Years past, today was known as Laetare Sunday, from the first Latin word of the entrance song, “Rejoice O Jerusalem and all you that love her!” [Isaiah 66:10-11]. It marks the half-way point in our Lentin pilgrimage, the counterpart of “Gaudete” Sunday in Advent, which means the same thing. In both seasons, in anticipation of the joy to come, the violet hues of penitence have been lightened to rose.
However there will be little cause for joy in much of the world, especially in Ukraine, where the people are suffering a merciless and terrible invasion by a neighboring country despite its long Christian heritage. But there is also cause for hope that one day, soon hopefully, an end to hostilities will give way to peace and reconciliation. That’s a tall order.
But it was a tall order in South Africa, Rwanda, and Northern Ireland, where Commissions of Truth and Reconciliation brought an end to deadly conflict and began the process of building peace. It is still a possibility that peace and reconciliation will bring an end to conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, Ethiopians and Eritreans, North and South Koreans, perhaps even Democrats and Republicans.
Closer to home, there is often the need for reconciliation between parents and children, sisters and brothers, and wives and husbands. Quarreling and enmity seem almost pandemic in human affairs. Even Jesus recognized this, not least in regard to the gospel itself:
“Do not think that I have come to bring peace on earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s foes will be those of his own household” [Matt 10:34-36].
But that is more rather than less cause to work for forgiveness and reconciliation. Surely some the saddest words in any language are “I will never forgive…”
Appropriately for readings this Sunday 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. They had come to the land God had promised Abraham and they had only glimpsed from a distance following their escape from Egypt and years of wandering in the desert. And it is their rather meager feast that links the first reading with the Gospel, a return celebrated by feasting after the fracture and healing of a family.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son has found many applications over the centuries. It was transformed into a great ballet by George Balanchine with an unforgettable score by Sergei Prokofiev, a mini-opera by Benjamin Britten, and even a not-so-great and largely forgotten epic film in which the phrase about “loose women” was elaborated into the main plot line. (Remember Lana Turner?)
Much has been made about the second part of the story, which is sometimes left out of the retelling or, alternatively, celebrated as the real heart of the parable. Whatever one thinks, the parable is about truth and reconciliation – the truth about oneself and the need for (and possibility of) reconciliation. The story has two examples, the forgiveness and reconciliation shown by the father, and the unresolved resistance of the elder brother. Sometimes achieving reconciliation in families is the toughest slog of all.
But Jesus is uncompromising about the need for both forgiveness and reconciliation. One of his most powerful teachings is not from the gospel of Luke, however, but from Matthew. The message is the same:
“…if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” [Matt 5:23-24].
Later in Luke’s gospel, we hear “Take heed to yourselves; if your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him; and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him” [Luke 17:3-4]. Even if there is no expression of regret and a change of heart, the willingness to forgive and be reconciled must run ahead or, like the father in the parable, patiently, longingly searching. Sometimes it succeeds. Sometimes it doesn’t.
In the second reading for today, St. Paul summarizes the command of Jesus in just a few words. But throughout his works Paul, who suffered so much from factions and disunity in the infant Church, continually 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, a “diakonia,” in itself. But, he insists, true reconciliation is not achieved by human effort alone, but by the grace of God. We need more than a little help here. And like forgiveness, we first receive reconciliation in order to share it with others [Rom 5:10, 1 Cor 7:11]. Moreover, as we hear today, it is through the ministry of reconciliation that we become “ambassadors” for Christ. Significantly, the Greek word Paul uses here [presbeuo] means “elder” or in the later, Christian sense, “priest.”
So even in the midst of war and violence, we have cause to rejoice today, if only because there is aways the possibility of achieving reconciliation and the necessity of advocating it. Nothing is impossible with the grace of God. Please pray for peace in Ukraine.
We so easily forget… At the very beginning of Lent, one of the less cheery blessings on Ash Wednesday tells us, “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Memento mori… What is important here is not the certainty of death, but that we should remember it, bear it in mind, perhaps especially when we are most likely to forget it. Or want to. And there is no worse or it seems unavoidable way for us to remember that fact than war. Earlier this month, war returned with vengeance.
Try as we may to forget it with sports, countless award programs on TV, natural disasters, rising gas prices and inflation, it returns daily in the news to remind of human frailty, mortality, and “man’s inhumanity to man,” something the people of Ukraine must live with continually, raising again the age-old plea, “Why do the innocent suffer?” We must not forget.
We should not be surprised that remembrance, remember, memory, memorial, recall, and similar summons “to bear in mind” run through scripture and the liturgies, especially during Lent, like a torrent of urgency. “Do not forget…” “Remember!”
The first reading in today’s liturgy reminds us of the beginning of the great saga of redemption, when one man’s curiosity leads to the most blazing revelation of all time—“I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Keep this forever in mind, we are told over and over down through the ages. From Genesis to the last book of the Hebrew Bible, Malachi, the injunction remains the same: “remember!” echoed hundreds of times [Gen 9:15-16, Mal 4:4].
Jesus himself instructs us to remember him in the sharing of the bread and wine which are his body and blood: “Do this in remembrance of me” [ Luke 22:19, 1 Cor 11:24-25]. Remembrance does not mean merely recalling some past event. It renders us present to those great mysteries that are really present here and now. We need only to pay attention.
Moses figures 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 Arabia. He sees it all as a prelude and prefigurement of the story of Jesus, including a dark cautionary note to his converts in Corinth about assuming more than we are entitled to from God’s favor. “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea… they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” [1 Cor 10:1-2,4]. Remember who you are.
The gospel reading says little directly about memory, except for the plea of the gardener that if he is permitted to till and strengthen the fig tree, it can be saved and bear fruit, so that when the owner of the vineyard remembers his tree, he will not cut it down. It is a parable about God’s patience with us all, who are called upon to “turn away from sin and believe in the gospel.”
As we prepare to remember the great saving events of our redemption in the weeks to come, it is well to bear in mind not so much our inescapable frailty and mortality, but God’s mercy and forgiveness. As in the parable Jesus uses in today’s gospel reading, that mercy and forgiveness are always at hand. We need only ask. But to receive, we must be ready. As the Bard reminded us, “The readiness is all” [Hamlet, V,2].
Please pray for the people of Ukraine.
The Episcopalian communion observes Transfiguration Sunday just before the beginning of Lent, while Catholics and others commemorate it today as a prelude to the great Lenten mysteries. The liturgical Feast of the Transfiguration has been celebrated on August 6th since the fourth century, but it is recalled here as fitting overture to the great drama of redemption that is about to unfold. Such an observance might seem irrelevant in view of the catastrophe facing the Ukrainian people today, but that is far from the truth.
In each of the synoptic gospels in which the Transfiguration is described, it is placed immediately after Jesus’ first prediction of his passion and death. To make the point sharper, Luke tells us that the conversation witnessed among Jesus, Moses, and Elijah concerns the departure, “exodus” is the telling word used, that he would fulfill in Jerusalem. And as Jesus and the disciples descend the mountain, Jesus warns them not to tell anyone of the vision they had seen, which they did not yet understand, until “the Son of Man is raised from the dead” [Matt 17:9]. Luke says simply that they told no one what they had witnessed.
The “theophany,” or manifestation of divine presence on the Mountain recalls the voice heard at Jesus’ baptism – “This is my beloved Son, listen to him” [Luke 3:22. 9:35]. Hearing the voice of God figures also in the first reading on all three Sundays of the liturgical year in the story of God’s covenant with Abraham. The passages from Matthew and Mark focus on the story of the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac. This year, in Luke’s gospel, we recall the first great covenant God makes with Abraham, a bond ratified by a dramatic sacrifice. In both accounts, Abraham is promised not only a land flowing with milk and honey, but posterity as numerous as the stars in the night sky. Life from death. As Paul wrote to his fledgling church in Corinth, “Death is swallowed up in victory” [1 Cor 15:54], a final Transfiguration when, as we also heard in the second reading for today, Christ “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him also to subject all things to himself” [Phil 3:21].
The Ancient Covenant had been first enacted in darkness and at night in the midst of slain animals, blazing fire, and the voice of God. Now the Light of Glory shines through and from Jesus between living human witnesses that enacts a new covenant promise, the fulfilment of all the promises. Here, Moses and Elijah are not merely figures of the Law and the Prophets, but messengers, evangelists who presage the Messianic Reign of God.
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. For as he knew, death was waiting for him in Jerusalem, but death that would end in victory.
As the world waits with dread anticipation the outcome of the horrendous assault on Ukraine by Russian military might, the promise that death is not final, that justification and ultimate vindication are not idle dreams may give some sense of hope to the innocent children, women, and men who will perish in this terrible folly and the millions more being driven from their homes and country. For the rest of us, to witness their agony at the beginning of the Lenten season is an excruciating reminder that suffering and death all-too often precede the fulfilment of promise. Please support and pray for the Ukrainian people. May God strengthen their faith in their hour of trial.
We begin our Lenten pilgrimage this year all-too conscious of the great suffering being inflicted on the Ukrainian people in an unprovoked and heartless war. It is their hour of testing, and ours, which makes today’s readings all the more pertinent. Why, we ask perennially, do the innocent have to suffer? It was the burning question that led to the gospel, the good news of salvation: why did Jesus himself have to suffer and die? Was there no other way to save the world?
The first reading places us at the beginning of the great pilgrimage of redemption, the Exodus of God’s people from Enslavement in Egypt, both the inauguration and prototype of salvation. Today as then, it involved suffering, and we like they are prone to flinch away – over and over. But today, scripture has us consider not the trials that met the Israelites on their long journey of redemption, or even the arrest, trial, suffering, and death of Jesus – culminating events that will illuminate the end of our quest. That lies ahead.
We are first directed to consider the goal of our journey: “you shall rejoice in all the good which the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” [Deut 26:11]. In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul holds out the same promise: “The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, 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” [Rom 10:8-9].
It is the gospel reading that bring these themes together in a surprising way. The account of the “temptation” of Jesus in the wilderness is found only in Matthew and Luke, but they are the evangelists who dug back into the early years of Jesus and provided us with all the reliable information we have about his conception, birth, infancy, and childhood. There is no reason to discount it, even though it is clearly a “worked” tradition, an encounter modeled on rabbinical debate, pitting scriptural verse against verse. And the devil knew his scripture.
The two accounts are the same, differing only in the order of the second and third “temptation.” Two early communities preserved these accounts, however they learned them, perhaps from Jesus himself, but Mark and John are silent. There is a likely reflection of the tradition in the Letter to the Hebrews, however, which dwells at some length on the “trials” to which the Redeemer was subject:
“…we see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering… . For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” [Heb 2:9-10, 18].
The same word is used here for “temptation” that we find in Luke and Matthew – “peirazo.” The word means “trial,” — to “try,” “prove” or “test” something or someone. It does not mean the impulse to sin, like pilfering coins from the open change box in the hamburger stand or murdering our neighbor. Not surprisingly, it is the same term both Matthew and Luke use to end their versions of the Lord’s Prayer [Luke 11:4, Mat 6:13] – “do not put us to the test.” Small wonder that we begin our Lenten pilgrimage with a meditation on “temptation.”
Jesus had to work out the shape of his destiny, and this was the time of his testing. After his mysterious baptism at the Jordan, he ”retreats” into the wilderness to do just that. Avenues lay open to power, fame, wealth. Perhaps he already knew that the alternative was struggle, opposition, rejection, and eventually martyrdom. Armed with a deep understanding of scripture, he works out his “way” considering each of the more alluring ways ahead, dismissing them one by one.
For us, too, withdrawing to a point where we can begin to examine the way we have come and the possibilities still open to us is a necessary part of our spiritual journey. It is the reason for Lent, a period of clarification, correction, and resolve.
The tests posed to Jesus are pertinent to us today as they were in first century Judea. Social welfare programs often provide 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. Simplicity, poverty, and generosity are more powerful and more effective. Religious spectacle can be exhilarating, but easily lures us into mere admiration and complacency.
Ultimately, after all our considerations, we, like Jesus, must return to the waiting and turbulent world. That is the goal and purpose of the testing. We are called to go back into the marketplace, the streets, and our own homes as well as the political arena, strengthened against the power of the world, the flesh, and the devil to dull and deflect our spiritual sensibilities and will to action. We may even become the most blessed of warriors, “peacemakers.”