The idea of a period of penance and reflection for our sins can seem alien to a 21st century mindset. Wallowing in guilt is unhealthy and professions of unworthiness can be masks for inverted pride and religious egotism. Defining what right and wrong actually are is more difficult. In the past we accepted without question what the church said morality was; a willingness to challenge received wisdom about morality is more common in a secular socity. For example, some may see the Church's traditional teaching on gay relationships as moral, while to others it seems immoral . The harrowing report of the treatment of "fallen women" at the Magdalene laundries made me think more about what we see as moral. It is worth remembering that the incaceration and often abusive treatment of these women was justified as a moral corrective. It was a means of bringing about true repentance through suffering and punishment and few at the time would have thought to challenge the church on this matter. The women incacerated were defined as sinners first and foremost, not as human beings.
We make a mistake if we attempt to do away with sin, guilt or repentance. We do need to reframe these concepts though, not through revisionism but by reading the gospels. One revealing account is that of Simon the Pharisee who silently "tut-tuts" over a sinful woman who annoints Christ's feet. "If only he knew what manner of woman this is", he thinks, "he would not allow her to touch him." But Jesus tells Simon that the woman has shown greater love than him because she has been forgiven more. From the ashes of her repentance came the gift of love.
I see three things this story. The first is that our concern should not be with the sins of others but with ourselves. Simon was just as much of a sinner as the woman, if not more so, he just didn't know it. Secondly, God's reponse to any turning to him is love. Those who have faced difficult circumstances, brokeness, mental breakdown, condemnation or moral dilemmas often have a much greater sense of God's love. I do not think God loves such people more, just that they often have a tenderer sense of his love. A third message is that Jesus was always challenging received wisdom about morality. Suddenly Simon was woefully inadequate and the woman he despised had things to teach him.
A challenging Jesus fits in well in a world where moral answers don't seem so very easy. I don't mean by this that we should necessarily conform to the standards of a secular society as it is far from perfect, but that we should see moral challenge not as a threat but as an opportunity for growth.I try to look at different aspects in Lent and this year I want to look at some of the things in my faith which are challenging. I am thinking of the difficult/ impossible things such as that we should love our enemies, not judge, pray continuously, be perfect, rejoice always, give all our money to the poor (haven't got around to that one yet, don't know about you?) The chances are that I won't bore you with blog posts on these, mainly because I suspect I struggle with them too much to say anything meaningful, and also they might be too scary to blog about...
In any case, I wish you all a blessed Lent.