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February 22, 2015: First Sunday of Lent

Posted on 21 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus was among the wild beasts, and the angels ministered to him” (Mark 1:13).

Today’s three readings show the power of the Lectionary to reveal biblical patterns and themes important to the liturgical seasons. Genesis 9 reminds us that God established a covenant with Noah and his descendants after the flood. 1 Peter compares the flood to baptism, which purges sin and creates us anew. The Gospel tells how Jesus, after his baptism, is led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted before he formally announces that God’s redemption of the world is at hand. The old is passing away and something new is happening.

Together, the three readings recapitulate the entire story of salvation. The first creation was purified by the flood that destroyed everything except what was saved in the ark. The sign of God’s new covenant is the rainbow. The pioneer of the new creation is Jesus, whose baptism begins the new creation. His body, like the ark, holds all created nature being transformed by grace. After his baptism he enters the desert to defeat Satan, the source of evil that has reduced God’s garden to a desolate and lifeless wilderness. After 40 days and nights, like Noah Jesus emerges from the trial to announce the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to renew the face of the earth.

Lent is our time to enter the great narrative of salvation. All the images and stories contained in the readings each Sunday, about floods, rainbows, deserts and promises, invite us to shape our conscious purpose around the pilgrimage with Jesus from death to new life. Even the “wild beasts” and “angels” who accompany Jesus during his time in the desert are meant to remind us that Lent is both a time of desolation and consolation, testing and affirmation.

The Spirit leads us away from the noise and busyness of everyday life to teach us to listen deeply to the voice of God, the One who knows us and loves us into existence, sustains us every moment so we can pass through the desert to new life.

Lent is our classroom and our place of prayer, intimate listening and renewal. We are in the story, part of the plan, agents of the Gospel to others. Week by week during Lent we are called to grow closer to God by following Jesus. Repent, believe in the Gospel. Easter belongs to those who have fully entered Lent.

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To Fast of Feast?

Posted on 20 February 2015 by patmarrin

"Can the wedding guests mourn when the bridegroom is still with them?" (Matt 9:15).

One of the benefits of fasting is that it sharpens your sense of taste. A good thirst makes cold water more refreshing. It is also true that "absence makes the heart grow fonder," one of the secrets of keeping a relationship fresh.

Today's Gospel reminds us that physical fasting is really a reminder about keeping our hearts attuned to our relationship with God. Jesus uses the image of the bridegroom to put ritual fasting back in the context of the covenant. Religion is all about love, its many seasons of hope and joy, longing and fulfillment.

Ignatian discernment explores the two states of the soul: consolation and desolation. We grow by understanding that life involves both inner peace and inner struggle. Learning to read our moods, motivations and mental need for consistency and purpose is part of the process of maturity.

Fasting has a way of clearing away the noise within, making us more alert to the many small voices and desires that vie for our attention, fragment and distract us. Lent can be a time to bring more order and calm to our minds and hearts so we can focus on essentials and keep our priorities straight.

The bridegroom was indeed “taken away” later as Jesus proceeded with his disciples to Jerusalem and the cross. Easter faith was forged in the emptiness and grief of Jesus’ absence at his crucifixion, then released in the joy of his presence in the resurrection. We will come to know him by experiencing both fasting and feasting. Lent is our season of longing as we journey through the Paschal Mystery to the joy of Easter.

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Choose Life

Posted on 19 February 2015 by patmarrin

"Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:24).

By the end of March of 1977, the newly appointed archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, had only been in office less than a month and a half and was already besieged by crisis. His priests were being murdered or forced to leave the country, the government, with support from some of his fellow bishops, was accusing him of dividing the country by taking the side of the poor campesinos in their struggle over land rights with the rich landowners, and he had been reported to Rome as a Marxist.

Romero’s first pastoral letter, issued during Holy Week, was titled “The Paschal Church.” The words of Jesus in today’s Gospel had become the social reality in El Salvador. The church would fulfill its discipleship under the leadership of its pastor for the next three years by entering the mystery of the suffering and death of Jesus as the only path to new life. On March 24, 1980, Romero was assassinated while saying Mass, laying down his life for the sake of Christ and for his people.

We enter our own time of Lent this week, and we will be invited to live the same Paschal Mystery. Our “dying” will be mostly symbolic, our bid to be more selfless for the sake of others, more generous with our time and energy to help build up the community. But the underlying vocation is the same, and perhaps our small disciplines and self-denial are in fact preparing us for greater sacrifices up ahead. Our Lent is a rehearsal for final union with Christ’s death in order to claim communion with him and all the members of his risen body.

In today’s first reading from Deuteronomy, Moses issues this challenge to the people: “I put before you life and death. Choose life." Jesus reveals the mysterious paradox of how we can chose life, by losing ourselves in the service of others. Our Lenten journey has begun.

Return to Me

Posted on 18 February 2015 by patmarrin

"Return to me with your whole heart ..." (Joel 2:12).

The start of Lent today has me turning to past routines, like getting on the scale to record my weight (!) and to think of specifics I can do, or do without, for the next six weeks to get my life under control. But today's scripture readings draw me back to the purpose of this penitential season, which is to get my relationship with God in order.

The reading from Joel is a call to "return to God with your whole heart.” It is about restoring the centrality of God and the Great Commandment to love God with my whole heart, mind, soul and strength. Sin in this perspective is not so much about moral failings or bad habits as losing touch with God, forgetting to begin everything I think, say and do with a nod to God, the organizing principle of my existence and faith.

In the Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples to practice the three habits that kept Jews focused on God and neighbor: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But he adds this twist: Do these in secret lest they become matters of self-improvement or for approval. Do them as an interior rebuilding of your intimacy with God, who "sees" us in secret. It is by repairing and restarting this relationship that we will take care of everything else, put order back into our lives, rebalance and integrate the many aspects of our daily activities that tend to fragment and distract us from what is most important.

I imagine a Lent during which I constantly remind myself that God “sees” me. This is more than just surveillance. I exist because God sees me, knows me and loves me. It is the essence of prayer (praise, gratitude, sorrow and petition) for me to gaze back at God, to make this encounter mutual, a friendship.

God knows I am too sedentary, need to drop some pounds, pay more attention to those around me, extend my concern beyond a comfort zone I have come to justify but that has isolated me from opportunities to love and serve, which has made me unhappy. We will spend the next six weeks getting to know each other better, and that should take care of everything else. With God's help, this is what I plan to do for Lent.

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Discernment

Posted on 17 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Do you not yet understand or comprehend?” (Mark 8:17).

We are nearing the middle of Mark’s Gospel, and in a few verses (Mark 8:27), Jesus will stop to quiz his disciples on who they think he is. This phase of his ministry will end, and they will begin the long, slow journey south to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be handed over to be crucified. Have the disciples discerned anything?

The exchange in today’s Gospel about the “leaven” of Herod and the Pharisees seems to reveal that they have not. They remain at the literal level, thinking that Jesus is talking about whether they have enough bread. The disciples seem incapable of discernment, which is about understanding the deeper meaning of Jesus’ words.

Herod rules by intimidation, injecting fear into the people. The Pharisees mask their real motives with a show of piety, while they complicate religion, making God inaccessible except through their rules. Both forms of official authority — fear and scrupulosity — function by permeating the minds of the people. This is their “leaven,” a tasteless, odorless, invisible enzyme that shapes the culture from within.

Only when the disciples grasp the influence of this leaven, this contrary spirit, and reject it, will they be able to understand the mystery of Jesus' apparent failure as God’s messiah. The Holy Spirit is moving Jesus to surrender his life out of love for a sinful world in order to expose the lie that power brings freedom and happiness. Only self-emptying love brings true fulfillment. Jesus' death and resurrection will remove the old leaven of self-deception and selfishness, replacing it with the new leaven of sincerity and truth.

Personal conversion begins with discernment, which is possible only in habits of prayer and reflection. Wisdom, like love, is a many splendored thing, a way of seeing both the surface and depth of reality, understanding the what and the why of everyday events and the motives hidden in our own thoughts and feelings. We begin by asking for the Holy Spirit to permeate our consciousness like leaven, where it will quietly, gradually transform us from within.

If you are reading this today, it is because you want this kind of inner life. It is there for the asking: "Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of the faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love."

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The Signs of the Times

Posted on 16 February 2015 by patmarrin

"Amen, I say to you, no sign will be given to this generation" (Mark 8:17).

The older I get the more I find myself looking back over my life and saying, "If only I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently." Recent film retrospectives like "Selma" might also stir more people in my generation to ask, "Why didn't I see the racial injustice of that time and respond more courageously?"

Regret changes nothing, but it can teach us to look at those issues and events that are going on right now that will be important in hindsight. Now is the time for us to do something about climate change, immigration, environmental damage and income inequality before these obvious problems spill over into major crises and global instability.

Jesus invited the people of his time to conversion of heart, right relationship, greater compassion and justice in their lives. They resisted change and demanded some dramatic sign that he was a messenger from God. Jesus refused to give them a sign other than the sign of Jonah, a reference to the story of a prophet sent to preach repentance to an evil nation that actually did repent and averted disaster.

What sign do we need today that God wants us to guide our lives by justice and compassion? Each day we have a chance to respond creatively and courageously to help change patterns of discrimination and waste, to share what we have with others in need, to be patient and considerate in all our encounters. It may seem a small step toward solving larger problems, but it opens us up to further steps and opportunities to find deeper solutions in our families and communities.

Beginning each day in prayer makes us available to God’s prompting and encouragement. True holiness begins in simple, ordinary ways, but this can change the direction of our lives.

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The Rule of Love

Posted on 14 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched the leper” (Mark 1:41).

Sometimes the smallest gesture covers a great distance. When Jesus reaches out to touch the leper in today’s Gospel, he is committing himself to a way of living that defies the limits of convention, religion and social taboo. In effectively contaminating himself he risks being ostracized. In associating with the those outside the ritual purity laws and other outcasts, he becomes outcast.

So why does he do this? Mark says that he was “moved with pity.” Compassion for the suffering and estrangement of the leper from community and family moves Jesus to identify with him. What he experiences is more than just sympathy; Jesus is seized with a gut-wrenching impulse to respond. The Greek word splagchnos used to describe his pity is the word for intestines. He can no more turn away from the leper than a parent could ignore a child who has been injured.

But there is another dimension to his pity: Anger. When the leper makes his request, he couches it conditionally with the words “if you want to.” He is prepared for the same reaction he has received from people and perhaps even the priests, who may have associated his leprosy with personal sin. How often people today who are suffering wonder if they are being punished by God. Jesus’ response, “I do will it” or “of course I want to” is tinged with indignation at the kind of religion that would lay shame on top of illness.

At his touch and word, the leprosy is gone. Jesus then sends the man to show the priests that he is clean and therefore should be readmitted to the community and to synagogue. This “proof” is also meant to challenge the entire system of religious judgment controlling access to God. The priests would understand this challenge and have to wonder just how this new preacher had the power to heal despite his neglect of their rules about ritual purity.

We are told by Jesus not to judge, not because it is wrong but because it is impossible. How do we know the moral state of another person or the cause of their suffering or personal situation. Disciples are to move through life guided by compassion, responding to others even at the risk of contamination or raised eyebrows from the scorekeepers and the scandalized. Only motives of love will count in God’s eyes. How much easier life would be if we had a detailed rule book for every situation. But we do not, only the one standard Jesus himself used; compassion for one another, especially for those who are hurting.

Stay in Touch with God

Posted on 13 February 2015 by patmarrin

“He makes the deaf hear and the mute speak” (Mark 7:37).

Jesus continues his journey to the edges of Israel, and in today’s Gospel he is in the district of the Decapolis (10 cities). His reputation has gone before him, and people bring him a deaf mute, begging Jesus to “lay his hand on him.” Touch is significant, as we have seen in earlier miracle stories where people surge around Jesus in hopes of touching him or even the edge of his cloak.

The healing reminds us of the creation stories in Genesis. God creates the universe by verbal command, but when the moment comes to create human beings, God forms clay into Adam (earth) and breathes life into him. It is an intimate, personal act, and the creature possesses the “image and likeness” of the Creator. Adam is a son of God.

Jesus encounters the deaf mute in much the same way, putting his finger in the man’s ear, touching his tongue with his own spittle. Jesus looks up to heaven and sighs, emitting a deep exhalation of breath as he says, “Epbphatha” (“Be opened!”). Only the raising of Lazarus equals the effort and care this astonishing miracle evokes from Jesus.

Mark’s intent is to show Jesus as recreating the world. Wherever he goes, by word and touch he restores creation to its original state, before sin and death distorted everything. God walks within his own creation in Jesus, and his physical presence reveals what the “new creation" looks like. Grace is unblocked and flows into everything and everyone.

It is an unfinished work, and as Mark’s Gospel continues, we see that Jesus is not only transforming the world, he is also absorbing the damage of sin and death into himself, so that when he dies on the cross he will take evil with him. His final breath from the cross will open ("epbphatha") the world to God’s love once again.

The church, his body in the world, has this same power to touch, heal and open. We, as members of that body, are sent each day to the edges of the world to announce the Good News by touching the lives of everyone we meet.

Time to Stretch

Posted on 12 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Jesus entered a house and wanted no one to know about it, but he could not escape notice” (Mark 7:24).

In today’s first reading from Genesis we hear the story of how Eve came to be as the perfect partner for Adam in the garden. The Bible presents male and female united in love as the image and likeness of God. Original sin strikes at this intimacy and profoundly complicates the relationships between men and women. Redemption must address this fundamental estrangement to restore the balance within creation.

Mark’s story of the encounter between Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman is loaded with possible interpretations, but seems to show Jesus "meeting his match." It is one of many instances in the four Gospels where women enter his life and appear to expand his perspective. Jesus’ mother initiates his ministry at Cana by prompting his first miracle. A woman presciently anoints his feet in Bethany before his death. Women remain with him at his crucifixion and are the first witnesses to the resurrection. Women's faith in Jesus guides and supports his mission from beginning to end.

Within the deep scriptural patterns of fulfillment, the evangelists seem to show Jesus learning and growing in his encounters with women as necessary to his own human completeness and as essential to redeeming humankind as the “new Adam.”

The Syrophoenician woman stands up to Jesus for the sake of her sick daughter. She bests him a duel of wits that includes his provocative slur about gentiles as “dogs” and her appeal for them as hungry puppies under the children’s table. He cannot resist such determination and seems to know that the Spirit is at work beyond the borders of Israel, the larger theme for Mark of the universal scope of the Gospel.

Discipleship never stops expanding our understanding of the unconditional range of God’s mercy for everyone. If you feel stretched today by the challenge to love beyond familiar borders and attitudes, rejoice that the Spirit is calling you to grow.

Food, Glorious Food

Posted on 11 February 2015 by patmarrin

“Nothing that enters a person from outside, but the things that come out from within are what defile” (Mark 7:15).

Both scripture readings today are about food. Jesus emerges from his confrontation with the Pharisees over hand washing and dietary restrictions with a little parable about the difference between digestion and the intentions of the heart. In Genesis, God gives Adam a tour of the garden with its luscious trees, but warns him to stay away from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What we eat is less important than what we think about.

Food, like air and water, is at the center of all life. People in Jesus’ time spent much of their day gathering and preparing food. Religion had a lot to say about eating. We live in a food-obsessed culture. Most of the developed world has surpassed the issue of food security and concentrates on food quality, dining as recreation and on weight control. Wealth is the power to eat.

Again, Jesus focuses not on physical consumption but on human motivation. What we eat might make us sick but it does not defile us spiritually or morally. It is what comes from our inner thoughts and desires that defines us. Avarice or lust can consume a person, dominate their perceptions, control their relationships and overwhelm their thoughts. A virtuous person sees the world and other people not as objects but as subjects worthy of respect.

The Creation story sets the stage for the entry of sin into the world. God has provided every imaginable resource to Adam, surrounding him with beauty and security in a garden. But Adam is not yet fully human, capable of choice and responsibility. He must be tested. Eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil gives him consciousness and freedom to say yes or no to God’s plan. Human beings will first say no, and the story of salvation is set in motion – God sending a second Adam to free us from our own poor choices to recover purity of heart. Jesus models human maturity and true freedom.

It is often said that we are what we eat. This is true physically, but even more important, we are what we think about and imagine. If this is true, who are we?

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