The Liturgy of the Word for this, the Second Sunday of Lent, might contain a warning even as you are encouraged to remember the vision and therein find the strength to go on. This is the second week of the sojourn of renewal in the desert. The fact that you have embarked on this trek is a testament to your faith no matter how challenged or fragile it might seem. If it has been years since the last time you presented your forehead for the ashes wondering if your faith has survived, faith brought you here. If this is your first Lent, a leg in your journey to the Font, incipient faith can be naïve but it is faith nonetheless that empowered your taking the first steps. Warning. Encouragement. A challenge to remember.
Abraham is called our Father in faith. You meet him in the first reading at a crisis time in his faith. It is ages since God called Abram and challenged him to go to the land that I will show you. A long time has passed since the name change from Abram to Abraham and the promise made to make you the father of many nations, descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens or the sands on the shore. Years, and Abraham is aging. Where are the signs of the fulfillment of the promise? There is no land to claim. He and Sarah, his aging wife, have but one son. Now, if you were Abraham, how would you react were God to say to you what was announced to Abraham? Take your son Isaac, your only one, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah. There you shall offer him up as a holocaust on a height that I will point out to you.
Is it possible to hear this story without feeling intense horror? True, knowing the outcome mitigates the horror. Still, the horror remains. Imagine Abraham as he took Isaac by the hand, as they loaded the ass with wood for the fire. Imagine the walk and Abraham’s hand on the knife’s hilt. Every fiber of his being must have cried out, “No!” Yet he trudged on. And imagine Isaac as his father tied the boy’s hands behind him and placed him on the altar. Don’t minimize the terror the boy felt as he saw the knife raised over him prepared to slit his throat. Why is this happening? To test Abraham’s faith.
How firmly do you believe? Is there anything that faith demands that you would refuse to do?
So, God is satisfied that there is no commandment God could give Abraham that Abraham would refuse to carry out, Abraham, our Father in Faith. But what was the aftermath of that faith moment for Abraham? Did Isaac ever speak to his father again? Was Sarah’s rage ever calmed once she realized that her husband had come so close to slaughtering their son? The answer to both questions seems to be, no.
What is the point to be made here? What are you supposed to take from this reading? There is no need to fear that God will command you to offer your child in sacrifice. The days of human sacrifice ended in Abraham’s time and would not revive. But your fidelity to God and the Gospel may make huge demands that make little sense to anyone but you. Think of Damian leaving Belgium to spend the remainder of his life on Molokai in a leper colony. Think of Mother Teresa leaving the security of her convent to go into the streets of Calcutta to minister to the poorest of the poor. Think of Francis disrobing himself in front of the bishop, abandoning his father’s fortune, and wedding Lady Poverty in response to what he believed Christ’s call to be. Think of the lad, terrified of height that climbed an electrical tower to rescue his autistic little brother who had made the ascent before him.
Think of Pope Francis as he challenges the Church to become poorer and so serve the needs of the poor. Can the hierarchy hear his challenge, follow his example, give up the splendor, and shepherd in the midst of the sheep?
What is the point? If you listen to the Genesis reading, you will learn what Abraham came to understand. God is the faithful lover. Abraham can trust God even in the direst times. If Abraham can, so can you, if you remember. That doesn’t mean that there won’t be trials, but those trials will not defeat you. Think of Maximilian Kolbe asking to take the place in line of the young Jewish father being led to the gas chambers in Dachau. Think of your own challenges, the loss of a spouse, the terminal illness of a child, the loss of your income, or home, your advancing years, or your declining health. Think of your own challenges and remember God’s fidelity. Remember Paul’s words in the Letter to the Church in Rome: If God is for us, who can be against us? That was written when many Christians were on their way to execution for their faith.
Every Second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel takes us to Tabor’s top. Peter, James and John are there with Jesus. It is a major moment that language’s limits cannot adequately describe. What does it mean to be transfigured? How white is the whitest that any bleach could make clothes? One this is certain, the three see Jesus in a totally new light. Then there are the added attractions of Moses, the giver of the Law who had promised that one greater than he would come after him, and Elijah, the first and greatest of the prophets who announced what God wanted the people to hear. Jesus is the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets.
There are in life some transfixing moments that make the participants wish that time could stop, that the moment could go on and on. Think of a magnificent aria sung by the late Joan Sutherland in her prime, or the late Luciano Pavarotti in his. Think of Yo Yo Ma playing the cello. Or a sunrise or sunset. Or the first time you kissed your beloved or held your newborn in your arms. Then you will understand Peter’s pleading with Jesus to let them build three tents and preserve the moment, to let them stay there and not have to go down from the mountain’s top.
The brilliance of the sublime you remember when the memory is all you have. Jesus would not allow the three to wallow in the sentimental moment because they did not understand what they had seen and been part of. During their descent Jesus forbade them to tell anyone what they had witnessed until those events have transpired that will interpret what they witnessed. As Peter, James, and John looked on, as they heard the voice from the cloud say, this is my beloved Son; listen to him, most likely they saw in the splendor and heard in the thunder the confirmation of what they thought they had begun to understand. The great signs, the miracles, convinced them that Jesus was the Messiah. The Transfiguration certainly attests to that. But, what kind of Messiah? Not the mighty warrior. Not the one who would reign over people. Not the Messiah that would drive out foreign rule forever. This will be a Messiah that serves.
Peter, James, and John will have to remember the Transfiguration and filter it through another mountain top event, the crucifixion. Most of all, they will not be able to interpret it accurately until it is seen in light of when the Son of Man has risen from the dead.
So, should you go on with this Lenten journey? It could be that by now you have forgotten the Ashes. It could be that by now you are getting tired of fasting and praying and giving alms. Forty days seems like an eternity when you are doing without. Perhaps you are wondering if you will ever reach the Font and be baptized. This Sunday’s readings warn and encourage. They warn that there may be trials along the way. You might have days when you are reduced to clinging to your faith by your fingernails even as you wonder if God has abandoned you. There may be a long, dark night of the soul. But if you remember Abraham’s trust, you will remember God’s fidelity. If you cling to the Transfiguration, the crucifixion won’t break you.
Remember the Resurrection. Then you will see more clearly why you must always come back to the Eucharist to renew the Lord’s dying and rising and continue your own transformation. It is in the Eucharist that you will find the reason and the strength to continue on to the journey’s end and the life that begins then.
You must let yourself be vulnerable if Lent is to have its hoped for effect. You can rise with the ashes on your forehead, wondering what these forty days are supposed to accomplish. Perhaps you are aware of sin in your life and are discouraged about letting go and experiencing the freedom of the children of God. In your innermost being, you can wonder if Lent can really work. This can be especially true if you have made the journey a number of times. What’s going to be different about this one? Let go of the presuppositions and the negativity. Enter the season freely and you might be surprised. After all, the Church calls this season a happy time, a season of grace. It can be that way for you if you don’t let your defenses get in the way.
On the other hand, this might be your first Lent. Are you journeying through this season as a catechumen? You might have no idea what you are in for. Good for you. Let it happen. Let it be a season of surprises. Allow yourself to be led by the Spirit. Be a blank slate on which Lent can be etched. You will be amazed at what can happen and how you can be transformed between now and the glorious feast of the Lord’s rising.
Lent is all about conversion, a time of turning away from sin and turning to God. More importantly, the season is about life and your experiencing God’s call to the fullness of life in Christ. Let it happen. God is the actor. You will be the recipient of God’s grace at work in your life and in the lives of those who gather with you as Church. Lent is not nearly as private and individual an experience as some would have you think. As is the case with all our sacramental activities, Lent is meant to be a communal experience of the ongoing transformation of this people into the Body of Christ, an action that won’t be complete until, well, until when? See what you think as the season goes on.
The first reading for this Sunday puts us in a very important context. Floodwaters rushed over the earth. The only survivors are Noah and his family and the animals, domestic and feral, that Noah brought aboard in pairs before the rains started.
Sin and corruption, the wholesale turning away from God’s ways, caused the destruction. Now the waters have receded and the bow is emblazoned in the sky. God makes the rainbow a sign of covenant: never again shall the waters of a flood destroy all bodily creatures; there shall not be another flood to devastate the earth. Down through the ages, the appearance of the rainbow will remind all who see it that this covenant is forever.
The poetry and imagery are lush. Take the reading literally and as a historical record of events and you will miss the point. This is the stuff of myth, powerful and grace-laden. As Christians, when we read about the flood the first thing we notice is that following upon the destruction, something new begins. That’s the way it is with Baptism. The sacrament fulfills Noah’s flood and changes its meaning forever. Is it any wonder that when Baptism is celebrated there ought to be lots of water in the Font, enough for us to drown in, because that is what we say happens there. In Baptism we die with Christ so that we might rise and live Christ’s life. Never an ending, Baptism is always a beginning. We become a new creation. You have put on Christ. In him you have been baptized. Amazing. We ought never to forget the truth.
In Peter’s first Letter, today’s second reading, we hear a primitive, that is, early theology of Baptism. Already, in the first century of the Christian era, Noah’s flood prefigured Baptism, which saves you now. The flood that is Baptism washes away sin and gives new life, life that is lasting. The baptized rise from the font and stand forgiven in Christ before God.
Notice that in the first reading, God is the only speaker. Noah is silent, the recipient of the grace. Usually a covenant is an agreement between two parties. This first covenant, preceding those with Abraham and Moses, is a lavish outpouring of God’s love that far surpasses anything we could merit. All we have to do is accept it and live the consequences.
So, what is Lent about? The faith walk we are on is not an idyllic saunter in the park. We are not in Eden anymore. To be faithful to the call involves a struggle of will. Mark’s account of Jesus’ Temptation in the Desert is the shortest of the three synoptic accounts. It occurs immediately after Jesus’ Baptism. Notice the words: The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan. Tow things to note. First, Jesus is driven into the desert. That might imply something that Jesus did not want to experience. It seems to say that the Spirit forced Jesus to go into the wasteland. That might imply a foreknowledge of the struggle that would ensue. That might imply that it was God’s will that Jesus endure this and so be tempered for the mission he would begin.
Notice, too, that for forty days, the duration of the flood and Lent’s length, Satan tempted Jesus. We do a disservice to the text if we minimize its implications. Temptations are not temptations unless they lure us, invite us to something we ought not do or be. For Jesus, it is the struggle to always do the Father’s will. For us, it is the same.
Lent’s purpose is not to plunge us into temptation. It is an invitation to go into the desert, not to be tempted, but to allow ourselves time to compare what we became through our Baptism with how we are living that reality. The journey takes time. We will need to be free from distractions. We must be patient. We will have these weeks to listen to the readings from Scripture. We will have these 40 days to pray. We will have this time to shrug off whatever is of sin so that we can more freely live the Good News by loving God and our neighbor. Prayer. Fasting. Almsgiving. These are the three activities at the core of our Lenten experience. In the process we pare preparing to be renewed in the celebration of the Great Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter – one feast spread over three days, becoming the greatest feast of the Church’s Year.
For you Catechumens, these forty days comprise your journey to the Font. These days during which you are invited to fast, to pray, and to give alms, your focus is the struggle to die to sin and put on Christ. Forty days from now you will stand at the edge of the waters and there put aside all that was of the former life. You will be invited to enter the waters that are your tomb, there to die to sin, and emerge from the womb, on the other side, a new creation as you make your way to the Lord’s Table and the Eucharist that completes your Baptism.
Which ever this Lent is for you, don’t fear the struggle. Let the Spirit lead. It is, after all, all about love. Enter in wholeheartedly and you will never be the same again.
Few will find consolation in the proclamation of today’s first reading from the Book of Leviticus. The Lord speaks to Moses and Aaron telling them how a person with leprosy must be brought to the priest and there be declared unclean. S/he is not welcome in the camp and must cry out: Unclean, unclean! Everyone who might be unaware of their proximity to the leper will hear the warning and avoid contact with the poor wretch. The reason for the regulation is the fear of contamination. It was thought that simple contact with the leper could result in contamination and the spread of the disease. Still, the law is painful to hear. Consolation will come through today’s Gospel. Wait and see.
There might be the temptation to heave a huge sigh of relief because lepers are no longer treated the way they were in the not-too-distant former times. These are far more civilized times, aren’t they? Perhaps. Unless we take off our blinders and recognize the prejudices and shunning that still infest our society. Lepers may not be shunned for fear of contagion, but we are far from a classless society in which all people are treated equally. Even with a Black president, racism is far from extinct. How many times have you heard people voice concern for the president, fearing violence against him because of his race? Racial profiling is commonplace, according to the nightly news. Sexism may be on the wane, but it, too, is far from extinct. How many wars are being waged and how much violence is being unleashed in the name of religion?
As we sit under this proclamation of the word, we have to ask ourselves whom we exclude? Whom would we feel justified in shunning? And being vulnerable before the word, we must allow the Spirit to inspire us to see the naked truth.
Many years ago, I visited a young boy in hospital who had been badly burned in a flaming car accident that killed his father and uncle and left his younger brother burned as well. The elder brother was horribly disfigured as a result of the flames that had engulfed him. We sat in a darkened room; the windows to the hall were covered lest someone passing by might look inside. The door behind me opened and a little girl wandered in. She gasped as she caught sight of the boy. She screamed and fled the room. Tears welled in his eyes. Does God think I am ugly, too, he asked?
I remember cradling in my arms a man dying with AIDS. His mother had asked me to visit him. She was concerned that her son had not been baptized. She and her son’s partner and I had gathered around his bed and talked about God’s love and about Jesus’ dying for us all as a sign of that love. There were some long and awkward pauses as the patient let go little by little of his fears of being condemned by the church and rejected. With a tremor of great trepidation in his voice he asked if Baptism could be for him.
We filled the bathtub. I carried him to the tub and lowered him into the waters. As I said the words of Baptism he raised his arms as one praying would. Then the jerk of his arm resembled the motion made by one sinking a lengthy putt. Yes, he said. All of us wept at his joy. The next day he died.
Hear the confidence of the leper who kneels before Jesus. Either he had heard Jesus teach or others had told him about Jesus and what he was rumored to be accomplishing among the poor and the desperate. What made him conclude that what Jesus had done for others he could do for him? Something about Jesus made the leper comfortable in approaching him. If you wish you can make me clean. Hear Jesus speak in his own name: I do will it. Be made clean. Jesus is the compassionate one, the one who willingly enters into others’ sufferings and makes them his own. Love compels him, God’s love that Jesus brings to the world.
As you hear this Gospel proclaimed, the more burdened you are, the more will the message console you and challenge you. If you imagine yourself kneeling in the leper’s place and looking into the face of Jesus, would you be able to speak with that same confidence? You can do that if your conviction is not that your sin, whatever it is, is the most import thing. Certainly not to trivialize it or ignore the reality of sin, the fact is the sin is not nearly as important as the forgiveness that God wishes to bestow. That is the significance of the healing of the leper. With the cleansing, the leper is restored to the community. Your forgiveness is your restoration. But what is the resulting challenge?
Among the great proclamations of the Second Vatican Council is that all the Church’s Sacraments are public celebrations. That is true even of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or Penance. In every Sacrament, it is the whole Church as the Body of Christ that is acting. Just as there is no such thing as a private sin, that is, a sin that affects only the sinner, so too, there is no such thing as a private Sacrament of Reconciliation. The whole Church acts. The whole Church proclaims God’s forgiveness. The whole Church reconciles with the sinner. And the whole Church rejoices.
Pray that the whole Church is listening to the challenges Pope Francis declares through word and action. The ministry of the believers is all about love. A poorer Church is challenged to minister to the needs of the poor. The shepherds are to minister in the midst of the sheep and not lord it over them. Just as Francis proclaimed himself to be a sinner, so ought we recognize that truth in ourselves. And as forgiven sinners with Francis we can ask: Who are we to judge. That’s another way of saying who are we to condemn, to excommunicate, or to shun?
As the stranger enters through the portals to your Assembly, is the first thing s/he perceives that all are welcome here? Each person who enters ought to sense immediately that this is a loving community of forgiven sinners that welcomes all who come among them and invites them to share in the Eucharist. There are no strangers here. All are welcome. All are part of the one family of God, recipients of the universal and unconditional love for which we give thinks in every celebration of Eucharist. What else is the significance of One Brat that we break, One Cup that we share? See how powerful the symbols are?
There is no greater joy than that experienced in the healing of a broken relationship. There is no great joy than that of reconciliation. One who is forgiven and reconciled will much more readily accept the possibility that s/he is loved by God than will one who is shunned.
As a representative of your parish community, one who knows what it means to be forgiven, one who has stood at the Table in the midst of the Assembly gathered there, remember that you are sent from that Eucharist to live it in the world. Be an ambassador of healing. Be a sign of God’s acceptance and love wherever you go and to whomever you meet. Bring peace.