as present discord shows. Lent provides us with the opportunity of making sure that in our own lives there is no arrogance, that the love of God and of neighbour prevails.
Perhaps we have become altogether too materialist; our spiritual life needs refreshing -- the need of prayer. Perhaps we have become too selfish -- the need of helping others, by a real concern or by making contributions to the needy.
Lent is not to be a negative time. It may involve fasting or giving things up as a means of ridding ourselves of arrogance. But the end is the discovery of the pure joy of love.