Sunday, 22 February 2015

First Sunday of Lent

Reflecting on the value of life and human mortality, St Paul wrote to the church in Corinth - 

"We have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us..." (2 Cor 4:7)

It may have been a common figure of speech in his day in which earthenware pots were as ubiquitous a means of storage as plastic tubs are for us. In cultures around the world stories are told and rituals performed in which clay pots containing small things of value are smashed to release and distribute the content as gifts or rewards to participants in a social or religious ceremony. In modern times chocolate Easter eggs filled with sweets, and Christmas crackers are adaptations of the custom for a global consumer market.

In sixteenth century Mexico, Augustinian Friars adopted what may have been a Mayan custom of this kind for catechetical purposes. The custom persists to this day, although in a largely secular way, of making a three dimensional seven pointed star from fireclay or papier-mache, brightly decorating it and filling it with small gifts and sweets. In a game that is played, children are blindfolded and given sticks with which to hit at the star in an effort to break it open and release its contents. This 'earthen vessel' is called a Piñata. It came to Spain and Italy from Mexico and spread across Europe.

Originally the seven points of its star represented the seven deadly sins. Blindfolding the stick wielding child and encouraging them to hit out at the points of the star represented an assault on those sins that are most spiritually harmful. Breaking the points stood for overcoming the sins, a reward was the result. The breakable image doesn't have to be a star. One contemporary Piñata variant is an effigy of a donkey, whose four legs, two ears and nose provide aiming points for attackers.
These Piñata were broken open as part of today's non-religious birthday celebration for my grand daughter. It's an unusual co-incidence, as the Piñata custom in Mexico is associated with the first Sunday in Lent. The Gospel for today takes us into the wilderness with Jesus, tempted by the devil resisting his challenging suggestions through faith in the Word of God, sustained by grace when he is at his most vulnerable. 

In the face of all in life that stimulates, excites or threatens us, unleashing appetites and desires or exposing our anger and aggression, right relationship with God enables us to get a bigger perspective on life and a different sense of self worth. Without such a higher awareness we are at the mercy of impulses we do not understand and can barely control. It is impossible not to go through life without being tested by circumstances and relationships that reveal our weakness and ignorance. We may learn from our failures, or ignore them and repeat them. The excellent power of God's love is seen in his patience and compassion towards us, and his mercy is expressed in the forgiveness and healing that is freely on offer to all, whether we think we deserve such kind attention or not.

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