Join the cast

Anthony Towey

Unusually, this year the entire season of Lent falls within the embrace of a single issue of the Pastoral Review. We can strangely think of it as a fallow time despite it signalling longer days and the dawn of spring in Northern climes. We can also think of it as a solitary time, since it commemorates and commences with the account of Jesus’ time in the desert. Yet even there the Lord has company – some welcome, some less so – a pattern that continues such that the liturgies of Lent profile some of the most vivid encounters in the biblical testimony which I’d like to ponder briefly with the help of a sibling poet.

The all-star cast includes Abraham (second Sunday) who is instructed to do some star-counting before – literally – cutting covenant with the Lord. The firebrand presence of the infinite Lord in the first reading is prelude to the blinding light of the Transfiguration which Peter, James and John struggle to compute and aspire to capture. Lent says we can’t do that to the Living God as Moses realises when he encounters the fire of I AM (third Sunday) which can be paired with the Samaritan woman’s encounter with Jesus. When a fugitive meets the living God in a desert place and a woman of dubious repute meets the Son in a place of refreshment, it seems pretty clear that while we may habitually conceive religion as a series of key performance indicators, Lent teaches that there are no preconditions to mercy. As this excerpt from The Well implies, access is for the awkward.

He wrong-footed me from the beginning.
I stumbled,
Nearly dropped the water jar,
When I saw him.
I’d been daydreaming -
as usual -
imagining a next time,
next man,
who would be
The one.
Really love me,
understand me,
not pretend,
so I wouldn’t have to pretend either.

We are reaching drama overdose with the characters that people Luke 15.11-32 on the fourth Sunday. I well recall introducing it as the Prodigal Son to a class of 13 year old reluctants in Rochdale who eagerly corrected me because their Bibles called it the Lost Son. Trying to buy time – there was an inspector in the room – I asked them why that might be. After a couple of responses citing journeys and so forth, Jade, at the back, right hand corner, raised a hesitant hand: ‘Sir. Is it because he was lost within himself?’ Thunderbolt insight. Lesson over. More recently working with student teachers on the same text, the majority of the class confessed to identifying with the elder brother – ‘I’d be raging’ said one. Good on her. Our tendency to try and resolve parables when they are meant to provoke us is a peculiar habit. Interestingly only three out of sixty identified with the father – they were all parents.

By the fifth Sunday we are invited either to meet the woman caught in adultery or Lazarus. It would be fascinating, of course, to hear these people whose stories scream across the ages despite their silence. Again

In the beginning,
I could not speak;
My throat full of sand and spices.
Since then
I choose not to.
How to live,
In this world
I left behind.
How to live
A new life,
In the old body,
In the old places.
Palm Sunday brings things to first a raucous and then harrowing conclusion. Crowds have their own fickle persona, but then, so do those motivated by money, by fear or too beholden to their institution. Judas’ silver leaves him poor, Peter’s boastfulness becomes betrayal, Pilate’s hand washing leaves his hands dirty. But let’s not be too hasty to judge – for how often does base pragmatism betray our better nature? And while the Triduum and the glories of Easter are for another day, we do well to remember that during Lent, the Church is inviting us to join the cast, encounter Christ, encounter ourselves.

When the only offering
Is the shambling tears
Of blemished motives and emotions,

Longing to be Abel,
But being really Cain.

Will not honesty
Make worthy,
What mercy
Smiles upon?

Excerpts printed here from The Well, Lazarus and Offering are © Tina Towey 2018, 2018 & 2006 respectively. Used with permission.