Journeying to find a new spring
March 23rd, 2011
By Bishop William J. Justice
Auxiliary Bishop William J. Justice delivered this homily March 12 at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Mass at St. Patrick Church in San Francisco:
What is in a name? Just look into the face of a young person who says, “Hi! Remember me? Remember my name? You confirmed me last year!” Of the hundreds of persons I am confirming, it’s not easy for me to remember each individual by name — as much as I’d like to! That young person’s question probably comes from the idea that to know his or her name was to know the person’s unique value. He or she hoped I recognized that value.
We have just begun the season of Lent in our Western Christian churches, a precious time of preparation for Easter. What is interesting is that the names we use in English to describe this season — Lent and Easter — help us to know a particular value concerning this time. It is a value not as clearly emphasized in the names used for this season in other languages.
In most European languages and languages that borrow European words, this season is expressed in some form of Cuaresma and Pascua. Cuaresma means 40 days as in Jesus’ time of temptation in the desert; Pascua means the death and Resurrection of the Lord.
In English, however, our words Lent and Easter put a slightly different slant on the meaning of this season.
Lent comes from the Anglo-Saxon word to lengthen, as daylight lengthens from the darkness of winter. Easter comes from the name of the Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring.
So, in the English language, this new season has a name that recalls to us not so much 40 days in the desert but a journey, a time of moving from darkness to sunlight. This in turn calls us as Christians to remember that life itself is like that journey.
This journey challenges us to look at where there is darkness in our souls, where there is the isolation of despair, anger, selfishness, and to journey by means of prayer, works of charity and fasting toward the increasing light and warmth of the sun, the blossoming trees, the new lambs in the flocks, to spring, the resurrecting earth and the Lord Jesus’ Resurrection on that Sunday morning after his death on the cross for the salvation of us all.
It is a journey that arrives at Easter to invite us to renew our baptismal commitments to living in the risen life of Christ and caring for one another as members of the one Lord Jesus, our Lord and Savior.
This is what is in a name: Lent leads to Easter on a challenging journey from the “…winter of our discontent …” to the great joy of the new life of spring.
For we Irish, both Emerald Isle-born, and of Irish descent, the idea of a journey that leads from the dark and windy slopes of Donegal, the tropical shores of Bantry Bay, Antrim and Cork to hope in Boston, New York, Helena, Chicago and San Francisco is not far-fetched.
My maternal grandparents were married in Bessbrook, County Armagh, in 1902. My grandmother sailed from Ireland on her honeymoon – alone because they did not have the money for the passage of both of them – to Boston where relatives who had journeyed there before got her a job as a domestic. Two years later she had earned enough money to buy a ticket for the passage of her husband, John, to Boston. They began their family of six children.
The journey continued as a son, James, became an assistant to the governor of Massachusetts, and later a judge; one of his sons, Thomas, was elected to the lower house of the legislature in Massachusetts, married a Rockefeller and is now a fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. A cousin of his became one of the two highest-ranking civil servant lawyers in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and another cousin is speaking to you now.
This is like the Lenten journey: from the darkness of poverty and racial, religious and economic prejudice to the family blossoming with Irish strength and courage into the joy of new life and freedom-loving new generations. It was a long Lent but the springtime of Easter arrived.
The problem with the journey from the darkness to the springtime of Easter is that just when one spring has sprung, the cruelest things can happen. A storm can come in from the Atlantic and bang against the Aran Islands, hit the Cliffs of Moher and roar over the Dingle Peninsula and announce spring has not yet arrived. The journey has still miles (kilometers) to go.
Sadly, that has happened to generations of Irish, and now just when it seemed, after centuries of youth leaving Ireland to be able to make a living, that the Celtic Tiger was bringing a wave of sunlit prosperity, it collapsed. The darkness returned (and the scandals in the church added to the gloom).
The journey has once again begun. The fullness of spring for many of the young Irish cannot be seen at home. The journey has begun again to find spring — Resurrection Easter — abroad, to follow the paths of generations before.
And here is the challenge for us. When we received the ashes on Ash Wednesday, we proclaimed we would walk the journey from the darkness of winter to the brighter and brighter days of spring so as to arrive at Easter, the death and Resurrection of our Lord Jesus, our Savior.
So now we are called to trust our journey, first of faith in the Lord Jesus who is always with us leading us to the springtime of hope in Easter, and second that in that trust of Easter we must welcome and help the new Irish journeyers to our shores
We who have trusted in the goodness of the Lord are challenged at this season to ask how we can help our cousins, friends, fellow Irish, children of our ancestors to continue their journey to spring, here among us. We are challenged to share our joy with those who have survived the latest false spring in the Isle of Saints and now are journeying to find a new spring.
We are challenged to go back to our own roots and remember what St. Patrick brought us: in the journey of the Lord, winter gives way to spring and Easter. Joy is just around that green hill and lovely valley. “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be at your backs (the wind of God’s courage-giving Spirit) and may God hold you in the palm of his hand.”
It’s a challenging but a fine season. The Luck of the Irish. The journey of Lent to Easter. What’s in a Name? Hope. Everything.