IF YOU O LORD SHOULD MARK OUR GUILT, LORD, WHO WOULD SURVIVE? (Ps 130:3)
1: The Lord of Mercy
In 2008, a woman phoned to complain to me that her youngest daughter had decided, out of the blue, to leave the Pentecostal Church to which they had been affiliated and to become a Catholic. Her daughter, she said, was even beginning to teach them how to recite the Rosary. Since they could not talk her out of it, her mother decided to bring her over to me. When they came, I asked the young lady why she wanted to become a Catholic. In the presence of her mum and sister, she said to me: Father,our pastor always shouts in the Church as if God is deaf. Secondly, he is always commanding God to do this and do that as if God is his servant. When I tried to explain to her that we Catholics also often plead with God aloud, she retorted: Yes, I know, but I like the Catholic Church because when Catholics pray they bow down and say, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
I was taken aback by this incident because in the same sitting room, some two years earlier, my friend Dr. Magnus Kpakol had said basically the same thing to me. As the Poverty Alleviation Coordinator, he had come to Kaduna on an official visit and had called to see me. Explaining his plans to explore ways of working with the faith communities in his anti-poverty efforts, he spoke with admiration for the Catholic Church. He said: I am always humbled by how the Catholic Church does not lay so much emphasis on the acquisition of money but focuses much more on helping the poor. I have always been attracted by the nature of Catholic worship. I like the words, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.
These incidents are relevant to this Lenten message, since Lent is a period of repentance and penance before God. The young girl and Mr Mpakol spoke of the sense of mercy and love of the poor which they noted in the Catholic Church. In referring to these stories I am not claiming that these traits can be found only in the Catholic Church or that Catholics do not also live the contrary. However, I point to them as reminding us of the ideal to which we are called. Lent is a time for all of us, Catholics as well as all Christians, to repent and to seek to live that which we preach.
2: Ash Wednesday: Lent and the Call to Repentance
Lent is here again, a time for us to pause, a time to come down from the high horses of our human arrogance inflated by the comfort of our material possessions and power. It is a time to remind ourselves of the difficult-to-swallow but painful reality that we are here today and gone tomorrow, that we are dust and unto dust we shall return. On Ash Wednesday, the priest will put the ashes on the forehead of all worshippers, saying to each one: Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return. Could anything evoke a greater sense of our need for God’s mercy than these words?
The prophets, especially Amos, Jonah and Joel, present us with what has been called the scandal of God’s mercy, a mercy that demands justice and extends to everyone. Justice means to practice mercy towards everyone; hence, I cannot say I am righteous in the eyes of God if I am not just towards my neighbour.
The prophet Amos stridently indicted the people of Israel because they had become blinded by prosperity and turned their backs on the poor. The rich elicited a false visible holiness, keeping the Sabbath and other holy days in an outward show of fear of God was which no more than a cover for evil because deep down, according to Amos, they said: We can hardly wait for the holy days to be over so we can sell our corn. When will the Sabbath be over so that we can start selling again? Then we can overcharge, use false measures, and tamper with the scales to cheat our customers. We can sell our worthless wheat for a high price. We’ll find the poor person who can’t pay his debts, not even the price of a pair of sandals, and we’ll buy him as a slave (Amos 8: 5-6).
Jonah helps us appreciate how God’s love and mercy trump our human waywardness and foibles. Despite Jonah’s reluctance, God is able to overlook the sins of the people and grant them forgiveness. This does not seem reasonable to Jonah. His temper explodes over something he had no power over (a plant), in sharp contrast to the patience, mercy and love which is shown in God’s forgiveness of the people of Nineveh who had sinned so much but had learnt to repent (Jonah 3:10).
In Joel, we see the call of a loving God to a wayward people seduced by sin. God’s appeal in the book of Joel draws attention to the fact that God sees beyond human hypocrisy and dubious religiosity. Thus, God says: Repent sincerely and return to me with fasting and weeping and mourning. Let your broken heart show your sorrow, tearing your clothes is not enough (Joel 2: 12).
3: Prayer and Devotion at Lent
It is rather sad that today Christians have become slack and nonchalant about their personal and community obligations in the Lenten season. The Catholic Church has laid out a series of devotions for this period such as the Stations of the Cross, the recitation of the Rosary, Fasting, and so on. These devotions are not mandatory but they serve to help us along the journey of repentance and renewal. Today, however, so many of us merely gloss past this important and precious period which invites us to deep individual, family and community introspection. The Sacrament of Reconciliation, also referred to as Confession, today suffers the same neglect and should be moved to the front burner by all Catholics. Imagine if we all seriously spared a thought to examine what we have done as individuals to bring Nigeria to where it is today, one way or the other.
When during the celebration of the Eucharist we say, behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world (Jn. 1:29), we are re-affirming our unworthiness. This reflects a custom which Moses enacted on behalf of the people of Israel. On the feast of Atonement each year, the high priest of ancient Israel used to take two goats into the temple in Jerusalem. He would slaughter one for sacrifice and on the other he would confess the sins of the people of Israel and send the goat to the desert with the sins of the people. The people then would go home with the belief that their sins had been taken away when the goat is released and driven into the desert. (This is the origin of the word, scapegoat,the goat has escaped). Atonement was another way of saying at-one-ment, that is, returning to God, believing that forgiveness has now made us one with God. We therefore atone for our sins so we can renew this relationship. This is at the heart of the Lenten season, a period that the Church sets apart for us as Christians to each seek closeness to God.
4: A Nation in Crisis
Today, as we face a set of new trials in our nation, we have lined up all kinds of scapegoats whom we believe are responsible for our woes in Nigeria. We believe that they are the ones who should flee with our sins into the desert so that our country can prosper. Among the scapegoats are the politicians, the security agencies, the civil servants, the Ministers and other public officers. Do we not believe that corruption is what happens when big people steal huge sums of money but not when we cheat the bus conductor by not paying? Have we not come to believe that the only rigged elections are the ones that my candidate did not win?
Today, INEC has become the quintessential scapegoat. We are determined to place all our sins of omission on its head. Yes, we can blame INEC and the Politicians, but it is each and every one of us who will vote and without us there will be no elections. Therefore, it is important that each of us must try to do our duty both to God and country.
Nigerians are approaching the next few weeks amidst fear and anxiety. We can see this from the huge movement of people back to their ancestral homes. The elites who have stolen enough from the country have shipped their families to their second homes in Europe and America. They will come back when the country is good for them to return to their criminal engagement with the state.
5: The Curse of False Prophets
Although most of us have already made up our minds about the elections and whether and how we will vote, what is most frightening is the level of confidence that contestants and supporters have of their victory. We know that after it all someone will win and others will lose, but reactions are more frightening than the results. The false prophets, who have jumped into the ring, offering and seducing unsuspecting political customers with their dubious voodoo prophecies, have not helped matters. Of these prophets, the Lord has said loudly: The prophets are telling lies in my name. I did not send them nor did I give them any orders to speak a word. The visions they talk about have not come from me; their predictions are worthless things that they have imagined (Jer. 14: 14).
The Lord Himself repeats this warning in the same book of Jeremiah when He warned these false prophets further: If they had known my secret thoughts, then they could have proclaimed my message to my people and could have made them give up their evil lives and leave the wicked things they do…How much longer will these prophets mislead my people?….. My message is like a fire and a hammer that breaks rocks in pieces (Jer. 23: 22, 26, 29).
Prophesy is no substitute for diligence, hard work and seeking to do the will of God through prayer. In a convoluted environment such as ours today, where there is no respect for law and due process, dubious prophesy can become the quintessential opium to seduce the unsuspecting and those desperate for power at all costs.
6: Making Nigeria Work: Our Task
Ours is a long road. We must remain appreciative of the fact that the international community has shown such concern and interest in the affairs of our country. It is also gratifying that a culture of Peace Pacts is emerging among politicians across party lines. For us, as men and women of faith, during this Lenten period our main contribution to the task of making Nigeria work should be to turn to God in prayer and supplication while doing our civic duties diligently. No amount of human preparedness can guarantee us the peaceful outcome we are hoping for. Happily for us as Christians, Jesus is the Prince of Peace. This is the time to turn to Him in prayer.
Our fears and anxieties are understandable, but God is able and the history of salvation is the source of our hope. Dubious prophecies seek to distort and destroy the foundations of our faith. Unless we wash our garments free from sin in the waters of honesty and truth, our prayers will be useless before God who knows our intentions. God has always cleared the dark clouds of fear from His people and it is to Him that we now turn as we prepare for these elections.
7: God the Redeemer: Always at Work
It was not the might of the army that led the Israelites through the Red Sea. In faith, Moses simply stretched out his hand and the waters were parted (Ex. 14:21). It was not the guns of the army that caused the walls of Jericho to fall. In faith, the priests simply blew their trumpets (Jos 6:20). Faced with the powerful force from different tribes who had assembled to conquer his kingdom, and realizing his powerlessness, King Jehoshaphat simply said to God: We do not know what to do, but we turn to you for help (2 Chr. 20:12). In faith, the people sang a simple song, Praise the Lord, His love is eternal (2 Chr. 20:21). In the end, they won a war without a fight and in addition, God gave them security on every side (2 Chr. 20: 30).
8: God will Roll the Stone of Fear Away
After the death of Jesus when Mary Magdalene and her friends set out to go and anoint his body, we are told that their fear was, Who will roll the (huge) stone away for us (Mk 16:13). They set out in faith but when they got there they met an empty tomb.
Our God is able and faithful. Let us pray in earnest, especially during this holy period, that God will indeed give us victory. Our sins make us afraid of God’s judgment, but His love is our assurance of His mercy. He has assured us that He does not keep record of our sins, because if he did, indeed, who would survive? (Ps 130: 3). What is more, He has assured us that, As far as the east is from the west, so far does He remove our sins (Ps 103:12). So, while some trust in chariots, we trust in the name of the Lord (Ps. 20:7). That is why we must approach God’s throne of grace with confidence (Heb. 4:16).
9: Prayer is the Key
During the Lenten season, which we enter on Ash Wednesday, please endeavour to attend Mass daily, read the Word of God, recite the Rosary, reflect on the Stations of the Cross, Fast, Pray, and seek God’s gracious blessings for yourself, family, community and our dear country. May the almighty God, creator of Heaven and earth, our hope in ages past, to whom we now turn in supplication, have mercy on our dear country, bless and grant us peace now and for ever. This is God’s moment for our country. It is also our moment of greatness. Let us not squander our destiny. I wish you a blessed and fulfilled Lenten season.