My dear people of God, in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, I welcome you to the month of February dedicated to the Holy Family stemming from the feast of the Presentation, celebrated on the 2nd day of the month. Between the events which marked Christmas and the beginning of Christ’s public life, the Church has seen fit to recall the example of the Holy Family for emulation by the Christian family.
The Feast of the Presentation or Candlemas forms a fitting transition from Christmas to Easter. The small Christ-Child is still in His Mother’s arms, but already she is offering Him in sacrifice (cf. Luke 2:22-40). The feast of the Presentation of the Lord on February 2nd harkens back to the Christmas mystery of Light except that now, Christ, the helpless babe, is “the Light of Revelation to the Gentiles who will save his people from their sins.” Candles, symbolizing Christ our Light, will be carried in procession this day, as will be the Paschal candle during the Easter Vigil Liturgy.
Mary and Joseph desire to unite their new-born child with the divine Presence dwelling in the Temple – the privileged place of encounter with God. By that Presentation, Jesus is shown to be the firstborn Son who belongs to the Lord. This revelation transforms the way that we belong to God; from ordinary to special. Christ’s visits to the Temple later in life represented his Presentation by intensifying this infant encounter with his Father. Ultimately, Christ identifies himself with the Temple: He is God’s dwelling place among people. As today Mary carries her baby to the Temple, she is leading Jesus and us to our own true self.
In fulfilling the Law (Lev 12:1-5; Lk 2:22-40) Joseph and Mary presented Jesus in the temple where they met Simeon and Anna. Both of them received a revelation from God concerning Jesus and they witnessed to His identity as the Messiah in order to give a new sanctity to human existence. The Vatican II Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gadium et Spes, no. 22) explains, “By his Incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every human person. He worked with human hands, thought with a human mind, acted by human choice, and loved with a human heart. Born of the Virgin Mary, he has truly been made one of us, like us in all things except sin… He showed us the way, and if we follow it, life and death are made holy and take on a new meaning.”
We apply this truth of the Incarnation when, with the mind of God, we honour family life, and when we respect, defend, and foster human life in all its forms from conception to death. Human life is holy because it is the creation of God, but it has taken on a deeper sacredness because Jesus Christ lived our human life. With King Herod’s envy of Jesus’ kingship, he ordered the killing of the little children. It is much worse today that government leaders make laws that the unborn children be exterminated daily by abortion, an act which the Second Vatican Council in the same Constitution branded as “an unspeakable crime” (no. 51). The Council acting on this problem teaches that “God, the Lord of life, has conferred on the human race the surpassing ministry of safeguarding life, and so from the moment of conception life must be guarded with the greatest care” (51). It is crucial to create laws that will safeguard human life before birth beginning at conception for the same reason that we have laws to safeguard human life after birth. We must embrace an ethic which not only abhors abortion but which also rejects any violation of human dignity at any age and in any circumstance.
Blessed Mother Teresa reminded us, “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love but to use any violence to get what it wants.” Thus Pope Francis challenges us, “Defend the unborn against abortion even if they persecute you, calumniate you, set traps for you, to take you to court or kill you…. No child should be deprived of the right to be born, the right to be fed, the right to go to school.” What concrete actions must I do to witness our Lord Jesus today?
This year the first 25 days of February fall during the liturgical season known as Ordinary Time which is represented by the liturgical colour green. Green, the symbol of hope, is the colour of the sprouting seed and arouses in the faithful the hope of reaping the eternal harvest of heaven, especially the hope of a glorious resurrection. The remaining days of February are the beginning of Lent. The liturgical colour changes to purple – a symbol of penance, mortification and the sorrow of a contrite heart.
In accordance with Christian scriptural and patristic tradition, fasting finds its origin in the divine commandment given in paradise (Gen 2.16-17; St. Basil, On Fasting 1.3; PG 31.168A), where man is invited to honour his relationship with God by obedience. One sees God thereby as the benevolent Source of all goodness (Mt 4.4) and humanity as the beneficiary of His benevolence. While typically referenced within the context of partial or complete abstinence from food and drink, its interior principle focuses on a dynamic interface between harnessing instinctive behaviour and living the precepts of the Gospel. In other words, fasting seeks to assist us in reprioritizing our allegiance from an addictive dependence upon worldly goods to an intimate relationship with God and neighbour.
Fasting as one of the basic requirements of Lent (with prayer and almsgiving as the other) is always understood as a means, an instrument for strengthening the soul and body, never as an end in itself. It centres primarily on the conformity of our will with God’s purpose. This internal transformation begins with the eradication of sin in order for us to see clearly the state of our relationship with God, our fellow human beings and ourselves. It leads to repentance, empowering us to extend ourselves through merciful and loving service to others as a positive affirmation of virtue. Fasting should not be practiced in isolation nor perceived as a burdensome activity. On the contrary, it contributes joyously to the reprioritization of spiritual goals by interacting dynamically through intense prayer, personal reflection, almsgiving, and immersion in the Church’s sacramental life.
We fast individually for our own spiritual benefit as a means of expressing repentance and fulfilling a pledge of obedience to God. Yet, we also fast as a Church, containing within ourselves prayerfully and compassionately awareness of our common humanity with its brokenness and hopefulness. In imitation of the example set by Christ in the desert (Mt 4.1-2), we are likewise called by the Spirit to prepare ourselves through fasting and prayer for a life dedicated to the spiritual work of charity toward others. However, Fasting must not be seen simply as an ascetical discipline observed periodically during the ecclesiastical year, but as an expression of authentic Christian living to be observed regularly. In this sense, it rewards those who fast joyfully, as well as the world for which they fast and pray fervently. But during this period of Lent, it becomes an obligation for us in a bid to draw closer to God and our neighbours by reaching out more to them.
My dear people of God, I commend you all to the patronage of the Holy Family; and pray that God the almighty Father would strengthen you all during this month especially as we begin this important period of Lent. May we all reap the favours and the blessings of this period.
† Alfred Adewale Martins
Archbishop of Lagos
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