3rd Friday in Lent
Hosea is the great prophet of divine love and of human repentance. Both themes are present in the first reading this morning. “Return, O Israel” was addressed initially to the Northern Kingdom, but liturgically it is addressed to the Church in this time of Lent. “You have collapsed through your guilt” – that is the lesson taught by the history of Israel, but in the context of Lent, it is also the lesson of experience. Sin brings ruin for nations and individuals, and we have all known the misery of turning away from God.
What does Hosea mean by returning? He has nothing to say about sacrifices, nor about self-reliant efforts at moral improvement. “Take with you words”, not the blood of bulls and goats. An act of contrition is better than sacrifice. The scribe in the Gospel was right. To love God with all your heart, and “your neighbor as yourself, is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices”.
Then what sort of words should we take with us to return to the Lord? Hosea says to begin with a petition for forgiveness, which implies recognition of our sin: “Say to him, ‘Forgive all iniquity’”. The cry “Forgive all iniquity”, does not specify sins, but lumps together the whole ugly catalogue into one word. The author of the Cloud of Unknowing does the same thing, when he says, “Mean by sin a lump”.
That is because however varied the forms of our transgressions, they are in principle one, and it is best to follow St Benedict’s advice in the Prologue to the Rule: “Catch hold of them and dash them against Christ”. Put them all into one garbage bag, and lay it at the foot of the Cross. We have to confess not only sins, but sin, and taking it away includes divine cleansing from its power, as well as divine forgiveness of its guilt.
But beyond forgiveness and cleansing, someone who loves the Lord with all his heart would ask him to “receive what is good” in heart, which springs up by God’s grace, when the evil has been washed away. Mere negative absence of evil is not all that we should settle for. There should be something good that we can ask the Lord to “receive”.
Then our experience of forgiving and restoring love will bind our hearts more closely to God than anything else could do, so that our old addictions to false reliances and idolatries drop away from us, and we are free to “love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our understanding, with all our strength, and our neighbor or as ourselves”. We are most firmly bound to God, not by whatever we choose to do for Lent, but by our experience of his all-sufficient mercy. Then indeed, we will not be far from the Kingdom of God, for it will be within us.