SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT – B – February 25, 2018

A reading from the Book of Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
A reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans 8:31b-34
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 9:2-10

Dear Reader,

The Liturgy of the Word for the Second Sunday of Lent this year just might contain a warning for us even as we are encouraged to remember the vision and therein find our strength to go on.  We are in the second week of this sojourn in the desert of our Lenten renewal.  The fact that we are here is a testament to our faith no matter how challenged or fragile that faith might seem.  If it has been years since the last time we presented our foreheads for the ashes and wondered if faith survived in us, faith brought us here.  If this is our first Lent and this is a leg on our journey toward the Font, incipient faith can be naïve but it is faith nonetheless that empowered the taking of the first steps.  Warning.  Encouragement.  A challenge to remember.

We meet Abraham, our Father in the faith, 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.  It is a long time since his name change and the promise made to Abraham that I will make you the father of many nations, descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens or the sands on the shore.  Now, with that passing of time, Abraham is in advanced years.  Where are the signs of the fulfillment of the promise?  There is no land to claim.  He and his aged wife, Sarah, have but one son.  If you were Abraham, how would you react were God to say to you what was said 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.

I cannot hear the story without feeling intense horror.  Sure, 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 the wood for the fire.  Imagine the walk and Abraham’s hand on the knife’s hilt.  Every fiber in his being would cry out, “No!”  Yet he trudges on.  Imagine Isaac as his father ties the boy’s hands behind him and places him on the altar.  Do not 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 in the realization 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 we supposed to take from this reading?  You need not fear that God will command you to offer your child in sacrifice.  The days of human sacrifice ended in Abraham’s time and will 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 St. Teresa of Calcutta leaving the security of her convent to go into the streets of Calcutta to minister to the poorest of the poor.  Think of St. Francis disrobing 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, who climbed an electrical tower to rescue his autistic little brother who had made the ascent before him.

What is the point?  If we listen to the Genesis reading, we will learn what Abraham came to understand.  God is the faithful lover.  Abraham can trust God even in the direst of times.  If Abraham can, so can we, if we remember.  That does not mean there won’t be trials; but it does mean that ultimately the trials will not defeat us.  Think of Maximilian Kolbe as he asked 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, the betrayal by a friend, your advancing years and 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 because of their faith in Jesus, the Christ.

Every second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel takes us to Tabor’s top.  Peter, James and John are with Jesus there.  It is a major moment that language’s limits cannot describe.  What does it mean to be transfigured?  How white is the whitest that any bleach could make clothes?  One thing is certain; the three are seeing Jesus in a totally new light.  Then there is the added attraction 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 spoke 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 participants wish that time could stop and the moment go on and on.  Think of a magnificent aria sung by the late, great Joan Sutherland in her prime, or the late and great Luciano Pavarotti in his.  Think of Yo Yo Ma playing the cello.  Or think of a sunrise or sunset, or an eclipse of the sun.  Or think of the first time you kissed your beloved, or held your child in your arms.  Then you will understand Peter’s pleading with the Lord 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 we remember when the memory is all we 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 transpire that will define 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 of God.  The Transfiguration 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 Messiah serves the poor and the outcasts.  He embraces lepers and sinners and celebrates table fellowship with them.  Peter, James, and John will have to remember the Transfiguration and filter it through that other mountain top event, the crucifixion.  Most of all, they will interpret it in light of when the Son of Man has risen from the dead.

So, should we 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 can seem 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 us.  They warn us that there may be trials along the way.  We might have days when we are reduced to clinging to our faith by our fingernails, even as we wonder if God has abandoned us.  There could be a long, dark night of the soul.  But if we remember Abraham’s trust, we will remember God’s fidelity.  If we remember the Transfiguration, the crucifixion will not daunt us.  We will remember the Resurrection and our own dying and rising to which our faith in Jesus continually calls us.

Then we will see more clearly why we must always come back to the Eucharist to renew the Lord’s dying and rising and so continue our own transformation.  There we will find the reason and the strength tot continue on to the journey’s end and the life that begins then.

Sincerely,

Didymus

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BLESSED ARE THE GENTLE (MEEK) FOR THEY SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH

Dear Reader,

It was true when Jesus proclaimed the Beatitudes, just as it is today.  The proclamations jar the hearer because each one is in such stark contrast with the contemporary values.  Have you noticed yourself wondering as you read these reflections, “Who can do this?”  Think about what these times proclaim our values to be sought.  Power.  Wealth.  To be numbered among the elite.  Jesus said to those sitting at his feet on the mountaintop and he tells us that all that is an illusion.  Forgive me for being blunt about it, but most of us will die and, as far as I know, none of us will take anything we own with us.

Hebrew Scripture through the Prophets and Psalmists proclaimed the poor to be YHWH’s own.  The landowners, the oppressors of the poor, were not the real owners.  Only God owns the land.  Leviticus taught that at 7-year intervals the land should be given back to the original owners.  Jesus told parables that spoke to the folly of hoarding landowners.  Remember the farmer who concluded that his barn was already filled to overflowing and he had not yet harvested his crop for this year.  His decision?  Tear down his barn and build a new and bigger one to accommodate more.  Then when everything is in storage he would be able to take life easily, eat and drink and be merry all his days.  The only problem is that God summons him on what proves to be his last day.  Then who will enjoy all his riches?

Our history in this country should embarrass us.  When our ancestors came to these shores Native Americans who had profound respect for the land and reverenced it already occupied the land.  We took possession of their land and marched them off to reservations on the least desirable of landscapes.   The consciences of the invaders didn’t seem to be bothered.  After all, it was their “manifest destiny.”

How different would attitudes be if we all believed that the earth is God’s and we are stewards of what God has entrusted to God’s family.  That would have an impact on attitudes, too, if we saw each other as members of the one family, sisters and brothers in God’s family.  That is what Jesus taught.

St. Francis of Assisi is the model whose vision should be heeded.  In his embracing of poverty he said that we do not own anything.  He taught his brothers to live without possessions.  He saw the wonder of God on all of creation as he spoke of Brother Sun and Sister Moon.  And he recognized Christ in the poor and the outcast.  He embraced and kissed the leper as he dressed the leper’s wounds.

The world knew that something different was happening when the newly elected pope came out on the balcony dressed simply and without the accustomed papal garments and bowed and asked for prayers.  Taking the Francis’s name, it soon became clear that his intention was to live in the simplicity that the saint taught.  He challenged the shepherds to shepherd in the midst of the sheep and not over them, even to smell like the sheep.  A servant church should proclaim the dignity of all people and hold the poor in primacy of place.  He lives in humble quarters and invites street people to breakfast with him.  Some were shocked when he washed the feet of young people in prison, some of them women, some of them not Christian.  He kissed their feet.

Pope Francis calls us to embrace the fundamentals of the Gospel, and to hear Jesus proclaim that the meek, the humble are blessed or happy because they, we, shall inherit the earth.  The first Christians responded to the Gospel by living in community with a keen sense of responsibility for each other.  But then the Church took on power and that simplicity and strong sense of community was lost sight of.  Wealth became a sign of God’s favor, just as poverty became God’s punishment for sin.  Herbert Spencer, taking his lead from Charles Darwin taught that the fittest in society would survive as the weak and poor died away.  There are unfortunate echoes of that philosophy today.  The poor are poor because they do not work hard enough.

Think of the young man who came to Jesus wanting to be a disciple.  Jesus told him to go and sell what he had, give it to the poor and then come and follow him.  That young man who had prided himself in living by the letter of the Law, went away sad because he was wealthy and could imagine himself living in poverty.  There are current televangelists who link following Christ to gaining wealth.  Turn your life over to Christ and wealth will result.  That is not the Gospel message and challenge that I hear.

As we sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to the Beatitudes, dare we be open to them, vulnerable before them?  I spoke with a couple that told me they were downsizing.  One evening they looked around and realized how much “stuff” they had acquired and how little of it they actually needed.  Even their house was much larger then the two of them required.  They told me they felt it was a graced moment when they decided they could give much of what they had to the poor and start to live simpler lives.  And, they said, with the next breath they started talking about how they could volunteer to work in a homeless shelter.  “We’ve never been happier,” they said.  And their smiles showed it.

We don’t need white supremecists.  We don’t need the Ku Klux Klan, or any of the other organizations that deny the dignity and worth of a segment of the human family.  What we do need is to love one another as God loves us.  If we live in the simplicity of that love we will find peace knowing the inheritance that will be ours.

Sincerely,

Didymus

FIRST SUNDAY OF LENT – B – February 18, 2018

A reading from the Book of Genesis 9:8-15
A reading from the first Letter of St. Peter 3:18-22
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Mark 1:12-15

Dear Reader,

You must let go if Lent is to have its desired effect.  You may come into Lent toting a lot of baggage, sin, whatever.  Let go of them.  You may come into Lent with all kinds of presuppositions, especially if you have been through a Lent or two before in your life.  Let go of them and see if something new doesn’t happen.  You may come into Lent convinced it is a downer, a season of negativity.  Let go of that.  You might be surprised.  After all, the Church calls this season a happy time, a season of grace.  It can be that for you, too, if you do not let your defenses get in the way.

Could this be your first Lent?  Are you journeying through this season as a catechumen, one who is on the road toward Baptism?  You might have no idea what you are in for.  Good for you.  Let it happen.  Be led by the Spirit.  Be a blank slate on which the season can be etched.  You will be amazed at what can happen and how you will be transformed.

Lent is all about conversion, a turning away from sin and a turning to God.  More importantly, the season is about life, your experiencing God’s call to the fullness of life in Christ.  As I say, let it happen.  God is the actor.  You 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 as some would have you think.  Lent is a communal experience of the ongoing transformation of this people into the Body of Christ, a process that will not be complete until, well until when?  See what you think as the season goes on.

The first reading for this Sunday from the Book of Genesis puts us in a very important context.  (The mention floodwaters and many will remember the recent disastrous flow of rock, mud and debris in California.)  The 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 began.  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 the 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 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 is what happens with Baptism.  The Sacrament fulfills the flood and changes its meaning forever.  That is why, 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 should never forget it.

In St. 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 sin away and gives new life, life that never ends.  The baptized stand forgiven before God.

By the way, did you notice in the first reading, God has all the lines?  Noah doesn’t say anything.  He is 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 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 of what follows 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.  Two things.  First, Jesus is driven out into the desert.  That might imply something that he did not want to experience.  That might imply that Jesus was forced 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 us time to compare what we became through our Baptism with how we are living that reality.  Or, if this is your first Lent on your way to Baptism, it is time to ponder the transformation that we happen some forty days from now when you will die and rise in with and through Christ.

This will take time.  We will need to be free of distractions.  We must be patient.  We will have these weeks to listen to the readings from Scripture.  We will have these forty 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.  Pray.  Fast.  Give alms.  These three activities form the core of Lenten practice.  In the process we are preparing to be renewed in the celebration of the Great Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter – one feast spread over three days, the greatest feast of the Church’s Year.

Dear Catechumens, these forty days are 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.  You will be invited to enter the waters that are your tomb, there to die to sin, and then to emerge from the womb, on the other side, a new creation, you will be invited to continue on your way to the Lord’s Table and the Eucharist that completes your Baptism.

Which ever this Lent is for you, do not fear the struggle.  Let the Spirit lead.  It is, after all, all about love, God’s love for you that is complete and forever.  Enter in wholeheartedly and you will never be the same again.

Sincerely,

Didymus