Lent and Easter Reflections

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                              

Choosing Life

“I have set before you life and death” (Deut 30:19).

Every love story has many chapters, and today we celebrate romantic love as one of the early chapters. Strong emotions are needed to overcome the essential solitude that makes us a separate self. Intimacy exchanges the small world of self-sufficiency for the larger but more vulnerable experience of companionship. Once we have allowed someone else into our privacy, we must negotiate space for self and other while exploring the common ground and shared imagination that is intimacy. Every love story teaches us something about the mysterious truth Jesus announces in today’s Gospel (Luke 9:22-25), that greater life requires dying to self, measure for measure, loss for gain.

This occurs in so personal and hidden a process that language and art can barely pursue the meaning of love without drifting into cliché or obscuring the magic with explanation. We just know it when we are at the threshold of surrender, heading heart first into a realm we have heard about, read about, thought about, but can never grasp except by experiencing it. One thing we do know is that it feels like life. To choose love is to choose life. To retreat from it is to postpone the one adventure that exposes us to God and invites us to the next chapter in the story of who we are meant to be.

Smudge

“When you pray, go to your inner room” (Matt 6:6).

Ash Wednesday has its equivalents in many religions and holds an odd appeal even for non-religious people who recognize that a balanced perspective on life includes the need for sober, honest assessment and discipline. Just who are we, rushing through life, making plans, eating and exercising, building networks of relationships, a career, our personal legacy? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It is good to stop and think about time and eternity, our own mortality.

Millions of people will walk around today with a cross-shaped smudges on their foreheads. We are marked with ashes made from burned palms from last year’s Palm Sunday, the culmination of Lent leading into Holy Week. This gives continuity to our annual ritual observance of Lent as a season of prayer, penance and almsgiving, the three Jewish practices described in Matthew’s Gospel for today. Jesus focuses on interior renewal as more important than external observance, especially for show. The “inner room” where God sees the real you is your own heart, where motive and intent take form. Offer your desire to be a good and loving person. Let forgiveness of others start there, then follow through. Consider the needs of others, especially the poor, and resolve to share yourself more.

Lent is a process. Ash Wednesday is a down payment on our best intentions during the next six weeks. We begin reminded that we are dust (albeit magnificent stardust), but we will end as sons and daughters of God in glory.

Creation

“God saw how good it was” (Gen 1:22).

Today’s two readings contrast the sweeping grandeur and goodness of creation with the tendency in religion to divide of the world into clean and unclean, good and bad, pure and impure. The Pharisees object to Jesus’ disciples eating without first performing the ritual washing of hands. Jesus uses the occasion to observe how ritual behavior had replaced deeper virtue and religious observance seemed to excuse some individuals from real obligations. For example, the Pharisees excused those dedicated to religion from the obligation to care for their parents. For the sake of a human tradition they were allowed to break one of the Mosaic commandments. The Gospels take up this theme of outward appearance and inner disposition and the hypocrisy of some religious figures who took pride in keeping small rules perfectly but ignored the larger spirit of the Law.

There is security in ritual or in keeping a set of rules, but if it engenders a sense of superiority or prevents us from entering the ambiguities and risks of everyday living, we miss the adventure of love. Love often draws us into more complex balancing of motives, acting in the moment and later sorting out the consequences, even making mistakes we must then revisit. This is life. What Jesus affirms is that reality is itself filled with goodness, rich in possibility and open to grace. We do our best, and blessings will flow even from our missteps and errors. This is good news indeed.

Your Face

“People immediately recognized him (Mark 6:54).

As we continue Mark’s narrative of the crowds seeking Jesus, the Lectionary also begins the Book of Genesis, making some important connections between God the Creator and Jesus the one sent to restore creation to its original integrity.

Literary critic James Wood, in a review of a new translation of the Book of Genesis, notes the double use of the word 'face' in the opening verses of Genesis in the King James Bible: “Darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” Wood marvels at the insight captured by the Hebrew original: “Two uses of “face” in one verse, and a third implied face, surely: God’s own, hovering over the face of his still uncreated world. The Almighty looking into the face of his waters, might well be expected to see his face reflected: it is profoundly his world, still uncontaminated by rebellious man.”

Jesus, who began his mission coming up out of the waters of the Jordan after his baptism, recapitulates the Genesis theme: A heavenly voice is heard saying, “This is my beloved Son.” The image and likeness of God is once again visible in a human face. As Jesus makes his way among the people of Galilee, they instinctively recognize in him the dream we all hold for ourselves—to be free of the damage and distortions of sin, free to live as God intended us to live.

Mark tells us that they were eager to touch Jesus, even his clothing, as a source of healing. Our perfection lies in recognition that the body of Christ is in the world and that all of us are called to the new creation membership in that body promises.

Out to Sea

“Put out into deep water” (Luke 5:4).

Ishmael, Herman Melville’s protagonist in Moby Dick, begins the book by explaining his need to leave the predictable stability of dry land and to go to sea. The open water with its mysteries and risks is where he gets back in touch with himself and life’s horizonless adventure.

The water is where Jesus retreats when the crowds press in on him. He teaches from a boat. He crosses the lake again and again to teach the disciples about the mystery that will follow his earthly sojourn, when knowing the surface of reality will not be enough. Riding the waves and walking on water will reveal the depth of life, whose secrets they must know and and be able to navigate.

Peter, chosen to lead the disciples, must be the first to learn this need to trust the seeming fluidity and unpredictability of following Jesus from life through death into new, deeper life. The experience of being on the water with Jesus and, in today’s Gospel, the overwhelming catch of fish, fill Peter with awe and a sense of his own inadequacy. But it is his humility, not some heroic strength, that Jesus will call the foundation of the church, whose mission is mercy.

It is time to go to sea. Jesus says to each of us, “ Don’t be afraid. Don’t depart from me, but come with me into the adventure of grace.

Getting Away

“Come away by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while” (Mark 6:30).

Though Lady Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, doesn’t know what a “weekend” is or what it is for, most working people do, and they look forward to getting away from their jobs to rest and catch up on family and personal interests.

As the demands of ministry grew and, as Mark tells us, the disciples barely had time to eat because of the crowds, Jesus calls them away in the boat to find a deserted place where they all could rest. But as they arrive at another spot around the lake, the crowds have already come there, eager to hear and touch Jesus. He looks out at the throng and has compassion, “for they were like sheep without a shepherd.” Jesus will be that good shepherd. The disciples are in training to be the church some day, and one lesson they are learning is that, while they need to balance work and rest, they will never get away from their basic identity as the continued presence of Jesus in the world.

What moves ministry, even when ministers are tired physically, is compassion. The wellspring of compassion need never run dry as long as we are in union with Jesus. Real ministry is not always a matter or reaching into ourselves to give others something, but the call to be with others, to suffer with them, and if we are surrender ourselves to it, this can be an experience that fills rather than empties us.

Heartfirst

“What shall I ask for?” (Mark 6:24).

One of the odd privileges of martyrdom is that the way a good person dies often points eloquently to the way they lived. For example, Oscar Romero was shot through the heart while standing at the altar. Martin Luther King Jr was killed by a bullet to the jaw that silenced one of the most eloquent voices of our time.

John the Baptist died struggling to understand if Jesus was the messiah. He had promised a figure who would bring God’s justice, and Jesus instead had proclaimed God’s unconditional mercy. What his head could not grasp, his heart understood. He entered the kingdom of God heartfirst, but headless.

Few of us will understand the mystery of either our life or our death. What is important is that we try to live consciously and deliberately in the will of God.

Jesus lived and died at the crossroads of sin and grace, human longing and divine promise. Faith is a free-fall surrender, head over heels into the mystery of God. However long it takes or however much we resist, love’s gravity will bring us down to the deepest desire of all, a return full circle to the source of our being, complete at last. How we arrive there will be God’s final gift to us.

Two by Two

“Jesus sent them out” (Mark 6:7).

Mark’s detailed account of the first preaching mission tells us a lot about how Jesus saw the reign of God entering the world. He sends the disciples out two by two. He could have reached twice as many towns if he sent them out singly, but companionship is essential to faith and real discernment. The faith the disciples preach to others is first built up within them as they walk along, sharing their doubts and concerns, encouraging one another. Jesus allows sandals and walking sticks. They are on mission, and so they have shoes to protect their feet from the rocky roads and a stick to aid them in walking up and down hills and to ward off dogs that might delay their progress.

Jesus sends them without money, provisions or even a change of clothes. They will enter each town dependent on the hospitality of its people. Those who open their homes to these strangers will perform the first sign that invites God into their lives. Those who refuse the disciples will show themselves not yet ready for the Gospel, and the disciples are told to move on to those who are.

Finally, the disciples are carrying oil to anoint those who are sick or possessed. What Jesus himself received from the Spirit is to be shared freely. What a beautiful description of our own daily calling, to go forth together, traveling light, moving quickly, stopping wherever we are welcomed, announcing good news and offering comfort and healing to anyone in need.

Church

“A prophet is not without honor except in his native place” (Mark 6: 5).

The martyrdom of 26 Catholic missionaries in Japan is part of a complex story of East meeting West in a shrinking globe. Paul Miki and his companions were crucified and impaled in Nagasaki on Feb 6, 1597, by Japanese officials who feared that missionary activity would be followed by colonial intrusion and control. The executions marked the beginning of the closed-door policy that isolated the remaining members of an underground church for 250 years, without clergy or any sacraments except baptism. Remarkably, when Japan again opened itself to outside contact, the church had survived.

Benedictine Fr. Godfrey Diekmann once marveled at the resiliency of the faith exhibited by the Japanese church, and he found hope in its example for the vitality of the larger church today in which priestless parishes are more and more common. The faithful have within their baptismal identity the charisms to be the church, even without bishops and clergy. A Catholic bishop was once quoted as saying that if Catholic families did not give their sons as priests, there would be no Eucharist, and without Eucharist there would be no church.

The Japanese church, with only the primary sacrament of baptism, did not have bishops, priests, Mass or Eucharist. But the laity survived for 250 years because they were the Body of Christ.

The Secret

“Who touched me?” (Mark 5:32).

The two miracles in this Gospel passage are so tightly woven together, we might think of them as a single miracle that leaps from the woman to the little girl through Jesus.

Mark’s Gospel, thought to be the earliest written, offers us a curious look at Jesus, who seems to learn as he goes what it means for him to be God's messenger, a process Mark calls his “messianic secret.” One way to describe this has been to say that Jesus was a different kind of messiah—a suffering servant—rather than a warrior king, and so to avoid misunderstanding, Jesus tells people not to reveal his identity. But another way to understand this is to say that the secret lies in Jesus’ own unfolding grasp of how God is revealing the kingdom through him. In Mark, Jesus deflects credit for miracles, telling people that it is their faith that has healed them. Mark even records that where faith was lacking, Jesus was unable to perform miracles. Today’s reading from Mark 5 illustrates some of these themes.

The woman with the hemorrhage draws power from Jesus by touching his cloak in the crowd. Jesus is unaware until the healing occurs. He stops to ask, “Who touched me?” and the woman comes forward to reveal her healing. Jesus is on his way to the house of Jairus, whose daughter is dying. The woman’s faith instills the moment with profound promise. Jesus pushes forward, telling Jairus not to lose faith, even as messengers arrive to say that his daughter is dead. The professional mourners ridicule Jesus, but he puts them out, taking his disciples and the girl’s parents into the room where her body is lying. Jesus takes her by the hand, tells her to rise, and the girl is alive again. Faith has done this, a continuous flow of faith from the woman in the crowd to the parents and, so it seems, to Jesus himself. The kingdom is at hand where faith draws it forth.

For us, perhaps the real messianic secret is that this same power is always available to us if we believe in it. Where fear and doubt overwhelm us, faith withers and nothing can happen. But where faith flows and grows and is passed along, miracles happen. Could it be that the real messianic secret is about us?

Pages