Today the United Kingdom opened a new chapter in its long history in the midst of widespread uncertainty, apprehension, and sporadic jubilation. Prime Minister Theresa May formally inaugurated the process of withdrawal from the European Union – the news of the day. For the time being, the political antics of Donald J. Trump have been swept from the daily news reports.
It was a day few actually anticipated outside the now-faltering Ukip party, a political faction resembling the US Tea Party – nationalistic, populist, and based on an antipathy toward “foreigners,” whether refugees, immigrants, or simply people somehow not British enough.
Called in a moment of political miscalculation by former prime minister David Cameron to preserve the support of the far right wing of the Conservative Party, the referendum of last June delivered a shocking result, surprising even to many who voted in favor of the “Brexit.” The “yes” vote prevailed by a slender margin – 52 to 48 percent, hardly a landslide, but accepted as decisive despite significant opposition in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Other member EU states have expressed regret and even dread, perhaps none so much as Ireland, although similar movements have surfaced in Greece, Italy, and Spain – countries at the lower end of the economic pyramid but which have in many instances benefited greatly by bank bailouts and infusions of credit in the wake of the Great Recession of 2008. Ireland, which has much more to lose than other EU countries because of its close economic and political ties with the UK, largely opposed Brexit, not least because Ireland is the only EU state with a land border with the UK, one having a long and tragically bloody history. No one wants to see a return to a “hard border” with the watch towers, armed guards, and barbed wire of “the Troubles.” Theresa May and Ireland’s Enda Kenny have pledged that there will be no return to that distressful situation. Whether they can deliver on the promise is another matter. If they can’t, the social and economic fallout will be disastrous.
The creation of the European Union sixty years ago this week was undeniably one of the greatest achievements of the post-World War II era, second only to the creation of the United Nations. Sacrificing the promise of a truly unified Europe on the altar of political expedience by a weakened political party desperate to hold on to power could well be the greatest catastrophe of the present century. Time, as the adage goes, will tell. The capacity for catastrophe seems inexhaustible. Let it be said that optimism is currently in short supply.
European unity will undoubtedly survive in some form without Britain, but it will be a diminished union. Whether or not Brexit proves to be a disaster or merely a setback, there is now no turning back.
In the midst of the strange chaos and confusion of these times, so often marked now with random acts of violence, we find ourselves at this point in our Lenten journey puzzling over promise, preparation, and fulfillment. It is fitting. What we hear in the Word of God is that the promise made to Abraham over a thousand years before, after he led his family from Chaldea, the southern part of what we call Iraq, finally came to pass in a wholly unexpected way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The chosen disciples were being prepared. So far, so good. But what has it all to do with Lent today?
As we grieve and wonder at the social turbulence and violence of the last several weeks, what strikes me about the gospel reading, is how exactly it affirms that it will be the suffering and death of Jesus that robs death of its power and brings life and immortality into the clear light of glory. The opening words of our reading from Second Letter to Timothy says as much, a line so easily lost in the glory of what follows: “Bear your share of the hardship which the gospel entails.”
In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, which are echoed in the Preface of the Eucharistic canon today, Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah: “For it was fitting that [God], for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons and daughters to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering [Heb 2:10].”
And that is “it,” I think — the revelation that makes sense out of the suffering of the innocent anywhere, whose struggle is necessarily and inevitably linked to that of Jesus. By following Christ, taking up our cross daily, we are drawn ever more closely into his Passover, his departure into glory, even if, like him, we enter it fully only beyond the final curtain of this life. That is what we hear in that mysterious preface for this Sunday, so listen for it:
“On your holy mountain he revealed himself in glory in the presence of his disciples. He had already prepared them for his approaching death. He wanted to teach them through the Law and the Prophets that the promised Christ had first to suffer and so come to the glory of his resurrection.”
The gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all relate the story of the Transfiguration, and the Church dutifully recalls each of them year by year on the second Sunday of Lent. The scene has no parallels elsewhere in the Bible, by the way, much less any of the pagan literature of the time. But only Luke’s account, which we heard last year, makes clear the connection with the passion and resurrection — Jesus’ Passover [Luke 9:31], for that is what Moses and Elijah were discussing with him. But in all three accounts, the disciples don’t get it — not until after the Resurrection will the meaning of this event become clear to them.
All the accounts agree, Peter proposes erecting three tents or “tabernacles,” a suggestion that seems strange except for the fact that the Church celebrates the Feast of the Transfiguration in August, close to the Feast of Succoth or Tabernacles, the festival of the fruit harvest. The connection is important, because the principal offering at this feast was a basket of harvest fruits accompanied by the recitation of the great acts by which God delivered the Hebrews from captivity and their entry into the land of Promise. The Book of Leviticus prescribes erecting huts or booths made of leafy branches as a reminder of the desert journey of the Hebrews. Many Jews still do this.
But even this Passover theme, and the fulfillment of promise that it commemorates, falls short of the truth revealed on that mountain. And here is where the clue is so important. If Jesus had to enter his glory through suffering, the Passover or departure spoken of by Moses and Elijah, can we who profess to follow him expect a lesser, easier path?
Finding the right path is what Lent is about. In today’s gospel, the tedium of trekking through a dark wasteland of testing and trial is broken by a shaft of radiance that leaps ahead from the Resurrection. For a brief moment, we see divine light shining through and around Jesus standing between those other two wayfarers, Moses and Elijah, who were also holy mountain climbers, and there comes a voice — or was it thunder? Like Peter, James, and John, we hardly know what to make of all this. But there it is.
Whatever happened on that mountain, it was long and widely remembered. And as a reminder of human hope and a prelude of glory, this memory of Transfiguration comes at a moment both appropriate and opportune in Lent and in life, not least as we ponder how best to assist those who suffer – not only in Iraq and Syria, but also in Sudan and the other drought-stricken lands of southern Africa where human violence has now assured the most widespread and terrible famine in modern times. It resounds in the call for compassion and care for the widows, orphans, and refugees of our time as it did so long ago. Neither God’s mercy nor God’s justice has changed and we are more in need of imitating them than ever before. We, like the disciples, are enjoined to be God’s agents, bringing hope and help wherever there is need. We are called today to fulfil our faith in the pledge first made so long ago to a small tribe desperately wandering in the wilderness of the Middle East.
The promise and hope of glory now lives in us.
Each year about this time newspapers feature pictures of Catholics and many other Christians having ashes rubbed on their faces. The season of penitence has arrived. The rhythm doesn’t vary much from year to year. And perhaps it shouldn’t. It donates a kind of spiritual security to our
lives, living as we do in the midst of sudden social change and competing forms of natural and artificial chaos. Perhaps this year especially. So people crowd into churches to get their ashes. And yet, isn’t Lent supposed to shake us up a bit?
“Lent” comes from the old English word Lenten, which simply means ‘Spring,’ probably because the days are now lengthening. The word has no particular religious significance. But centuries of Christian usage have lent it a sacred meaning, if you’ll excuse the pun. From at least the fourth century, Christians celebrated these forty days before Easter as special time of preparation for the great Paschal mysteries to come. The forty days are taken from the account in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels in which Jesus fasts and prays and through a series of trials discovers the shape of his public ministry, essentially by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross.
So Lent presents a special opportunity to join with Christ in his wilderness journey, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. While encouraging penitential discipline, the Church delights in having us read passages from the prophets, Isaiah in particular, who caution us against works of obvious piety. Jesus himself had little use for displays of penitence:
…when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face [Matt 6:16-17]
Instead, Jesus invites us to accompany him into the wilderness, so that we may join him later on Golgotha and the Garden of Resurrection.
In both versions there is a pattern which the communities of Matthew and Luke recognized as a paradigm of spiritual development: Jesus is summoned to his ministry and destiny at the Jordan by some kind of revelation as he emerges from the water. Next, he withdraws from the world, being led or even driven into the desert by the Holy Spirit, there to be tested. After enduring a series of challenges that enable him to see what form his ministry will take, he returns to the world.
The word both evangelists use for what we call “tempt” means to try or to test something, and also to attempt, or to examine, to entice, and even to discipline someone. It is related to the Latin root of the word experience, which means all of those things.
In the story from Genesis. God did not test Adam and Eve in order for them to sin. Nor did the serpent lie to them so much as he explained why the tree had been forbidden. He knew what the fruit of the tree would do and cunningly told them so. And like so many of us faced with a prize beyond our reach, they disobeyed God and failed the test. That failure, Paul tells us, is the origin of sin. And it, too, set a pattern.
That is why withdrawing to a vantage point where we can begin to expose the allurements of the world is a necessary part of the spiritual path. It breaks the pattern. It allows us to see things in God’s light. And because we are so used to walking by other lights, the adjustment takes a little time.
Gaining perspective can take people out of their normal routines for weeks, months, or even years. Or it may only be momentary and pass relatively unnoticed by those around. One way or another, that is why in former times Catholics were encouraged to give up certain things during the days of Lent — such as the theater, movies and, later, television, as well as innocent pastimes and enjoyments such as dancing, going to parties, getting married, or just eating sweets. Not because such things are wrong. They aren’t. But they soften us to the enticements of the world, distracting us from the necessary inner work of spiritual attentiveness and growth, imbedding us ever more firmly in patterns of social accommodation and assimilation. So we withdraw from them for a while to gain distance and perspective, not to become unhappy, isolated, and remote.
Our lenten discipline allows us to be proven, tested, assayed, scrutinized — by ourselves but also by the Spirit of God. If it is effective, like Jesus we will encounter the power and allurement of the world, sometimes in its least humane and unloving face. In some ways we will be confronted by Satan, the adversary. In all of this, we are supposed to feel drawn, pulled, lured. For it is by resisting that we gain strength and direction for our return to the world.
The tests posed to Jesus that begin unraveling the coiled history of sin are as relevant to us today as they were in first century Judea. We are impelled to feed the hungry as Jesus fed the multitudes, but providing only for material needs misses the deeper, more urgent hunger. Social welfare is not enough. Astounding achievements may seem like invasions of the divine, but even miracles can lure us into mere admiration and complacency, leaving the real work undone. And there is always the lure of wealth and power, by means of which, we are convinced, we could really put things right, if only we had enough. Of course, there never seems to be enough. In time, if we are lucky, we will learn that all such means are not only dangerous, they also corrupting. Unless, that is, we put the Realm of God first. And then, as Jesus knew, the rest will follow.
In the end, no matter how many stages or trials we pass through, like Jesus we must return to the world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We must go back into the movie theater, the classroom, the marketplace, the courts, the hospital, and the laboratory, but hopefully strengthened against their power to dull our spiritual sensibilities. For we have work to do there. It is called ministry.
Lent provides an opportunity, a gracious gift, for us to accompany Jesus back into the desert, to be tested, to see whether in this round of the journey of our lives, we may spiral closer to that burning heart of love around which all things move, and in which they live and have their being. May the Holy Spirit cast us out into that wilderness to accompany Jesus with a willing heart.
I read yesterday in the Houston Catholic Worker that Mark Zwick died there in November at the age of 88 from complications of Parkinson’s Disease. Mark and his wife Louise founded Houston’s Casa San Diego in 1981. From one small rented building, the Catholic Worker house grew to number ten buildings and sheltered over 100,000 refugees in its 36-year history. Today, it feeds and shelters 500 families a week. As I read about Mark and his family, and the celebration of his life and work, I realized again what t means to follow Jesus closely and literally. It was an appropriate prompt for Lenten reflection.
Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel comes in the 9th chapter from a dispute between Jesus and some followers of John the Baptist, who apparently followed a strict penitential regimen like the Pharisees, the Essenes, and other very devout Jews. What Jesus says about fasting is surprising, if possibly less so than Isaiah’s tirade. But in a way it is even more radical, especially as we recover from the excesses of Mardi Gras and the relative sobriety of Ash Wednesday.
The point Isiah and Jesus are making is not just about fasting – hardly any one fasts any more, anyway. Trying to find a meatless meal on Ash Wednesday or Good Friday isn’t all that easy, either.
Actually, there’s a clue in both readings that religious fasting isn’t all it’s sometimes cracked up to be. Just about every religious tradition has used fasting or abstinence as a way of developing or heightening religious devotion and commitment. It’s a good thing for health, too, unless a person is so poor they have no alternative. Sometimes we might even fast for a day or so to express our so-called solidarity with the poor. We may even donate the money we could have spent on pizza to a collection. And hungry again the next day, we can always buy more pizza and forget about the poor. But they can’t. That’s why there is famine in South Sudan.
But fasting, Jesus tells us, as Isaiah did before him, is not a spiritual tactic, not something we do to get God’s attention or gain attention for a worthy cause, or even, sad to say, to atone for our sins. Fasting is just… fasting. Like prayer and contemplation, it is not done for ulterior purposes of any kind. It’s an expression, a sign – a sign of sadness perhaps, but essentially a way of reminding ourselves of values we should always keep in mind. It’s good for us and that’s that. Feasting is, likewise. What counts, Jesus says, is knowing when to feast and when to fast. More important is recognizing what God expects from us beyond all such observances – a theme we shall hear frequently in the days to come – freeing the oppressed, welcoming the refugee, sharing our food with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, and watching out for the welfare of our neighbor. Otherwise, it makes no difference at all whether we fast or feast.