Archive for February, 2007

Entering Lent

During Lent we seek in the desert the questions and answers that have eluded us in all other times and places through the year.  Yet there’s still a natural resistance, a longing to stay where life is comfortable, where we feel at peace and settled.  God entices me with the story of a day at the beach, lest I panic at the first swirls of sand, but sooner or later I find myself in the middle of a howling wasteland. 

God’s call will rarely be convenient or comfortable.  At times it terrifies me with a stark awareness of the risk involved.  But Lent is a time of risk, and each year the risk cuts closer to the bone, closer to the heart.  The cross always involves a choice.  And we come to learn that there’s a grace in making choices and acting on those choices, whatever the cost, wherever they might lead.

At times what seems like a vicious circle is really a spiral toward God.  We circle back to the same issues we’ve dealt with before, but we’re moving forward along a path toward light and healing and wholeness.  We see things a little more clearly.  The  liturgical year reflects our journey in faith, the endless cycle of incarnation, ministry, death, and resurrection.  At each new level we test our strength and try our wings; we  embrace the possibilities and confront the parameters.  We risk death to be reborn at a new level.  Lent gives us the precious time and space we need to reflect deeply on this cycle and to learn from it.  Lent is demanding, but at the same time it offers great comfort in the assurance that we journey together, that we journey in faith, that we journey to God.  The demands of Lend hold out to us the promise that we’re not wandering lost in the desert, alone and confused and deluded. 

Each year in the scriptural cycle has its own integrity.  Luke proclaims the good news that Jesus is the compassion of God.  He tells us that to be a disciple is to discover ourselves in the presence of God and of the other people in our lives.  Matthew tells stories of the covenant, challenging us to tell our own story, reminding us that we can never forget where we’ve been.  John tells of signs and wonders, the glory of the messiah revealed, reminding us that God’s love has been given to us but we have to open our eyes and recognize it.  In Mark’s world, there’s no time for telling stories.  “The time has come and the kingdom of heaven is at hand.  Repent and believe the good news.”  Mark tells one story — the story of the passion and death of Jesus of Nazareth.  The Lenten readings proclaimed during the year of Mark carry a sense of urgency, a challenge to make life and death choices.  This, too, is our story.


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Over and over again we are tempted to take the easy way out—the pleasures of creature comforts, the glamour of power, a healthy cynicism toward promises of goodness and salvation. Is this where our identity lies? If we are to discover our identity as Christians, we must accept the fact that this identity must be sought in the desert.
The Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent recounts the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus receives the title “beloved son” at his baptism. “Filled with the Holy Spirit,” Jesus is led by that same spirit into the desert to embrace that identity.

In the Hebrew tradition, the desert was the great place of testing during the exodus journey. An entire generation of Israelites wandered, rebelled and ultimately perished during the 40-year desert journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The desert was the place where they were formed as the people of God, the chosen ones of the great covenant.

Sometimes we choose to enter into the desert. Many of the fasting traditions associated with Lent are based on this idea. Denying our physical and psychological hungers can reveal a yawning emptiness that we might not know is there. It is when we are most aware of our weaknesses that despair is the most tempting. It is when we are hungry that we think we will do anything for bread.

Other times, we are led into a spiritual desert by circumstances—serious illness, the loss of a job, the death of a loved one—and in that emptiness, too, we can be tempted to despair and hopelessness. We know that the only way out is through and we pray for strength on the journey.

In either case, what makes the biggest difference in the journey is being secure in the name the Lord has spoken in the depths of our hearts. We, too, are called to be sons and daughters of God. Through our baptism and confirmation, we, too, are filled with the Holy Spirit. In the starkness of the desert, we discover the undying love is ours when we’ve given up everything that doesn’t lead us to the Lord.

Only after we have emptied ourselves can the Lord fill us. The way of Jesus of Nazareth leads not only through the desert, but to the cross. Only through death is there life. This is the covenant God has made with his people, a covenant sealed with the love and compassion of his only son. We can’t use our identity as sons and daughters for our own advantage, to satisfy selfish and often secular desires. Neither can we test God in his commitment to us. He has promised us the ultimate gift of life and we have to believe in this promise.

If we accept the covenant, if we are to live this love, then we must also give back to the Lord all the benefits of our healing. When we finally come through the desert, when our lives are fruitful once more, we delight in giving the Lord the best of this abundance as he has so lavishly showered us with his blessings. When Moses speaks to the Israelites, they are ready to enter the Promised Land. He knows that abundance can be more of a temptation than hunger. Like the Israelites, we can never forget that all we have comes from the Lord.

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“This is the fast I wish,” God tells us through Isaiah. And I have to wonder what God thinks about the fast food restaurants “Friday Lent Specials” and All You Can Eat fish fries. And then there’s the old standby of staying up till after midnight to eat a hamburger. Afriend and I often go around and around on whether these “Catholic loopholes” are a good thing for the faith or not. Is it a question of Catholic identity? Or is it a way of observing the letter of the law only?

Consider this situation: A devout woman, involved in her parish, active in liturgical ministries, knowledgeable about church teaching, but raised in a church much stricter about fasting rules than today’s church seems to be, went to the funeral of a lifelong neighbor, at a Lutheran church on a Friday in Lent. She and several other Catholic neighbors were invited to the luncheon afterward, but to their dismay, the main courses were beef and chicken. So, as she described it, they all sat at one table and ate mostly mashed potatoes and vegetables. And she complained afterward about how it hadn’t been much of a lunch. So she and a friend went to one of the parish fish fries that evening and had a nice fish dinner.

I heard this story from her daughter, who questioned whether considerations of hospitality and graciousness may in this case have taken precedence over a strict no-meat-on-Friday rule. To complain about the fare and the sacrifice involved seemed to her to have negated any good that not eating meat may have occasioned.

Like the people of Isaiah’s time, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we need to make sure that our practices and regulations are truly serving God and not just satisfying the legalists among us. Observing the spirit of the law and not just the letter is certainly more difficult and takes a lot more thought and prayerful consideration. But in the end, it’s more than worth the effort.

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Ashes on the hearth

We don’t have much day-to-day contact with ashes these days. Awood stove in the winter, a fireplace, a barbecue grill, an ashtray. None of these is particularly symbolic or even suggestive of anything spiritual. And yet we gather once a year in great numbers to receive a cross of ashes on our foreheads.

In a book on Celtic traditions, much of one chapter involved welcome and protection rituals for home and hearth practiced by the ancient Celts. Fire was seen as carrying the protection and providence of the sun itself, an “indoor sun” as it were. Ashes from the hearth fire were sprinkled at the threshold of the home at certain times of the year as a form of protection for the inhabitants.

Wood ash was used by our pioneer forebears to make soap. The chemical reaction between the tallow and the ash created a harsh but effective soap for skin and clothes, providing much needed cleansing for people who worked hard in difficult and dirty conditions.

In ancient cultures, ashes were used as a sign of mourning, a symbolic acknowledgement that the fires of life had left not only the one who had died but also those who were left to grieve.

And of course the legend of the phoenix, dying in a burst of flame and then rising again reborn from the ashes of its old self has become familiar once again to readers of the Harry Potter books, where Dumbledore’s phoenix Fawlkes plays a significant role.

We stand at the threshold of one of the holiest and most rigorous seasons of our church year. We are signed with the ashes of repentance, of awareness of our limitations, our need for conversion. But they are blessed ashes, holy ashes, and they hold also the promise of cleansing, protection, and most importantly, the promise of resurrection.

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Palms to Ashes

Each year we celebrate Palm Sunday.
We commemorate the triumphant entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.
Our palms on that day suggest our hopes for victory.
We welcome our dream of a messiah.
But the green palms of feverish, excited hopes
can dry and crack in a long year of sorrow and joy.
Perhaps our hopes have been disappointed.
Perhaps we’ve betrayed another’s hope in us.
Or perhaps dreams realized have stirred in us new challenges to grow.

In our ritual burning of last year’s palms,
we acknowledge the death of last year’s hopes and disappointments.
We come forward to receive a cross of ashes,
to remind ourselves to be faithful to God’s challenge
for new hopes, new dreams, new life.

The prophet Isaiah tells us that all flesh is grass,
only God’s word endures.
There is fear in this, but also much hope.
Lent teaches us the valuable lesson
that we need to let go of our past
if we’re going to be free to embrace our future.
But this letting go is never easy, never painless.
It feels like the death it is.

As we begin Lent, we enter into death itself that we might be redeemed.
The cross reminds us that only through death is there life.
The more deeply we witness to the death and resurrection of the Christ,
the more we realize that anything not absorbed into this mystery,
any love that doesn’t embrace the cross,
is dust and ashes.

How quickly fire can consume the things of the earth!
Our lives pass as quickly in the sight of God.
But we do not despair.
For out of the ashes of our lives, we give birth to eternity.
The phoenix, that mythical symbol of resurrection,
is continually reborn out of the ashes of what has gone before.
Whether good or bad,
filled with great joy or great pain,
when yesterday has passed
we know only that we have grown,
that we have changed,
that we have journeyed forward.

Much has happened in this past year.
We need to look deeply into our hearts.
We see darkness that seeks light,
dryness that seeks water.
We see smoldering hopes and dreams,
waiting to burst into flame–
the flame of new life, stirred by the breath of God.

Lent is a time of purification,
a time to prepare for a resurrection of the love of Christ in our lives.

Lent is a time of conversion.
Too often we see conversion only as a turning away from sin.
But conversion is also a turning toward.
We turn to the new and unexpected
that we might be challenged to grow.
We do not wallow in regret for the sins of the past.
Instead, we offer our repentance,
and celebrate the Lord’s forgiveness.

Each year, we listen as the prophet Joel calls us to this season of conversion:
“Even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart,
with fasting, weeping and mourning.
Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn,
and return to the Lord your God.”

We don’t always take time to grieve our losses,
time to mourn what has passed.
Our God calls us to this intense experience,
calls us to the heart of the season.
Again and again our hearts are broken
by life’s great ecstasies and torments,
broken open in love to another’s touch
or broken open by a pain that needs healing.
We need this time of Lent
to find peace within our hearts,
to find wholeness and growth and new life.

A coal left burning untended on a grate
will darken and dull beneath a layer of ashes.
These ashes need to be shaken off,
that the coal might burn red once again.
Lent can shake the ashes from our souls
until we glow with the message of the gospel,
with the passion of Christ.

One of the most difficult struggles we face
is drifting aimlessly through the desert.
Eyes closed to the stinging sand,
the burning light and heat,
mind and heart closed by the mirages of the past,
determined not to be fooled again,
we miss the oases, the watered gardens,
the cool green vision of God’s healing love.
We shuffle, stumble, fall,
and wait for someone to pick us up and dust off the layers of sand.

If we don’t take time to shake off the ashes,
to brush away the sand,
we will find that the dreams and possibilities of our lives have passed us by.
Our passion will be spent,
burnt away without ever having an opportunity
to shine with God’s warmth and splendor.

We welcome Lent as the time and space to renew our souls,
to open our eyes to the gifts of our God.
Paul tells us that God says,
“In an acceptable time I have heard you;
on a day of salvation I have helped you.”
We meet Lent with the bold proclamation:
“Now is the acceptable time! This is the day of salvation.”

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Expect the Unexpected

Has loving our ememies gotten harder since 9/11? It seemed for a time in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the Twin Towers that nearly everyone had a sense of wanting revenge. For many, perhaps most, that was a passing emotion and clearer heads and deeper faith prevailed. But for others, getting even became the new religion and in some cases even part of a somewhat skewed form of Christianity.

Today’s Gospel has always been challenging. I suspect it always will be. Even Jesus points out that loving those who love you is easy enough that even sinners do it. It doesn’t seem to be human nature to love those who wish us ill or actively harm us, and yet history and the nightly news give us examples of people who have been able to do exactly that.
 In our first reading today David has Saul, the king who seeks his life, at a clear disadvantage. While keeping proof that he could have taken the king’s life, David says to Saul, “Today, though the Lord delivered you into my grasp, I would not harm the Lord’s anointed.” This helps to illuminate Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel.

Something we often miss in this teaching is this. Jesus says that if we do these things, “your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” God is merciful to all because all are his creatures. In the same way, we are called to be merciful because we are God’s children and all people belong to God.

People often think of the Old Testament as portraying a harsh and vengeful God, but a rabbinic story tells of the parting of the Red Sea and God standing on the shore weeping “because the Egyptians are my children, too.” Just as children strive to imitate their parents, we are called to know our interconnectedness, to treat all people as our brothers and sisters, children of one God.

And if loving our enemies isn’t enough of a challenge, Jesus also reminds us that doing good needs to have pure motives as well. Perhaps just as hard to overcome is the tendency to do good to those who can return the favor. Completely selfless acts of kindness, like astonishing feats of forgiveness, are not unheard of, but they strike us sometimes as almost superhuman.

In a further twist, Jesus says that if we give without expecting a reward, we will be astonished when we receive a reward beyond our wildest imaginings. If we think we have some sort of cosmic justice system worked out in our souls, Jesus is telling us to let go of that. It’s all about our expectations. If I give something to you and expect you to give something back to me, a subtle element of control enters the transaction. In God’s world, if we give with graceful generosity and no expectations of a return, we will be surprised by the generosity that we in turn receive.

As difficult as today’s Gospel is, we can’t dismiss it as pious words from a goody-goody preacher out of touch with reality. Lukes’ Gospel tells us that Jesus forgave his executioners from the cross. Indeed, his death itself accomplished the forgiveness of a world full of sinners, ourselves not the least. As a result, life eternal was measured back to him—and to us.

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An Upside-down world

Fans of the British comedy troupe Monty Python all know the phrase “Blessed are the cheesemakers,” from their satirical comedy The Life of Brian. Those who have watched the movie more than once also know that the Pharisee figure goes on to point out that surely this refers to all manufacturers of dairy products and otherwise qualifies what Jesus is saying.

Monty Python’s garbled version of the beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount shows in its funny and irreverent way an audience’s ability to hear or mishear what Jesus was saying depending on distance, personal preoccupations and agendas and the normal chaos that always happens in a crowd.

Whether or not this was actually the case with Jesus’ first audience, it certainly happens today when we hear a reading as familiar as the Beatitudes. In fact, we may not even notice at first that this is not the Sermon on the Mount, which we hear in Matthew’s Gospel. Today’s reading is often referred to as the Sermon on the Plain. Scripture scholars and commentators are fond of pointing out that in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is more likely to be mingling with the crowd at their own level instead of handing down a new law in the style of Moses on Mount Sinai

In fact, Luke’s Jesus is here teaching and preaching in the fine tradition of the Hebrew prophets, balancing blessings and curses, beatitudes and woes. In today’s first reading, we hear an example of this from the great prophet of doom and gloom, Jeremiah: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, … Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.” This is the essential message of the Hebrew prophets in its most basic form: Trusting in human strength and alliances will always lead to tragedy; trusting in God will always lead to salvation (though not necessarily worldly success

Reversal is a frequent theme in Luke’s Gospel. In the very first chapter, Mary sings her Magnificat, modeled on Hannah’s prayer from the Old Testament book of Samuel. Both prayers speak not only of God exalting the lowly and humble but also casting down the proud and powerful. This is reflected in today’s Gospel reading as well. The blessings are directed to those who are poor, hungry and weeping. The woes are directed to those who are sleek, full and self-satisfied.

We hear these words through all sorts of filters if we don’t take time to slow down and really listen to what the Gospel writer is saying. We might start to make excuses for why we’re affluent and successful. Or we might offer a somewhat hollow consolation to someone who is mourning a lost loved one, a version of the “pie in the sky by and by” criticism often offered by those who think religious people have their heads in the clouds.

One key, it seems, to both the blessings and the woes, is how faithful we are being to the prophetic word of the Gospels. Those who are denounced on account of the Son of Man share the fate of God’s greatest prophets, but those the world speaks well of are no better than the false prophets catering to kings and rulers. Rather than looking to our worldly goods (or lack thereof) as proof of our favor with God, we need to ask whether we are, like Jesus, Mary and the prophets, hearing and doing the word of God in an upside-down world.

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