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Archive for March, 2007

Our journey through the desert becomes one of new birth, the discovery of new life where no life existed before, the hope that comes from putting the past behind us so that we are free to enter into a new life of water and the spirit.

No matter how bleak things may look, the Lord promises that a new beginning is possible. We must remember the covenant and all the things that Lord has done for us in the past, but we must also remember that our relationship with God is dynamic. We must be open to the ever-changing ways of salvation the Lord may have planned for our future.

Isaiah tells the people of Israel: “Remember not the events of the past, / the things of long ago consider not; / see, I am doing something new.” Newness is always both exciting and a bit frightening. Much depends on how invested we are in the status quo.

In the Gospel, Jesus’ opponents base their accusation on the Law of Moses. They have codified the way people relate to each other and the way they relate to God. Misinterpreted and misused, the lifegiving Law had become a limited and limiting desert of impersonal regulations. They don’t see a woman before them, only a broken law.

We are told that Jesus comes to this confrontation after spending the night at the Mount of Olives, perhaps grappling with his own human weakness in the face of his inevitable suffering and death. Out of the most basic core of his humanity, coupled with his identity as God’s son, he suggests a radical new law of compassion.

I like to think that Jesus’ tracing in the sand may have reminded the people of the deserts where they themselves have wandered and strayed from the Lord. The crowd has gathered as a solid group, secure in the rigid institutionalism of their interpretation of the Law. But they drift away one by one as they confront the weaknesses in their own lives from which no institution can protect them. What they miss by leaving Jesus, however, is the forgiveness and compassion he offers to the woman.

Such a radical change compels us to be open to the possibility of new starts, of putting the past behind us and accepting forgiveness for ourselves and others. The woman stays because she knows that Jesus and the refreshing changes he brings are her only hope for something better. She has nothing to lose. Those who left in their guilt, those who believed they had everything to lose, ultimately killed Jesus and rejected his law of compassion. But death could not confine the life force that would make everything new.

Today’s Gospel asks us to choose where we will stand: with the woman, open to the new life Jesus has to offer; or with her accusers, confused and frustrated by Jesus’ openness. The challenge of the Gospel is always to be willing to be open to Jesus as God’s Word.

As we approach the final week of Lent, that spiritual stakes are high. We journey through Lent as a community of faith, but at some point in the journey, we each are called to spend time alone with Jesus, hearing him speak to us the words he spoke to the woman in today’s Gospel: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin anymore.”

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We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” This struck me anew listening to Bono’s acceptance speech at the NAACP awards at the beginning of March. All over the Internet, the response has been one word: Wow!

What he said should not come as news to any of us who read the Scriptures, who follow Jesus, who profess faith in the one God. But the word spoken with power and poetry breaks through what we know or think we know and we feel the truth of it all over again.

This is more powerful than much of what passes for preaching these days and I hear in its cadence the voice of Isaiah, who said, “When you share your bread with the hungry…. Then shall your light break forth like the dawn (58:7). I hear the voice of Amos, who said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24). The prophets remind us again and again that we are responsible for the least ones, the little one, the poor in our midst. This is what Lent is about, this is what our faith is about, and we need to hear the message wherever it’s being proclaimed.

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My friend Carol and her sister used to refer to their cantankerous mother as YM or “your mother.” I thought of this today when I was reading the passage from Exodus (32:7-14) where God and Moses are discussing the Israelites and both refer to them as your people. God wants Moses to take responsibility for the people’s behavior, reminding them of the covenant. Later he offers to do away with this recalcitrant people and make for Moses a new people (presumably better behaved and more faithful). But Moses rightly reminds God that the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob still holds and that ultimately these are God’s people.

Some ties in our lives are too strong to break, no matter how much we might want to. We stretch them, we try to ignore them, but they’re always there. Family ties are a good example. Physically, psychologically and emotionally we are the product of our families of origin. This is always a mixed blessing. Many people are blessed with strong families and deeply loving relationships with their parents, children and siblings. But many of the deepest tensions in our lives can rise out of those same relationships. Interesting, then, that our ties to God and to one another in faith are portrayed within family metaphors. I’ve been particularly struck by this in the Sunday readings this Lent, especially the readings from the Hebrew Scriptures.

On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard the command to the Israelites to begin their annual recitation of their faith story with the words, “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Those words always seem to echo in my head until they sound like “My father was a recovering alcoholic” and I become aware of how my own story can echo in the story of the Scriptures. On the second Sunday, we hear God reminding Abraham of how he was led from the land of Ur, the land of his fathers, to become the father of a new people, a people of God in a new land. And on the third Sunday, Moses is called away from his father-in-law’s flocks to lead the Hebrew people–his own people, though he had been raised as an Egyptian–to freedom. I found myself thinking of the times I’ve moved away from family and friends to follow a career path. One of the things that made that possible was knowing that God would be with me no matter where I was, and that I would find a new parish home.

God works within our lives and within our experiences of family to shape our faith and our experience of covenant. We’re the sum of our genetic makeup, our experience, our choices, but we’re also more than that through God’s grace. In that grace, we find ourselves making choices for the future that can carry us far beyond the limitations of our past.

Lent, I think, calls us to embrace our place in God’s family. We bring our loved ones, our families and friends, with us if they’re willing to come along on the journey. And we find others who share our faith, even if they don’t share our blood. Strong ties, indeed.

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Watching The Colbert Report tonight, I found myself wondering whether other people have noticed the ongoing subtext of Lent and the Americone Dream. And in fact I discovered a nice compendium of accounts of Stephen’s Catholic identity here. And this. I’ve just loved the way he’s so typically understated but determined about it. Periodically over the past few weeks he’s reminded his audience that he has yet to taste his ice cream, counting down the days of Lent. Tonight’s showdown with Willie Nelson ended with a mediated taste test of Willie’s Peach Cobbler ice cream and Stephen’s flavor. Stephen reminded Richard Holbrooke that he’d given up sweets for Lent. We saw Willie tasting the ice cream, but at the end of the day, Stephen held out. The spoon sat in the pint of ice cream with no indication that he’d tasted it. But no comment, either. Wonderfully ambiguous. Let those who have eyes to see….

As commentary, let me offer this: The opening line of the show was “Hey camels, stop showing off and drink something.” There’s such a fine line between endurance and showing off, between setting an example and being self-righteous, between witnessing to one’s faith (and traditions) and beating people over the head. And this small example from the world of comedy and satire shows a really classy way of doing that. People who aren’t Catholic may miss the references or take them as a jab at traditional Lenten practices. He couches it as a a schoolboy statement, naively pious: “I promised Jesus I’d give up sweets for Lent.” But then he leaves it there, he doesn’t go over the top with it. “Moving on….” Fasting, abstinence and other Lenten practices are one of those tricky areas. Ideally they’re a way to grow spiritually. They can become ends in themselves, or they can be a mark of Catholic identity. So much depends on the context. And in this particular case, it’s the Catholic identity that wins out.

As a lifelong Catholic, I find myself particularly delighted by this sort of casual Catholic identity that emerges in popular culture. It always takes me by surprise, especially when it’s just a by the way kind of reference, so embedded in the character or the person that it’s not even explicitly identified. Jennifer Chiaverini’s Elm Creek Quilts novels strike me this way, and several of my favorite mystery writers. Working in the Catholic press, I can get so immersed in the internal and professional world of Catholicism that I forget that there are a lot of ordinary Catholics out there. It keeps me grounded and reminds me that Catholic is also part of who I am, not just what I do for a living.

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Today’s Gospel tells the familiar story of the Prodigal Son. Most of us can identify on some level with this rebellious younger son who loses himself in pleasure and adventure. And we also know what it’s like to come to our senses and realize that somewhere we’ve taken a wrong turn.

Our wandering in the desert exposes all our weaknesses and reduces us to our essential being. When everything has been stripped away, we must discover that we are rooted in God or we will be nothing more than dust—and the things we take pleasure in will one day be nothing more than empty husks.

When we realize that the road we have been following, the life we have been leading, may not be the one that is best for us, we must have the humility to admit that we have strayed, that we have been mistaken, that God knows better than we the life that will lead us to him. We must resolve to say, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.”

The journey back may be long and uncertain, the road may get hot and dry and dusty. The desert sand stings our faces and tastes dry and gritty in our mouths. Nothing is more difficult than admitting that we have failed, that we have sinned. We feel haunted by the past, we rehearse the role that we feel lies ahead, we practice confessing our weaknesses.

Many of the burdens we carry from our past have to do with not being able to forgive ourselves. Until we can do that, we can’t believe that God—or anyone else—is able to forgive us. We cannot stay in the desert forever, wandering in despair. No matter how much we rehearse our role, no matter how willing we are to do penance and suffer and taken on the heavy burden of our guilt, in the end the greatest humility is accepting the role the Lord has written for us.

Our recognition of our sin is the first step, but it can only be redeemed if it turns us toward God. Like the lavishly forgiving father in the Gospel, all that the Lord asks is that we come home.

We discover that the Lord has heard our cry and showed us the way back. We have left Egypt and we’re still wandering in the desert and over long roads. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “It is not enough to leave Egypt; we must also journey toward the Promised Land.” We begin to understand that there’s a destination ahead of us.

We must accept our roles as sons and daughters and not refuse this great gift of love by insisting that we’re only hired hands. This is the mistake the elder son makes. Although he says he’s slaved for his father all his life, like his brother he, too, is a son.

We are all children of the father, we have all sinned, but we are all welcome in our Father’s house. We must live as a forgiving and as a forgiven people. This sounds easy, but in fact it can be quite difficult. This may be why so many of Jesus’ parables talk about forgiveness. The very prayer he taught us has forgiveness at its heart. And the same Gospel writer who tells the story of the Prodigal Son shows Jesus on the cross forgiving the very people who crucified him.

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The cry of God’s people

Moses is fleeing from his past in Egypt when he finds himself not only in the desert but near the mountain of God and there he discovers his future. His flock will no longer be his father-in-law’s sheep but the people of the God of his fathers. He is called from security into the unknown.

Once he encounters the Lord, first curious about the burning bush, then awed by the presence of the Lord, he comes close enough to hear the call and respond, though he knows not where it will lead him.

God tells Moses that he is being sent by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This title summarizes the whole history of the Hebrew covenant to that point. Moses, though raised in the Egyptian court, is one of the chosen people, the people of the covenant. This fact defines who he is and determines his destiny. In the same way, our lives are shaped by the fact that we are baptized into the life of Christ.

Because of the covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the Lord heard the cry of his people, held in bondage and oppressed by the Egyptians. He still hears the cry of his people, held in bondage and oppressed by any of those things that keep us from living freely—fear, addiction, depression, illness, sin.

God wants to reach out but he can only do so through other people—Moses, Jesus, all those who accept the challenge to live the gospel. At times we are the Israelites, languishing in bondage and crying out for deliverance. At other times, we’re the ones called to deliver others from their chains.

We can ask why we have been called, we can ask for proof of the Lord’s integrity, we can find reasons why other people come to bad ends, we can hesitate for a time, but when all the questions have been asked, we are challenged to respond yes or no.

Recall that one of the temptations of the desert is to demand proof of the covenant. When he was tempted in the desert, Jesus responded, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” If we forget everything else in our relationship with God, we need to remember that we are called into an unbreakable covenant with the Divine.

Whatever our destiny, we must respond to the Lord’s call. If we fail to fulfill the task he has created us for, we will be as useless as the fig tree in today’s Gospel. Yet, like the gardener, God is willing to give us a little more time to prove our usefulness.

God will give us more time, but only as long as we are resolved and even eager to change and cultivate our lives. We have to take responsibility for beginning the conversion process. We are fortunate if we have people who both nurture and challenge us.

The journey of Lent can seem like a trackless wasteland at times, but the people of God have always found their most direct encounters with God in those times and places when everything seemed bleak and barren, when all the creature comforts are stripped away. The demand of the desert is to stand before the burning insistence of God and believe that he has heard our cry. In that belief, we will come to the Promised Land.

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Here in the Ohio Valley, spring starts to tease a winter-weary people around the beginning of March–days in the 50s, sunshine, daffodils up a few inches in the garden. We had some days like that last week and then the winds began to blow, the temperatures plummeted into the 20s again and we’re back to winter for a bit longer. I especially notice this seasonal flirting because I grew up in Wisconsin, where there can still be snow on the ground in April. I’m easily seduced by the promise of an early spring. But even though it’s turned cold again, I’ve had a whiff of spring breezes and it strengthens my belief in the inevitable turning of the seasons.

The transfiguration gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent always always seems to hold the same sort of promise. The event gave the disciples a foreshadowing of Jesus’ glorious destiny, even though they were unable to comprehend it fully at the time. For us, this narrative reminds us that the goal of Lent is resurrection and the renewal of our baptismal vows. A penitential season such as Lent can cause us to focus overmuch on the suffering and death of our crucified savior. The transfiguration reminds us that at the end of the suffering is unimaginable life with the resurrected Christ. This is the paradox and the tension that Christians hold as an essential part of our belief: Only through the cross do we find life.

Today’s first reading from Genesis recounts the covenant God made with Abraham. In a ceremony that seems bizarre to us, God and Abraham pass between a series of sacrificial carcasses that have been cut in half. In the symbolism of ancient treaties, they were declaring that the same destruction would happen to them if they broke the covenant. In the context of the Hebrew Scriptures, however, God is reminding Abraham of the promise he has made and will continue to make with his peope: I am your God, who brought you up from Ur of the Chaldeans. I gave you a home and made you my people.

In the Gospel, Peter, James and John awake from sleep to witness the vision of the transfiguration. Like the covenant with Abraham, this one is sealed with an expression of God’s willingness to die to ensure that the covenant does not fail. The presence of Moses and Elijah tells us that Jesus’ new covenant is a fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham, the covenant with Moses at Sinai. Again and again the prophets—Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel— reminded the people to keep faith with this covenant. And now Moses and Elijah are present with Jesus as he prepares for the ultimate exodus in Jerusalem.

The apostles are speechless after this event, perhaps because they still can-not grasp the full implications of this covenant—what it will mean in Jesus’ life and what it will mean in their own lives. Yet they know that it is good that they have witnessed such glorious proof of God’s favor. They have been graced with a vision of the resurrection we profess.

When we are baptized we become sons and daughters of God and anytime we are reminded of this we should shine with renewed and transfigured light. This is what we are called to, and this vision should strengthen our willingness to undergo conversion and reconciliation in our Lenten journey. This Sunday’s Scriptures can give a deeper meaning to our Lenten disciplines. It’s not about what we’re doing for God, it’s about what God has done and is doing for us.

Our covenant with God is so magnificent that it can only be described with images that dazzle our imaginations. When the realization of what God will do for his people dawns on us, we cannot remain asleep, caught in our dim, stumbling routines. Especially for lifelong Christians, it’s easy to become complacent about our spiritual lives.

The Scriptures continually remind us that the glorious vision of life with Christ raises even our ordinary lives to a new level. Our calling is to take some of that glorious light to all those we meet.

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