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Archive for the ‘Lent’ Category

The next week marks the high point of our Church year. The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “There is no sun without shadow. It is essential that we know the night.” Christians know that there can be no resurrection without the cross.

We hear two different versions of Jesus’ Passion this week. On Palm Sunday we hear Matthew’s account, sprinkled with references to the Old Testament and the way that Jesus fulfilled the words of the great Hebrew prophets. On Good Friday, we hear the Passion according to John, the same story but told from the other side of the resurrection, when there’s no doubt about the outcome, no question of who is in control of everything that takes place. It reminds us that faith is often a question of perspective. God’s truth shows itself in our lives in different ways.

It’s not quite 40 days since we were signed with the ashes of last year’s palms, praying that this time we wouldn’t run from the cross. The cross is before us now with its wordless challenge to love beyond death.

We gather at church on Palm Sunday and wave our palm fronds in the entrance procession. During the reading of the passion, we may take the parts of the crowd, shouting almost in spite of ourselves, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”

We might think this is merely a bit of liturgical playacting. It may be that we come to church because it’s what we’ve always done or because someone is telling us that we have to. We may not give much thought to why we gather here for these holy days.

Like the Jewish celebration of Passover, which not only remembers the historical event that changed forever their lives at the chosen people of God but makes that saving event a reality in the lives of those who celebrate it down through time, the events of Holy Week are far more than a dramatization of the last days of Jesus’ life. We enter into the saving mysteries of the passion, death and resurrection. Jesus’ gift of his Body and Blood at the Last Supper takes place each and every time we celebrate the Eucharist.

Our actions here at Mass may give us a deeper insight into our relationship with God. How often do we turn on God when things don’t go the way we had so carefully planned? How often do we stand waiting for a glorious celebration of victory, only to find ourselves staring in confusion at a cross? The palm branches drop from our hands and we raise our firsts to heaven, hoping to hide deep disappointment in self-righteous defiance.

A long-standing tradition among Catholics has been to braid palms into crosses. There are many different methods for doing this. I was surprised to find a variety of patterns and instructions on the internet. Crosses take many different shapes. Whether or not you take part in this folk tradition, it’s a metaphor of the way this day begins with a palm and ends with a cross.

Take some time this week to think about events in your own life that have given you an experience of Jesus’ command to pick up your cross and follow him. You might find that something you always wanted has turned to bitter disappointment. See beyond that disappointment to the God who is in control even in the blackness of death.

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For much of our lives we wander in a hazy routine of daily tasks and comfortable relationships. But when tragedy breaks into our lives, even the most orderly among us can’t prevail against its chaos. We see this in the reaction of Martha, so familiar as the woman too busy with her domestic tasks to listen to Jesus teaching. She meets Jesus alone on the road, her household chores forgotten, and simply says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would never have died.”

She challenges him out of her pain. Intense grief calls forth the deepest questions of our faith. Instead of closing herself off and becoming bitter, Martha allows her pain to open her to Jesus’ challenge to believe. In turn, strengthened by this risk, Jesus accepts her challenge.

Mary, too, can be present to Jesus only in the depths of her grief and suffering. Gone is the time of leisure when she would sit quietly at his feet while he talked of the kingdom. Mary challenges him with the wordless power of her tears and stirs him to compassion. This, perhaps more than anything else, reveals the source of his power and strength.

The love poured out in this scene at Bethany will be exceeded only in the love poured out in the blood from the cross. Only great love can challenge the darkness of death itself.

Like Mary and Martha, we have to be able to see through and beyond the intensity of our pain, challenging even God himself with utter belief in his statement, “I have promised and I will do it.” Like Jesus we have to use all the strength that compassionate love gives us to call those around us to a newer and fuller life. But perhaps most of all, like Lazarus, we ourselves need to be challenged to rise from our sleep of routine and complacency.

Death always startles us with its suddenness, its finality. Even when a loved one has been sick for a long time and death comes as a release and relief for both the one suffering and those left behind, the initial reaction is one of shock and dismay. In cases of sudden, tragic, accidental death, this reaction is magnified. We who believe in the resurrection are no less likely to experience this very human reaction. We resonate with Mary’s response to Jesus about her belief in the resurrection at the end of time. Our minds and our faith tell us one thing, our hearts and our bodies often balk at the appearance of separation and loss that for a time is all too real and unavoidable.

Like so much of our spiritual lives, we have to learn to live with this paradox. We see it differently at different times in our life. When we’re young, death is an infrequent and scary interruption of life. When we’re old, we sometimes feel like we’ve seen too much death over the course of a long life and it seem almost unbearable in its familiarity.

We might envy Mary and Martha in their experience of their brother being restored to life. The Gospels don’t tell us what happened afterward, because the far greater event of Jesus’ resurrection now takes center stage. And there’s no more need for envy, because what Jesus experienced, we will all experience. This is the promise that’s at the heart of our faith. It’s what allows us to celebrate our loved ones even in their passing, because we know that life, not death, is the final reality.

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Today is the middle of three Sundays that explore the great metaphors of water, light and life, all key images for the baptismal promises we celebrate at Easter. In today’s Gospel, John tells the story of the man born blind and what happens when he encounters the Light of the world in the person of Jesus.

It’s no coincidence that so many of the miracles in the Gospels involve healing someone suffering from blindness. Sight is a common metaphor for faith. So much depends on our ability to see. Our Scripture readings today are filled with people who are blind and yet see, who claim to see and yet are blind, who could see but choose to keep their eyes closed.

At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus sees the simple reality of a man blind from birth. Because blindness and other physical sufferings were considered symptoms of sin, his disciples immediately question him about the moral implications. They see only an abstract theological debate. Jesus sees someone suffering, someone in need of healing compassion. As the light of the world, he was sent to give vision to all who want to see. The message should be as straightforward as the healing itself. The man who was healed states it so simply: “I was blind. Now I can see. He is a prophet.”

How frustrating and lonely it must have been for the man whose sight was restored to give his testimony so clearly, to see the truth at last, only to be met with the unseeing stares of those blinded by the fear of lost power and authority. Even his own parents had learned the cynical lesson that sometimes it’s easier not to look, or if you must look, not to see. They couldn’t deny that their son’s sight had been restored, but to see beyond that to the implications of Jesus’ identity would be to commit themselves to something with unknown and possibly terrifying consequences.

We’ve probably found ourselves on both sides of this story. How often have you been in a conversation with someone and said, “Can’t you see what I’m saying?” Sadly, too often they can’t. We wonder how they can be blind to something that we see so clearly and believe so passionately. But we’ve also closed our eyes to sad realities in our world. We prefer darkness to light, comfort to confrontation. In both cases, it takes the healing touch of the Lord to open our eyes and heal our hearts.

The Gospel shows us what happened to the blind man as he recognized Jesus as a prophet. He’s willing take chances, he’s willing to believe his own eyes, newly opened though they are. We’re left to imagine whether the Pharisees and even the man’s own parents ever came to see the truth.

Just as spiritual blindness can be far more devastating than the loss of physical sight, so having our vision of God’s grace restored can bring healing far beyond the physical. We see hope where once we knew only despair, and more than that we see new ways to communicate that hope to others. We see light instead of darkness, and in that light we discover a side of ourselves that we thought we had lost. We look with new eyes on the people around us and see how they, too, are children of God.

Being open to possibilities is part of the experience of Lent and Easter. Seeing a path where once there was only confusion and chaos, understanding a truth that once seemed complex and incomprehensible, recognizing that not having all the answers can open us to the mystery of God’s grace. Sometimes all it takes is opening our eyes.

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Lent calls us to step aside from our ordinary routines, to spend time listening to God, to believe that we can tell our stories in a new way. The word of God challenges us to explore the story of our faith once more and discover for ourselves that Jesus really is “the savior of the world”—and what this means in our own lives. We come to believe not because others have told us we must, but because our own hearts tell us we must. The Samaritan woman has known pain and disappointment and the restless search for a life of happiness and meaning. She has known the deadening routine of coming each day to the same well for water that will enable her to live just one more day. She thinks sometimes that there must be more to life, if only someone would tell her a new story. But she has heard so many stories and always they end the same way. We, too, thirst for something real, something genuine, something that will refresh us. But in our desperation we often settle for far less than we feel we deserve, because the life we know demands less of us than the life we dream.

She wants to believe, but she fears yet another disappointment, so this time she wants to be sure. Her opening challenge is filled with suspicion and mistrust. Belief always makes vulnerable lives that are accustomed to strong defenses. And the brutal reality is that at times belief will be disappointed, trust will be betrayed. But Jesus challenges the woman to believe once more, to risk one more time, to give new life one more chance. He challenges her to tell her story, to listen to the story he has to tell, to believe that this time it can be different.

The Lord is never surprised by our restlessness, our disappointment, our fearful, hurting challenges. Just as God calmed Moses’ ruffled authority and gave the people water from the rock, Jesus responds to the woman at the well with challenges of his own that promise life and refreshment. Deeper and deeper they reach into the well of self, of faith, of trust, where the living and life-giving water is to be found. Together Jesus and the woman explore the stories of needs and wounds and beliefs.

We might be surprised by this woman’s questions about the right place to worship God. This was a big issue for the people of Jesus’ day. Many of our friends and family members have questions about religion. We might have questions ourselves. Jesus listens and responds with an openness to truth that we would do well to remember in the midst of heated discussions. The Gospels remind us again and again that often God’s truth is bigger than the little rules that we find so reassuring, those things that tell us that ours is the only way.

Today’s Gospel reminds us that at the center of our faith is what has often been called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.” We are the stories of our past—stories we tell, stories other people tell about us—but we can become the stories God tells for our future. This is the message of the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. This is what we do when we read Scripture, when we gather with others to talk about the Scriptures. We immerse ourselves in the big story, in God’s story, and then we see where the stories of our own lives reflect a piece of that story. And in that intersection, we find the living water of faith.

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The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in his Letters to a Young Poet, “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and…try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

Jesus, though divine, was born into a fallen human world and had lived a life of questioning and being questioned from the moment of his conception. His mother asked the angel, “How can this be?” As Jesus grew, he questioned the elders in the temple, he questioned his parents and they questioned him. John the Baptist questioned Jesus when he came to him for baptism. So it was probably no surprise that after forty days in the desert, he would be questioned once more.

Surely Satan’s questions were no more challenging than the questions he had been asking himself about his ministry, his mission, his message. The questions of the desert would prepare him for a public life of questioning in the marketplace, in the temple and finally on the cross. Jesus is able to respond to the questions of the Tempter because he knows the genuine love of God supported by a faith made strong in suffering, in need and in questioning.

Like Jesus, we must live both the struggle of the questions and the faith of the answers. Our temptations aren’t likely to come to us from a mysterious figure in a deserted place. But often they revolve around the same basic human drives: hunger, emotional security, safety, status, ambition.

Some lie awake too many nights wondering if they’ve made the right choices for their lives, their careers. Others question whether a successful position with a company engaged in questionable ethical practices is a compromise they’re willing to make. Many people fight against the demon of self-doubt and insecurity, afraid they don’t deserve more than the bad hand they’ve been dealt in life.

Sometimes the questions themselves are coming from God, asking us to make life-giving changes in our lives. It’s the easy answers that are the temptation, the decisions that seem to bring happiness and success but are really driving us further away from our center. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, if we reach for the first thing that promises us health and wealth, we might be in bigger trouble than we imagined.

The responses Jesus gives to his tempter are deeply rooted in the words of Scripture. He’s not rattling off memorized verses. He’s speaking out of a lived awareness of the power of the word of God.

Lent is the perfect time to deepen our own immersion in Scripture. The story of God’s undying care for the people he has chosen as his own can mirror the stories of our own lives. The Psalms are a good place to begin. Let the words wash over you. Let them speak to the situations and emotions of your daily life. The words of the Gospels challenge us to a life of Christ-like compassion. The prophets of the Old Testament remind us to put God first before anything else.

The Word has its own power to move us and inspire us and to remind us of God’s presence. It is this power that is, in the end, the answer.

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Lent, perhaps more than any other season, gives us permission to focus on our spiritual lives, to take time apart from the everyday demands to listen to what God might be asking of us. Today’s Scripture readings can seem beyond us, describing those events that we might label “Significant Religious Experiences,” things that happen to saints and holy people.

Indeed, for Peter, James and John, it must have been unimaginably startling to experience the transfiguration. Suddenly the itinerant preacher and miracle-worker whom they had been following around Palestine was so very much more. But even that was nothing compared to the resurrection they would experience a short time later.

The transfiguration was an extraordinary moment even in the midst of Jesus’ extraordinary ministry of preaching and healing. We know that such moments don’t happen all the time or even very often. But we also know that when they do, they change everything we know about reality.

Many of the saints have indeed had such moments in their lives. Nearly everyone has heard the story of Mother Teresa on a train journey and hearing God call her to go to India and minister to the dying there. But many ordinary people have had similar experiences in their own lives, perhaps not as dramatic, but equally life-changing. Sometimes the only difference is that the saints have developed an awareness of God’s presence. They’re more readily attuned to the deeper significance of the things that happen to them.

The transfiguration reminds us that Lent is a time of purification, a time of going beyond our limitations. Even during Lent we know that the blessing of Easter is ours in Jesus Christ. But we only arrive at the fullness of the resurrection through the passion of the cross. As we share the vision of the apostles, we also know what happened after it. And we also know that it will happen in our own lives.

We need to let our experience of God transform us into something we never dreamed we could be. For some of us this is a startling notion. We think of our faith as something to tuck away in the Sunday corner of our life. When we think about the changes that Lent can bring, we’re more likely to think about quitting smoking, losing a few pounds, maybe giving some money to a good cause.

It would never occur to us that God might say, as he did to Abram, “Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk to a land that I will show you.” But sometimes God does exactly that. A job opportunity takes us someplace we never imagined we would be, and our experiences there change us immeasurably. Or we meet someone who brings us to a completely new awareness of the power of faith in our everyday activities.

We don’t go looking for extraordinary, mountaintop experiences. Those who do often delude themselves with vision of grandeur and fame rather than a life of deep faith. God breaks into our lives in both familiar and unexpected ways. He constantly challenges us to go beyond, to be transfigured. The dynamic, ever-changing pattern of bright sunshine and dark cloud can be startling and even terrifying. But in the midst of it comes reassurance. We hear an extraordinary challenge, but we also hear, “Be not afraid.” The faith that we cultivate day by day flowers into brilliance in the presence of God’s grace.

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People often talk about the 21st century, particularly in America, as a time when capitalism, consumerism and advertising have run amok. And while they’re not wrong, it’s somewhat encouraging to discover that as it is now, so it has always been. It’s a difference in degree, not in kind, and it has its roots in the human tendency to focus more on individual needs and wants than on the common good. The source of this misdirection seems to lie in our forgetting that everything we have comes from a gracious God. When we believe that our riches lie in our own efforts, we lose the ground of our being.We worship the golden idol of our possessions, or we gnash our teeth over the possessions of others.

Today’s Gospel begins with a man asking Jesus to mediate between him and his brother over a family inheritance. And Jesus’ pointed comment goes to the heart of the issue: “one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Jesus directs his parable at those who “store up treasure for themselves but are not rich in what matters to God.” And the preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds his listeners that striving and anxiety lead only to emptiness. The antidote? Remembering that it is God who “prospers the work of our hands,” (Psalm 90). And Jesus’ concern in the Gospel is that two brothers are feuding over an inheritance when they should be at peace with one another.

Our Scriptures call us back to our center, to the life-giving word of God that reminds us again and again that what matters is the we belong to God, not that we have a lot of stuff that belongs to us. We find our identity in our baptismal promises, not in our credit cards and bank accounts. When we are in right relationship with God, we will have the inner peace and security that makes reaching out to others a natural response to God’s gracious gifts.

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