Friday, 16 February 2018

Friday after Ash Wednesday

Readings: Isaiah 58:1-9; Psalm 51; Matthew 9:14-15

With a range of imagery the Bible speaks about a choice presented by the Word of God to those who hear it.

According to the Book of Deuteronomy, in a passage  read at Mass yesterday, the choice to observe the commandments of God or not to observe them is a choice between life and death, between a blessing and a curse. For much of the 'wisdom literature' the choice, expressed in how we relate to others and to God, is between walking in the way of wisdom or descending the path of foolishness. Paul contrasts life according to the Spirit and life according to the flesh, while John is fond of the imagery of light and darkness.

In his preaching Jesus speaks bluntly of this choice. It means choosing between a narrow gate opening onto a hard road and an easy and broad road which, however,  leads to perdition (Matt 7:13-14). Today's gospel puts it even more starkly: we must choose between wishing to save our lives which means losing them, and losing our lives for Christ's sake, which means saving them.

Today's first reading give us a physical and very concrete image for the choice we face between these two contrasting ways of living: the clenched fist and the open hand.

Think of the difference between being confronted with a clenched fist and being offered an open hand. The clenched fist signifies threat, rejection, arrogance, exclusion, refusal, anger and violence. The open hand means friendship, help, peace, sharing, communication and connection.

In today's first reading Isaiah encourages his listeners to 'do away with the yoke, the clenched fist, the wicked word', and to do it by 'sharing your bread with the hungry and clothing the man you see to be naked'. Psalm 111 develops the idea: 'the good man takes pity and lends ... is generous, merciful and just ... open-handed he gives to the poor.'

Where the clenched fist is ungenerous, unreceptive and closes things down, the open hand is generous, welcoming and vulnerable.

The crucified Christ opened his hands and arms and heart on the cross to give us the definitive revelation of God. This heart open to the world contains a love beyond all expectation and beyond any natural hope, a love beyond any singing or telling of it. The God who opens wide his hand to satisfy the desires of all who live (Ps 145) has now opened wide his heart to bring to eternal life all whom He has chosen (Eph 1:11).

There may be many reasons why, at times, we choose the way of the clenched fist rather than the open hand: hurt and disappointment, tiredness and indifference, fear and misunderstanding, selfishness and disdain.

Whatever the reasons, the clenched fist always involves turning from our own kin and denying, in effect, that others are of the same kin. The open hand, however, means turning towards others as our kin, fellow human creatures, brothers and sisters, children of the same heavenly Father sharing a common call and a common hope.

Just as the presence of salt and light cannot be hidden and their absence will be noticed, the kindness of the good person cannot be denied and the shock of the clenched fist will stop us in our tracks. The good works of the open-handed shine forth so that people might praise the Father for the holiness they glimpse in His creatures. We have come to know that this is what God is like, causing his sun to rise on bad as well as good, and his rain to fall on honest as on dishonest people (Matt 5:45).

One of the three works of Lent is almsgiving, opening our hearts and hands to our neighbour, especially to the poor neighbour in any kind of need. So Lent is a time to practise making the move from the clenched fist to the open hand. Are we to turn in and close ourselves away, hardening our heart and clenching our fist? Or are we to follow Christ by opening our hands and our hearts, by reaching out to others in generosity and justice? What is the point in opening our hands in prayer to God, what is the point of penance and discipline, if we do not lend a hand of kindness to our brothers and sisters in their need?

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