This used to be called Laetare Sunday, from the first Latin word of the entrance hymn, “Rejoice O Jerusalem and all you that love her!” [Isaiah 66:10-11] And since the joyful aspect of the Lenten season is especially felt today, the violet hues of penance have been lightened to rose. No, it’s not pink.
Appropriately enough for readings that focus on the theme of reconciliation, two tell us about feasts of joy. The reading from the Book of Joshua describes the first meal the
Israelites’ enjoyed after they entered Canaan and God no longer provided the manna and quails that had sustained them for forty years in the desert. Recalling that joyful Passover reminds us that own forty-day pilgrimage is about to end with the paschal feast of Easter. One can get tired of anything, I suppose, even quail, but the Hebrews celebrated because they had matured through testing and trial and they were ready to begin a new life. They had come to the land God had promised them and they had once glimpsed from a distance. And it is this return that links the first reading with the Gospel, a return celebrated by feasting.
The theme of reconciliation surfaces in the reading from St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Christians in Corinth. Paul tells us that it is a fundamental trait of a mature Christian community and that provides a perfect link with today’s Gospel.
Although we use the term ‘reconciliation’ in labor disputes and marriage counseling, we probably don’t reflect on it much. But not so long ago it was especially significant in South Africa, where for years the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the Government of National Unity sought to heal the wounds of apartheid. Similar bodies were later set up in Rwanda and other parts of Africa as well as in Northern Ireland, Kosovo, and many places in the world where people suffered terribly in conflicts with each other. Today the need for reconciliation is not less, but greater, and not least in our own country, which appears to be becoming ever more divided economically, socially, and racially – sometimes cruelly and violently.
Without reconciliation there can be no real justice, no lasting peace. And no true community. In Christian scripture, the words for reconciliation all mean “to change mutually … and thoroughly.” Today dictionaries tell us that reconciliation means “to make friendly after estrangement [Concise Oxford Dictionary]. It also means to harmonize something discordant, like your bank statements and your checkbook. The word “conciliate,” which is hidden within it, means “to gain esteem or good will, to pacify.” So “reconcile” means to regain harmony and peaceful relations by making changes on both sides.
Jesus set great store by reconciliation, as when he demands that his followers leave their gifts before the altar and become reconciled with their sister or brother so that their offering will be acceptable to God [Matt 5:23-24; see Matt 18:15-22. Luke 17:3-4]. Paul, who suffered so much from factions and disunity, especially urges reconciliation [Rom 5:11, 11:15; 2 Cor. 5: 18-20; Eph 2:16; Col. 1:20-21]. For him, it is a ministry in itself. For Paul, however, reconciliation is not achieved primarily by human effort, but by God’s grace. Like forgiveness, we first receive reconciliation…. and then give it to others [Rom 5:10, 1 Cor 7:11]. And because our reconciliation with God was achieved through the blood of the cross [Col 1:21-22], through the ministry of reconciliation we become ambassadors of Christ.
How we are to be ministers of reconciliation, ambassadors of Christ in our divided and hostile world, is spelled out for us in the most famous of all Jesus’ parables.
Luke prefaces it with two shorter stories, the parable of the lost sheep and the lost penny. Here, we deal with a lost child, a boy who tries to lose himself. We call him the Prodigal, a word that means “recklessly wasteful.” How the younger son wasted his fortune is not important. But how he came to his senses is. At low ebb, the bottom of the barrel for a Jew, he, like many lost souls, finally comes to his senses. And the word Christians use for that is metanoia, changing our way of thinking. The Prodigal Son begins his moral ascent by recognizing the true nature of his selfishness and changes his attitude. He resolves to return and beg forgiveness. But reconciliation, when it comes, is a gift from his father. The son merely has to present himself. It is the father who is truly prodigal with his love, mercy, and forgiveness
So outlandish is the old man’s forgiveness that the elder brother is miffed. He not only wants credit for being good all these years, but one gets the feeling he’d like to see his young brother humiliated a bit. Quite a bit, in fact. But the father’s explanation reveals the foolishness of God, before whom no one has to grovel. Nor should anyone be out of sorts because God is generous with forgiveness. God doesn’t keep a moral ledger. The message is plain, despite our reluctance to hear it: Just recognize who you are and be honest about what you have done. I’ll do the rest. I’ll wash away the dirt, I’ll throw you a party, and I’ll make it all right again.
There is a final point to be made about the central character in the gospel story. In one sense, it is the younger son. The elder sibling is only a foil who reveals the huge scope of God’s forgiveness. But there is a more subtle message. We shouldn’t identify with either of the sons, who may or may not have become reconciled to each other, but with their parent, who waits patiently, mourning the loss of a beloved child, hoping, praying, and keeping watch. Like him, we are to run out to greet the wayward on their return, to stoop down, lift them up, embrace them, see they get a good bath, fine new clothes, and a party. That’s how things change, both in us and in them. And that’s how we grow into the likeness of God through the imitation of Christ. How we live the ministry and mystery of reconciliation.
Jesus doesn’t tell us how the story ends, whether the father reconciles his sons. He doesn’t have to. We know how it should end. The rest is up to us.
Remembrance occupies a vast place in the heart of scripture and religious ritual. The words remembrance, remember, remind, and memory appear over three hundred times in the Bible, and you will hear them in the liturgy today and especially during the ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter. Recently, we have heard and seen them often following the terrible events in Christ Church, New Zealand, the air disasters in Indonesia and Ethiopia, and the great storm damage in East Africa and the American Midwest. You might wonder, do we encounter them too often? I suggest that we don’t hear them enough.
Remembrance does not mean merely recalling some past event. It is an act that renders us present to the deepest realities of human existence. That is the mystery of memory. And so we remember not so we won’t forget something, or someone, but in order to become ever more inclusively human, making ourselves present to both heartbreak and the saving events of the past.
As our Lenten observance grows deeper today, the scriptural readings first recall a moment when the world changed forever, unlike the turmoil of Brexit or the release of the
Mueller Report, despite all the ballyhoo. Driven by simple curiosity to see why a strange bush was burning on a mountainside in what is now Saudi Arabia, Moses sets in motion the great epic of the Exodus and ultimately the salvation of the world. Horeb will figure again in this tremendous saga, for it is to this mountain that Moses leads the Israelites after their miraculous escape from Egypt and here he would receive the Ten Commandments. It is not too much of a stretch to say that the redemption of the world begins at Horeb.
Many scholars believe that Mount Horeb and Mount Sinai are the same. Whether that is true or not, it is on the Mountain of God by whatever name that the story of the Exodus and the redemption of the Hebrew people reaches its first climax. But even that is only the beginning of the great story.
We find Moses again in the second reading, as St. Paul reflects on the deeper mystery of the Hebrews’ flight from Egypt into the plains and mountains of Palestine. He sees it all as a prelude and prefigurement of the story of Jesus, including a dark cautionary note about assuming more than we are entitled to from God’s favor. Fashioning a people was a difficult task… apparently even for God. It still is, if we grasp the meaning of the parables in the gospel. Here the figure of Moses has disappeared from view, but not the underlying lesson of the great story of deliverance. Jesus, too, warms that without growth in faith and a resolute will toward constant transformation, it’s all for nothing and may end in disaster. God is patient, as we hear in the parable of the fig tree. But the underlying theme still sounds beneath it – even God’s patience has limits. I am reminded of a remark by Thomas Jefferson once cited by Abraham Lincoln that we might also reflect on in this era of political turbulence and moral disintegration:
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”*
As we remember those who have gone before us, God’s people marked with the sign of faith, we are not simply turning to the past, but celebrating their presence to us now and forever – and ours to them. Jesus was clear about that. Recalling the remarkable event we heard about in the first reading, he said, “….in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive” [Luke 20:37-38].
The lives of our beloved are hidden with Christ in God [Col. 3:4]. Our remembrance is not for their sake, but for ours, lest we forget who we are. For we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, whether we are aware of it or not. Today we become more aware of it and celebrate remembrance.
*Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (1784), Queries 14 and 18, 137-43, 162-63, edited by William Peden, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1954.
For anyone attuned to the news channels or, more urgently, witnesses, it was another terrible week. Amid the lesser daily disasters that punctuate our mortal existence, the plane crash in Ethiopia and then the horrific mass shooting in New Zealand struck like dark lightning. Inevitably, people ask “How can a good and loving God allow such things to happen? And if god knew it was going to happen, why didn’t God warn people so they could get out of harm’s way? Does God even care?
Other than the occasional ravages of nature, the most violent episodes in New Zealand’s recent history were arguably the battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings. It is a peaceful as well as beautiful country, one famed for its allergy to nuclear weapons and street violence. All that changed on Friday, when two unsuspecting congregations of devout Muslims at prayer were horribly attacked with high capacity assault weapons. Men, women, and children were systematically but indiscriminately shot. The death toll now numbers 50, and will likely rise.
Even when peace seems close at hand the world can quickly turn cruel and heartless. Simmering hatred of people of different race, religion, culture, sexuality, or class still too easily veers into discrimination, persecution, and eventually deadly assault. While the actual incidence of such violence over the past fifty years seems to have declined worldwide according to many observers, the sad history of human hatefulness is very long and very bloody. And resilient. This second Sunday of Lent we have reason to probe our hearts and examine our lives, knowing that such wretchedness can find a dark hiding place in any of us.
The first reading tells us of the covenant God made with Abraham – a kind of contract executed in the ancient style amid split animal
carcasses and to the accompaniment of some pretty eerie effects. The Lord God, who had called Abram, as he was first named, out of the depths of what we now call Iraq, down near Basra, and then down from the border of what we now call Syria, had a plan. And Abraham, as he was now to be named, was a part of that plan. A big part. It would be through his posterity that the great promise would be fulfilled, a promise that went as far beyond Abraham’s imagination as the stars exceeded his field of vision.
On a really good night, far from city lights and especially in the desert or high in the mountains, you can see about 5,000 stars. I can well imagine that Abraham saw about that many out in the desert near the Dead Sea. But the fulfillment of God’s promise would be much greater than having posterity even as numerous as the sand grains on the shore. Abraham had no idea of what lay in store.
St. Paul gives us a hint in the mysterious words of the Epistle to the Philippians about how our bodies will be transformed according to the pattern of Christ’s glorified body in the fulfillment of the promise begun so long ago. But it’s a promise that goes far, far beyond the physical transformation of our arthritic, creaking, aching, sagging, shaky, sick, and sometimes mortally injured physical selves. God is about transforming the universe, world by world in a sense. And we are all part of that promise and that plan.
The Transfiguration of Jesus, an event found in the synoptic gospels and placed strategically just before the passion narratives, points us in that direction, but it also takes us back and deeper into the mystery of God’s presence in the midst of catastrophe and suffering. The Ancient Covenant had been enacted in darkness and at night. Now the Light of Glory shines through and from Jesus between living human witnesses that enacts a new covenant promise. And the identity of these witnesses is important – Moses and Elijah, not merely figures of the Law and the Prophets, but messengers, evangelists who presage the Messianic Reign of God. More important than that, as we learn in Luke’s gospel, it is what they are discussing with Jesus. They appeared in glory and spoke of what Luke calls Jesus’ ‘departure,’ [Luke 9:31]. The word Luke uses here in Greek is very important: “exodus.” Jesus is about to fulfill the ancient covenant and lead humanity into a land of promise beyond all expectation. But he would do this by emptying himself, and here is the connection with the Epistle to the Philippians. Jesus was about to suffer and die and so enter into his glory. The cross was waiting for him in Jerusalem.
The disciples had no inkling of what this was all about and they wouldn’t awaken from their dogmatic slumber until after Jesus had risen from the dead. It’s hard for us to fathom, too. Even Jesus seemed to feel abandoned on the cross – he called out to God not to forsake him. And God did not forsake him. God was there in the suffering, death, and rising. God was always there. God always is. God did not spare Jesus from the passion, but redeemed the world through it. His glory is the glory of the Cross.
And so when we get jittery in the face of terrible disasters and horrific accidents, the seeming indifference of nature to our wants and needs, and even the barbarities human beings afflict upon one another, we should not have to ask where God is in all this. Because God is right there. Always has been, always will be. Our task, like that of the dim-witted apostles, is to open our eyes and learn to recognize the loving and healing presence of God in all things and all things in the presence of God. The promise has not been broken. But we still harbor the capacity to interfere, to delay, to defy that promise when we submit to the darkness that finds a niche within our hearts where it can fester and eventually erupt.
And that is one reason why it is still important to look within and confront the darkness. It is why Lent still has its place. With the help of God’s grace, we can and will overcome the dark.
This Sunday marks the real beginning of Lent. Ash Wednesday and the three days afterwards were added centuries after Lent was first observed to make up forty full days when people doubted that Sundays should count as days of fast and abstinence. There is nothing particularly religious in the name “Lent”, by the way, at least as far as English is concerned. It comes from an old English word, “Lenten,” which simply means Spring, probably because the days are now visibly lengthening. In Latin, it is called Quadragesima. The French call it carême, Spanish speakers cuaresma, the Germans simply Fasten or Osterfasten. 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 prolonged trials discovers the shape of his public ministry, essentially by rejecting paths that would have led him away from the cross.
Christian usage has, so to speak, lent the word a sacred meaning. Whatever it is called, from at least the fourth century, Christians celebrated the forty days before Easter as special time of preparation for the great Paschal mysteries ahead of us. There is nothing particularly lugubrious about Lent, by the way. The preface to the Canon speaks of this “joyful season,” much as the Church sings of Advent. We do not sing Alleluias during Lent, because they are an Easter chant, but we are nevertheless urged to rejoice. But why? About what?
Taking the first reading as a clue, we are reminded of the ancient Hebrews’ joy as they looked back on their
release from Egypt: “… and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression; and the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror, with signs and wonders…”
Lent is a time for taking stock, of remembering where we have come from, how it is we are now, here, in this place, able to worship and return thanks. St. Paul tells us clearly why. Just as God saved the Hebrews from the slavery of Egypt, we have been saved from the power of sin and death by Jesus’ death and resurrection: so, “if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” The resurrection is the heart of it all. And the universality of salvation is guaranteed: “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no longer any distinction to be made between Jew and Greek or anyone else. “The same God is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.” He repeats it for emphasis: “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.” Reason enough for joy, reason enough to prepare.
As the Exodus is the model of human salvation, the cross and resurrection of Christ are its fulfillment. That is where we are headed, and the journey toward that joyful resolution is what we mean by Lent. It presents us a special opportunity to join Christ in his wilderness journey, not only or even especially by fasting and other works of rigorous observance. In fact, while encouraging penitential discipline, the Church delights in having us read passages from the prophets, who caution us against works of obvious piety. We are, rather, to accompany Jesus into the wilderness, so that we may be with him later on Golgotha and in the Garden of Resurrection.
In both Matthew’s and Luke’s versions of Jesus’ experience in the wilderness, there is a clear structure present, a paradigm which we are to emulate. Jesus has been awakened to his call to ministry at the Jordan by a revelation as he emerges from the water. He then withdraws from the world, being led or driven by the Holy Spirit into the desert, there to be tested. The word for that both evangelists use is peirazo. It means, among other things, to try or “prove” something, like the gold content of an alloy. It also means to attempt, or to experience something, as well as to endeavor, examine, scrutinize, and so forth. It is a common enough word in the New Testament, as, for instance, when the Pharisees test Jesus by asking him difficult questions. But it does not mean attraction to sin, or in that sense, moral temptation.
But Jesus had to work out the shape of his destiny, and this was the time of his testing. For us, also, withdrawing to a point where we can begin to explore the possibilities open to us as well as the path we have already taken is a necessary part of the spiritual journey. It can take us out of our normal routine for weeks, months, or years. Or it may be just a momentary examination of conscience, relatively unnoticed by those around us. One way or another, gaining perspective is essential.
That is the wisdom that lay in the largely former practice of giving up certain things during Lent — revelry, weddings, the theater, movies and, later, television (!), as well as innocent pastimes and enjoyments such as chewing gum (!!) and eating sweets. Or meat, which was considered a luxury. That was not because these things are bad, but because they soften us to the blandishments of society, distracting us from the necessary work of spiritual attentiveness and growth, embedding us ever more firmly in the patterns of accommodation and assimilation to a world still opposed to the message of Christ. We withdraw from innocent enjoyments for a time to break our routine, to toughen ourselves, to open ourselves to being proven, tested, assayed, scrutinized by ourselves and also by the Spirit of God. We, too, are likely to be confronted by the power and allurement of that old world, particularly in its least humane and loving face. In short, so the gospel informs us, by the prince of that world, Satan, “the adversary.” It is by resisting properly, in both small things and large, that we gain strength and direction for our lives.
The tests posed to Jesus are pertinent to us today as they were in first century Judea. Social welfare often provides only for material needs, yet we must still feed the hungry just as Jesus fed the multitudes. The lure of wealth and power lies in the illusion that they are the only means by which we can put things right. Religious spectacle can be exhilarating, but easily lures us into mere admiration and complacency. And in the end, no matter how many stages or trials we pass through, we, like Jesus, must return to the waiting world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We are to go back into the world of the marketplace, the streets, and our own homes, possibly chewing gum, but strengthened against the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil to dull and deflect our spiritual sensibilities and will to action. For we have work to do. It is called ministry.
So as we begin this joyful season of Lent, let us pray that the Holy Spirit will cast us also into that grace-filled wilderness where with a ready heart we will follow Jesus towards resurrection and new life.
Now begins the joyful season of Lent. That’s a theme that often gets overlooked, but it’s in the mass. You’ll hear it eventually in the preface of the canon.
For a long time, although not from the beginning, Christians have tended to wallow in sentiments of guilt and contrition. Catholics were especially adept. Not that they didn’t have reason to regret a lot of their activity, all things considered. But the liturgies of Lent, including the custom of rubbing ashes into our foreheads, remind us of something far more important. The world has been redeemed. The reign of sin and death has been ended. Christ, slain for our sins, has been raised for our justification. Sin has no more claim on us — unless we voluntarily surrender to it.
Sporting a smudge of black ash on your forehead for a few hours has the force of novelty, but if that’s all it is, it’s just a cosmetic prank. It will certainly get
you noticed when you order your fish tacos at Chipotle. But if we kept it on all through Lent, now that would be something else. Wearing sackcloth would add some flair, if you could find any. But in the end, if that’s as far as it went, we’d still be just marking time and drawing a lot of attention to ourselves. It’s hard to get past the prophet Joel’s caution, “Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity” [Joel 2:13] Or what Jesus says in today’s gospel about calling attention to ourselves by acts of piety:
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” [Mat 6:16-18].
It’s very impressive when rich donors give a vast sum to an institution or worthy cause and, in exchange, get to name a building or a program after themselves or at least get written up in the annual report. What I find more impressive is the line that reads “Anonymous gift.” It has the ring of something Jesus would recommend.
Metanoia, repentance, means a transformation of consciousness, a refreshing of the heart. After we have removed the ashes, if we are not a little kinder, more generous and forgiving, less censorious, and more helpful, all this really is a waste of time. And time is precious. So as you come forward to get your forehead daubed with the ashes of last year’s palms, lift up your hearts, be joyful in the Lord, smile. Resolve to do your good deeds without notice, for we are beginning the season of metanoia. We are preparing our minds and hearts for the great feast of our redemption. And remember: it helps to look redeemed.
The season of Lent lies before us, beginning this week with the observance of Ash Wednesday, significant for its very popular custom of doing what Jesus cautioned his followers against doing: “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” [Mat 6:16-18]. But then, if Christians did everything Jesus said (and avoided what he said to avoid), the world would be a very different place. Mardi Gras, for one thing, might look a lot different.
But that is matter for later reflection. Two of this Sunday’s readings
direct our attention to speech, especially false and
injurious talk, about which Jesus had some significant things to say, following the Wisdom tradition glimpsed in the passage from Sirach, the book formerly known as Ecclesiasticus.
There has undoubtedly been a lot of talk on the airwaves this week, not a little of it false and injurious according to many accounts. That’s politics, you might be tempted to object. But if truth should have a home in the heart and mouth, that would be a very good place to plant it. The zinger with which Luke ends today’s gospel passage is preceded, fittingly, by a long diatribe from Jesus about hypocrisy – looking for evidence of malfeasance by others when comfortably overlooking it in our own case, which, after all, is so wonderfully excusable. Or so we hope!
Christian scripture usually locates hypocrisy in the realm of speech, although it remains lodged in our understanding as pretending to be more virtuous than we really are, in fact, to do the very thing we condemn in others. “Hypocrite” originally meant “actor,” from which the notion of pretense derives. And as with acting, the art of hypocrisy is revealed, as Sirach and Jesus claim, in what we say about what we – and especially others – do. St. James, too, has some pointed observations about that in his testy letter, which draws on the similes used by Jesus himself.
“For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue– a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.
“From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and brackish water? Can a fig tree, my brothers and sisters, yield olives, or a grapevine figs? No more can salt water yield fresh” [James 3:7-12].
The full measure of hypocrisy lies in its produce, an agricultural image also favored by Sirach and Jesus. The image of the harvest sieve from Sirach seems particularly apt when sorting through the overabundance of verbiage that bombards us these days, although I have to confess that something like it occurred when I cleaned out my cat’s litter box this morning. Sometimes the “husks” are hardly worth preserving! In the electrically charged atmosphere of today’s political world, however, those are the treasures that seem most valued in the realms of public discourse, especially on cable TV and Twitter.
The acrid realm of current politics is far from the only area that Jesus and Sirach bid us consider. In fact, the normal arena of truth-telling and civility is our day-to-life in the home, school, and workplace. Old Sirach has some good advice in that area, too:
“Never repeat a conversation, and you will lose nothing at all.
With friend or foe do not report it, and unless it would be a sin for you, do not reveal it;
for someone may have heard you and watched you, and in time will hate you.
Have you heard something? Let it die with you. Be brave, it will not make you burst!
Having heard something, the fool suffers birth pangs like a woman in labor with a child.
Like an arrow stuck in a person’s thigh, so is gossip inside a fool.
Question a friend; perhaps he did not do it; or if he did, so that he may not do it again.
Question a neighbor; perhaps he did not say it; or if he said it, so that he may not repeat it.
Question a friend, for often it is slander; so do not believe everything you hear.
A person may make a slip without intending it. Who has not sinned with his tongue?” [Sirach 19: 7-16].
As Lent approaches, we could do worse than bear in mind Jesus’ simple observation, “Each one speaks from the heart’s abundance” [Luke 6:45]. We have cause, then, to look to our hearts as well as our tongues. May your Lenten season be a blessed and, yes, joyful opportunity for reflection and growth.