My friends in Christ,
How are you feeling about Lent this year? As the ashes were traced on your forehead, what were you thinking? Some people look forward to the season. Alas, some, even many do not. Dreading Lent, some wonder about its relevance in these times. Of course some relish in these forty days because they find an excuse to curb the appetite and so lose a few winter-gathered pounds. A grace for some makes Lent an occasion of grace to deal with addictions. Still, Lent can have little impact beyond purple vestments seen at Sunday Mass and the absence of the Gloria and Alleluia. It’s Lent during Sunday Liturgy but not beyond the church doors.
A friend shared her take on Lent. She thinks Lent is all too negative. Look how it begins, she said. Black ashes are smeared on your forehead. You are invited to remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return. Who wants to spend that much time thinking about sin and death? I don’t think I’m that bad a person. I go to Mass most Sundays. When I’m there I would like to receive a positive and happy message.
She was surprised to hear me say that I believe that Lent is a happy season with a positive message if we are prepared to hear it. Listen again to the words some heard on Ash Wednesday. Rather than Remember, Man, that you are dust, many heard: Turn away from sin and believe the Good News. Sure, we have to begin by admitting that we are sinners. If you are like me, with a little reflection you can find some evidence to support that fact. But the church doesn’t want us to linger there. The message teems with hope. Turn away from sin – whatever kind or kinds you have committed, but don’t stop there. Believe the Good News. Or, believe the Gospel! That is what Lent is supposed to be about, our getting rid of the negative thinking that might make us wonder if the Good News is true. Rid ourselves of thinking that might cause us to wonder if the Good News is true. End the thinking that might make us wonder if there is any reason to hope once we admit to being a sinner. The season is about forgiveness. God, through our Savior, Jesus Christ, does not leave us in sin. In Christ, we are forgiven and through Christ we live a new life.
Good News. That is what Paul wants the Romans to hear in the second reading. Yes, sin came into the world by one person’s sinning. We, being part of the family, inherit the effects of sin. But look at what has happened through the Second Adam! Where once No held sway, now Christ’s Yes reigns. And Christ’s Yes expressed in his pouring out of self in loving service is ours who have been reborn in Christ, identified with Christ through our Baptism, and redeemed. Acquittal and life came to all, Paul says, through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. To all. That goes beyond even those who are baptized. God does will the salvation of all people.
Yes, there is the reality of sin. All of us are called and urged to strive to cooperate with grace and remove sin and its vestiges from our lives. But I think that is the secondary message of Lent. The more important teaching is to accept and remember the Good News. God loves you with a love that is timeless and eternal. During these days of Lent, come to know God, as God wants to be known and accepted by you. That’s what we are called to put in to practice.
God is the Lover who comes seeking the beloved – you and me. We can spend so much time imagining God the judger, the condemner, the One who marks our every sin. There are those who preach that message. But to do that is to forget that Jesus proclaimed a God who forgives, a God who wants only to serve and not be served, a God who pleads with us to let God be our God so that we will be God’s people. That is why, when Christ came among us, he emptied himself of power and became poor that in him we might become powerful to love as he loves.
Look at the ones with whom Jesus associated, ate and drank. We are used to softening the types in our minds as we hear them listed: Prostitutes, Tax Collectors and the generic Sinners. They were what they were but Jesus served them and enjoyed their company because to do so was to be with those who otherwise felt unloved. Jesus’ ministry to them proclaimed that they were the beloved of God. Translate that, if you are feeling low with a poor self-image. You are the beloved of God.
God wants to be your lover. God does not want that love to be unrequited. It is okay to be embarrassed by a God who loves so lavishly; but don’t let that embarrassment keep you from believing that that is the way God is. When the Spirit led Jesus into the desert to be tempted by the devil it was so that Jesus could affirm that right relationship, the relationship that so often gets skewed by choices we make that deny the relationship. We can let the very things held up by the devil as temptations before Jesus dominate our lives. Money. Power. We may struggle against the message so widely proclaimed today, that it is all about ME! God help anyone who gets in the way. Working through the struggle, through the real temptations, Jesus gives God primacy of place. No false gods such as money, position, or power. No taking foolish risks with life and limb or abusing same because we are tempted to think we are invincible.
Lent is a time for fasting that allows grace to bring appetites under control. Lent is a time for prayer and so to listen to the Lover whisper sweet nothings that summed up say, you are my beloved. Lent is a time for almsgiving that in reality becomes doing what Jesus did, pouring out self in loving service of others.
Hear Pope Francis through his Lenten message this year: May this Lenten season find the whole Church ready to bear witness to all those who live in material, moral and spiritual destitution the Gospel message of the merciful love of God our Father, who is ready to embrace everyone in Christ. We can do this to the extent that we imitate Christ who became poor and enriched us by his poverty. Lent is a fitting time for self-denial; we would do well to ask ourselves what we can give up in order to help and enrich others by our own poverty. Let us not forget that real poverty hurts; no self-denial is real without this dimension of penance. I distrust a charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.
May the Holy Spirit, through whom we are ‘as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything’ sustain us in our resolutions and increase our concern and responsibility for human destitution, so that we can become merciful and act with mercy.
People search for God and think of God as distant. If you prepare through fasting and praying, your vision will clear and you will recognize God in the others about you, especially the Prostitutes, the Tax Collectors, the Sinners, the Poor and anyone else society rejects. Christ will be in those whose race is different from your own, whose religion and gender and orientation are different from your own. Serve them. Wash their feet. Feed them Shelter them. Embrace them. Above all, don’t be embarrassed to acknowledge them as Brother and Sister. When you do these things you will be amazed at how near God has come.
If you die in the process, or your reputation is ruined you shouldn’t be surprised. Remember when Jesus said, if you would follow me, take up your cross and follow me? He meant it. Service is the cross. If you take up the cross every day you just might die on it. Or you might hear uttered about you what was voiced to condemn Jesus. This one welcomes sinners and eats with them. You might be rejected, betrayed, broken. So was Jesus. But not forever. Emptied, Jesus was filled with God’s love and was brought to Glory. That’s the Good News. No evil, no darkness will overcome you forever. The Lover embraces with a kiss and raises us up.
That is what your life, as one born in Christ, should be about. Peace will follow.
A recent Powerball Lotto jackpot exceeded $300 million. A friend and I regularly have morning coffees together. He asked me what I would do if I were to win such a prize. I laughed and said that I would have to buy a ticket before I would have a chance at winning. He persisted and said, “Okay, so you bought a ticket and it had the lucky numbers. What would you do with all that money?”
Remember Tevya’s fantasizing in “Fiddler on the Roof?” In his song, “If I were a rich man…” Tevya could only come up with frivolous ways to spend his wealth and that included the building of a staircase that went nowhere just for fun. So I fantasized, too, for a few moments, musing on what I would do with sudden and newfound wealth. I came to the conclusion that I would like to be able to do things for people who are in really desperate straits. And I would probably clear the mortgage on my house. But as I said, I would have to buy a ticket first.
This Sunday we are at that point in The Sermon on the Mount where in Jesus asks us where our hearts are. What do we worry about? What is important to us? Where does God fit into all of that? There are those who proclaim that God is a god of bounty who shows love by showering wealth on the chosen ones. Perhaps I could accept that if I were one of the wealthy; but since that is not so, I am more inclined to identify with those who know a poverty that I can only imagine. I believe that God loves the poor, those whose only wealth is their faith in God.
A treasured memory of mine is the time I was privileged to spend in Kenya and Uganda. There I encountered genuine poverty, the kind that I was powerless to do anything about. At that time in Kenya, only 12% of the men were employed. Their average monthly wage was $23. Two generations of people were dying from HIV/AIDS. For the first time in the country’s recorded history there were street kids. The unemployed men tended to stand about in clusters while the women toiled and cared for the children, eking out crops from thirsty gardens and carrying home piles of thatch that would serve as fuel for fires in their cooking corners.
Imagine the embarrassment my group of friends and I felt when we were invited to dinner and there were served a lavish banquet that included three kinds of meat along with plantain and lush greens. We sat to table knowing that these same hosts felt fortunate if they were able to have a bit of meat even once a month.
We were privileged to celebrate Eucharist with the Kenyans. They danced and clapped their hands in the entrance procession and sang hymns with gusto, giving evidence of their joy in the Lord and their love for one another in the assembly. Many of them had walked for a day and a half to get to the church. They would have the same journey by foot back home. They didn’t mind if the homily exceeded 10 minutes, or if Mass went on for an hour-and-a-half. Sunday Eucharist was the center of their lives. There was no doubt that they trusted in God. They knew that God would provide the essentials for them as Jesus promises in the Gospel today. They believed that because they had survived the past week. They were willing to enter the new week with confidence, i.e., with faith. Having buried so many of their families and friends, they remained convinced that their true treasure awaited them with God in heaven.
Recently I read an advertisement promoting the sale of some new condominiums in New York City. The smallest units on the lowest floor started at well over a million dollars. A few of the listings had a red slash-mark through them that indicated they had already been sold. Even in these down times there are people who can afford that kind of luxurious living. What is even more amazing is the fact that some people have more than one mansion so that they don’t have to spend the entire year in one location. A senator was asked how many homes he owned. He had to confess he couldn’t remember the count. All that is beyond my powers of imagination.
No wonder the wealthy tend to associate with the wealthy and to live in exclusive and gated communities. That way they can have a fortress around their wealth and be deluded into thinking that their wealth is nothing extraordinary. Making sure to associate with others of similar wealth keeps the poor at a distance and helps them to conclude that if only the poor worked harder as the wealthy do, wealth could be theirs as well. You’ve heard it. The chasm grows wider with many fewer on one side than on the other.
Imagine a group of Kenyans sitting near a group of the elite as Jesus speaks. Do you think they would hear the same message? We know from other places in the Gospel that some who came to Jesus seeking to become disciples went away sad when Jesus challenged them to go and sell what they had and give to the poor before they came and followed him. That challenge would not bother a Kenyan at all. Hear the difference?
It is a delusion to think that it is easy to be Jesus’ disciple. Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said in effect that he loved Christ; it was Christians he couldn’t stand. Could that have been because, knowing Christ’s basic teachings, he had so little experience of Christians who practiced Christianity, who took it seriously enough that it governed how they treated other people?
Hear Pope Francis’s calling for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. Of course he came from poverty, lived in the midst of it, and never forgot his origins.
So, is Jesus saying that wealth is evil and the rich cannot enter heaven? An adage has often been misquoted. You’ve heard it, haven’t you? “Money is the root of all evil.” Actually, what Paul wrote to Timothy was: “The LOVE of money is the root of all evil.” What occasioned Paul’s remark was the fact that some in Timothy’s community were lusting after money and had given up the practice of faith in their pursuit of money. Paul was concerned for Timothy that he might succumb to the same temptations. He knew well wealth’s seductive powers and its powers to corrupt.
We can think of poor Mr. Madoff and those at the top in the Enron disaster and others who have bilked the vulnerable for their own gain.
Each of us must hear Jesus and then decide how to respond. Dare we ask ourselves what we treasure? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be,” Jesus said. What do we hold in highest value? To what do we cling? If it is things, even the poor can fall victim here. They can clutch to the little they have and be oblivious to the needs of the other poor around them.
I remember a friend who practiced tithing. For much of his adult life he had been of comfortable means. His tithes had been considerable. His pastors felt blessed to have him as a parishioner. Then his fortunes changed. In a moment no longer could he be described as wealthy. Some would have said he was poor. But, in his new poverty, he continued to tithe. That was always the first calculation he made on payday as he sat with his bills. He told me that he took a deep gulp the first time in the new regimen when he wrote his tithing check from his reduced income. “You know what?” he said. “When I tithe, there always seems to be more than I had before I tithed. Strange, isn’t it?”
“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” That is Jesus’ way of asking us what is most important in our lives. We will only seek the kingdom of God, that is, desire to have God reign in our lives, if there is a holy longing. We must come to recognize that emptiness that only God can fill. If we live in constant noise, every appetite satiated, and if we are inundated with things, we just might not notice the emptiness. We are supposed to have a hunger as we approach the Eucharistic Table. There is a reason why we present ourselves empty-handed.
In the final years of his life, Frank Sinatra reconciled with the Church. His marriage to Barbara Marx was convalidated, or blessed. Some Catholics voiced considerable outrage expressed to the editors of Catholic publications including the one I edited for a time. It was clear that many hadn’t heard what Paul tells us in today’s second reading: Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts. How could a man with Mr. Sinatra’s history be welcomed back by the Catholic Church? What some will never learn is that a person’s history is between that one and God. And more – we are a community of sinners – forgiven – but sinners nonetheless. Again hear Pope Francis’s most famous remark to date: “Who am I to judge?”
There is a lot about each one of us that no one else knows. We profess to be sinners each time we enter into Liturgy. When people from outside our numbers think of us Catholics, do they think we are a people who believe in the grace of repentance? Do they think of us as a people who never tire of welcoming back those who have wandered elsewhere? Do they think that among our primary messages is: “All are welcome here because God loves all people?” Don’t you have to wonder how King David would have fared in today’s Church? Could he have known forgiveness and acceptance and continued to be king?
We do believe in forgiveness, don’t we, forgiveness for others’ sins in addition to that for our own? In any event, I remember being told by someone who knew Frank Sinatra, that he was a very generous man. When he was moved by a story of desperation, he would contact the person in need and contribute substantially to ease the situation with the condition that no one was ever to know the source of the money. How many people thanked God for the blessing that Mr. Sinatra was in their lives?
So we sit on the Mountain and listen and are immersed in the words that flow over us from the one who is seated and teaches with authority. Dare we listen? Dare we change and become disciples?
Remember, there will be Food and Drink to strengthen us for the journey.
Each Sunday as I watch the Catechumens as they are called up before the Assembly to be sent forth to continue to ponder the Liturgy of the Word, I wonder what they are thinking. That is especially true when demanding and life altering readings such as this week’s have been proclaimed. How many of them are stunned and ask themselves, “Who can do these things?” “Surely these texts put forth exaggerations, impossible to carry out, so that the hearer can pare them down and improve behaviors somewhat.” Some in the Assembly may be thinking in the same manner.
The truth is what Jesus preaches to the disciples, to those who have decided to be his followers, doesn’t offer much wiggle room. Discipleship is all demanding. Disciples are to be a new creation whose manner of living and acting can only be explained by their imitation of Jesus and his living within them. The Catechumens are on a journey that lasts at least a complete Liturgical Cycle so that they can hear and respond to a complete Gospel. Only when they have heard the full challenge that Jesus issues will they be able to accept discipleship and enter the Waters to die to the old self and rise to their new life in Christ. When they say Yes at that point they are ready, with the help of the Spirit, to be Christ’s presence in the world, that is, to live their Baptismal Priesthood.
In the first reading, through Moses, God calls the people to be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy. Expressions of that holiness are the rooting out of hatred and revenge toward their brothers and sisters. The call is to love your neighbor as yourself. With all charity, when it is necessary, be a corrective force in the community but always with kindness. In other words, set the standard and live by it. When you think about it, and as you look back over the lives of the saints, living the implications of the reading from Leviticus was their path to sainthood.
Jesus builds on Moses’s proclamation and takes us beyond them. The walls of limitation come down and these directions are not only applicable to our relationships with family and friends, but also to our manner of responding to enemies and those who hate us. That may seem fine in abstraction. But put flesh and blood on what Jesus is demanding in terms of people in your own life who have adversely affected you, and you might come to a different conclusion. Who can do this?
Revenge is a fairly basic human instinct. If someone hits you, the instinct is to hit him back in self-defense. Who could blame you for that? Get the picture clear in your mind; see the person who has hurt you in this way. Now imagine yourself turning the other cheek, submitting to another blow. How easy is that? Who can do that?
The truth is, the Law allowed for one to retaliate in a manner equal to the offense, but not harsher than that. An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Turning the other cheek translates into offer no defense; give no retaliation. Think of that moment in Jesus’ passion when he is being scourged, spat upon, and struck in the face. There is nothing in the text that hints at self-defense or striking back. Jesus may ask why he is being struck but there is not a hint of revenge. Now hear that phrase that Jesus uses in teaching the disciples. You go and do likewise.
When we are being imposed upon, Jesus expects us, as disciples, to go beyond what is being demanded. The consequence of that is the removal of anything that would hint at resentment for being asked for assistance or a ride. Are your teeth beginning to grind yet? The instinct is to think about how the other will be taking advantage of you, isn’t it? That’s the point. We are moving toward the laying down of one’s life for the other.
The next directive is among the most demanding and difficult to practice. Love your enemies. And pray for those who persecute you. To wrestle with this there must be in your memory a major affront or wounding. Has anyone attempted to ruin your reputation? Have you been destroyed by vicious rumor or innuendo? As Job did, have you cried out in the night, Why me, God? See that person clearly who did this to you, feel the pain again, and now hear Jesus’ command to love that person and pray for him. Believe me, it can happen, but usually there will be a struggle and a need to die to yourself as you yield to the Spirit and learn what it means to love without any expectation of recompense. That’s what Jesus did on the Cross in response to those who drove in the nails and lifted him up.
I will never forget reading about an amazing Christian couple that felt the demands of this text in their lives. Their daughter and been murdered. The killer had been apprehended, tried, convicted and sent to prison. As the couple continued to pray and to go to church on Sunday they heard Jesus command them to turn the other cheek, to forgive the offense, and to love. They determined to go to the prison and meet with the killer and to get to know him. Over a period of time they did that and were surprised by their ability to forgive the heinous act and, wonder of wonders, come to love the one who took the life of their beloved daughter. That’s not the end of the story, though. When the man was granted parole, the couple invited him to come to live with them until he was able to find work and move on. The last line brought tears to my eyes. The killer had become like a son to them.
Who can do this? A more basic question should be, who said discipleship would be easy? That’s what the Catechumens should be asking themselves as they hear the Gospel proclaimed. They are journeying through the Church Year in the midst of the Assembly. And that is where they will find the answers to their questions. The example of the Assembly will convince them that it is possible to turn the other cheek, to go the extra mile, to do good to those who hate you, and to pray for one’s persecutors. But what is the secret of those who live this way?
The Catechumens are sent forth before the Eucharistic Prayer begins.
They are told that the Assembly looks forward to the day when they will join the Assembly at the Table. The Assembly’s secret is their transformation through their celebration of the Eucharist. It is through giving thanks to God through Jesus’ dying and rising, and through their taking and eating the Bread and the Wine, transformed into the Sacramental Presence of the Lord’s Body and Blood, that they find the way to love others as they are loved by God.
And that is the message the Assembly proclaims as they go forth to be Christ’s presence in the world even as they pray that the Catechumens will do as well, animated by the same Spirit.