Category Archives: Lent

Sixth Sunday of Lent

Anyone who lives long enough questions. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do the young die? Why does potential wither while evil thrives? The genius of today’s gospel is that Jesus doesn’t try to answer the questions. He enters into them.

 

Mark’s passion begins with the exquisite scene of Jesus’ anointing. The bean-counters hate it: how will they justify the expense or fit it on their spreadsheets? But Jesus answers: hold onto kindness and beauty, which help us through the worst.

 

As does a meal with friends. Jesus’ concern in his final hours isn’t with imminent, brutal suffering but with a final gesture of friendship. He reaches out to them–and to us–with the nurture of bread, the spirit of wine and the praise of song. During his whole ordeal, there is no word of recrimination, though it would be understandable. He responds to insulting betrayal by pouring out love.

 

To the logical, it makes no sense. But to the believer, the powerless triumph. Those who seem defeated ultimately win. The questions aren’t answered, but they are blessed by the presence of One who lives through them.

 

Fifth Sunday of Lent

 

What happens in today’s gospel is not unusual. It continues today. Two moms became friends and discovered that their oldest sons both skied. The next, natural step was taking the boys skiing together. The two became friends, and one’s name was—truly—Andrew. He began to meet the other boy’s friends, and became part of a group from another high school, not easy in adolescent society.

 

During college, the boys skied, kayaked and mountain biked together. Later, they attended each other’s weddings. When Andrew died suddenly of a staph infection, the friends flew from around the country for his funeral. Each then planted a pine seedling and a packet of wildflowers, signs of hope to honor him.

 

They probably didn’t say it as they scattered seed, but once again, a grain fell to the ground and died, bearing much fruit. The boys couldn’t ski without remembering Andrew; they consciously tried to bring his fierce delight to all their days.

 

The ripple effect worked for Jesus; Greeks drawn to him approached him through his friends. He saw his coming passion through the metaphor of seed. How could the company of friends, now including us, NOT try to act like him?

 

Fourth Sunday of Lent

Nicodemus gets a bad rap. He’s criticized for coming to Jesus “by night.” But consider the references to him after today’s gospel. Courageously, he defends Jesus against his angry peers, asking whether their law judges a man who has not had a fair hearing (John 7:50-51). After the crucifixion, he helps embalm and bury Jesus’ body (19:39).

He is an honest seeker, who won’t settle for tried-and-true beliefs. His colleagues quickly dismiss anyone with a different angle. Nicodemus, however, explores the new teaching carefully. He questions honestly, and Jesus doesn’t reject him. Instead, Jesus welcomes their discussion and reveals himself magnificently.

Jesus even seems to tease Nicodemus as a teacher who doesn’t “get it” (v. 10). Nicodemus must be overwhelmed: he doesn’t respond.

Or maybe he answers through his life. After an avalanche of ideas, he sifts through them and applies them to daily events. Apparently Jesus’ teaching withstands that reality check; Nicodemus becomes an admirable follower.

Do we act like him, or do we wallow in unexamined prejudices and stale beliefs? Are we open to the Spirit’s unsettling winds?

Third Sunday of Lent: Fair Warning

Those who like their Jesus sweet and pious better skip today’s gospel. Those who want to explore his complex depths should read on.

The scene in the temple can’t be camouflaged by platitudes: it is violent and chaotic. What prompted Jesus to act so dramatically? We have a clue in the way “my Father’s house” is used throughout John’s gospel. “In my Father’s house are many rooms” we read in 14:2. That sounds spacious, but there is no room for greed, betrayal or sacrilege. The money changers and merchants have desecrated what is most precious to God; they must be expelled quickly and efficiently.

 

In Jesus’ ensuing discussion with the Jews, their pride is attacked. Any of us who spent forty-six years on a project might react the same way.

As is often the case, they remain on a literal level, seeing the temple as a building. Jesus, however, sees it as an image of the self: beloved of God and incorruptible, transcending the most glorious edifice. As he protected sacred ground, so he fights to preserve God’s children from any who oppress, exploit or harm them. Do we respect each other or ourselves as much as he does?

Second Sunday of Lent: Prayer in Another Key

“Try it in G,” the musician suggests and we hear the same song in a different key. So Jesus models a transition from his glorious mountaintop experience to the verses that follow today’s gospel about a boy foaming at the mouth, grinding his teeth and rigid. Descending, Jesus scolds a “faithless generation,” who cannot cure him, then rebukes the demon, curing what today we might term epilepsy.

“Will the real Jesus please stand up?” We’re inclined to believe in the one whose face dazzles and whose clothes shine, affirmed by the Father’s voice. Clearly Peter is stunned into babbling an elaborate plan for building tents, so Jesus can converse with the prophets in peace.

Yet it is no less Jesus who repeats, “how much longer must I put up with you?” in exasperation with the disciples’ lack of faith and inability to cure the boy. He heals him “instantly,” so his power is still intact; his compassion still overflows.

We also go through various transformations in our days. We might be praying, then cooking, gardening, paying bills, caring for children or the elderly, chatting, reading, singing, shopping, working on the computer, filling the car with gas or doing the laundry. It’s the same self, in different keys. But because of Jesus’ transfiguration, we do all these things as divine children of the Great King. It’s all prayer in different ways. The disciples who saw Jesus in dazzling light also see themselves anew.  The radiance might not be obvious, but it is there nonetheless, hiding beneath the surface.

First Sunday of Lent: Comfort in the Desert

One phrase from Sunday’s gospel is often overlooked: “and angels waited on him.” After a dreadful ordeal, when Jesus is hungry and probably exhausted, the presence of the divine is somehow still with him. It is possible that angels attend all our lonely desert places. Where we sense the least comfort, there it abounds. Perhaps it’s a relationship, health or job issue, looming decision. How might God be present in difficult circumstances?

Good Friday Liturgy

Excerpted from THE BEST OF BEING CATHOLIC

Many wise traditions know the importance of naming one’s loss or sorrow, since suppressing it only makes it worse. Indeed, Thich Nhat Hanh suggests cradling our broken hearts as tenderly as we would a sick and crying child. In a particularly Catholic way, abstraction such as “suffering” is translated to tangible, visible word and gesture in the liturgy. Furthermore, it links our individual stories and struggles concretely, not just verbally, to the over-arching Story of Christ’s redemptive suffering.

My rule of thumb for Good Friday liturgy is “when we do something only once a year, pay attention.” So I focus on three parts of the service that move me especially.

The Presider’s Prostration
Catholic liturgy at its best speaks through symbol or gesture, not needing many words to convey meaning. For instance, submersion in the waters of Baptism, lighting the Easter candle, or offering a cup of wine all speak eloquently without verbiage.

The Good Friday service begins with a silent procession (robust singing would be completely out of place), and the presider prostrating himself before the altar. We see this action only once a year: what does it say?

Different people probably have different interpretations at different times of their lives. To me, it said starkly, “We killed God.” Not to become morbid, but to some extent, we are all guilty. We have killed that divine spark in each other, through a callous word, a harsh condemnation, a heavy hand.

The presider speaks for all of us as he lies face down on the floor. “This, my friends, is what we’ve done to the finest human/divine being who ever lived.” Words can’t touch the tragedy: symbolically, we all lie flat on our faces.

Veneration of the Cross

People seemed drawn to the crucifix: to touch it lightly, cling to a hand, or kiss the feet. What is the compelling power of this instrument of death, used by Romans over 2000 years ago? As our pastor pointed out, it’s not the cross; it’s the corpus. To simply revere the cross would be like honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. by hanging up a gun.

Father Richard Rohr describes the corpus in Wondrous Encounters: Scripture for Lent, “Jesus’ body is a standing icon of what humanity is doing and what God suffers ‘with,’ ‘in,’ and ‘through’ us. It is an icon of utter divine solidarity with our pain and our problems.”

Each person who approached it that evening bore some kind of sorrow. And they were only a few, representing millions more outside our church. Scratch the surface of any group; you’ll find the tragedies. In a family, a staff, or a work site, the stories of suffering run deep. Add in the veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, the physical and mental aftermaths of war and the ripple effect on their families—an immense tide of suffering crashed at the foot of the crucifix.

Those who venerated the cross came close to the crucified Jesus to find meaning in their own burdens. Connecting their pain to his meant that they didn’t suffer alone. Wave after wave of people in vast variety approached: the lovely couple whose daughter died last year in a freak accident, the vulnerable elderly who could barely bend to touch it, a woman battling cancer, the wife of an Iraq veteran addicted to painkillers, an obese woman whose childhood hungers still drove her to eat, jeopardizing her health. The children were especially touching, quietly extending their thin arms, and perhaps whispering, “I’m sorry, Jesus, that you had to die like this.” Knowing his magnificent courtesy, Jesus would somehow touch those who touched his cross.

Holy Week

Holy Thursday

Jesus’ words at the last supper are important because they occur so near the end of his life, a privileged place. Here Jesus addresses one of the hardest things in any relationship—saying a final good-bye. To help retreatants appreciate this gospel section (John 14-17), I’ve asked them, “if you knew you were going to die tomorrow, what would you want to tell your loved ones?” Given the narrow time frame, they focus on what’s really important, and forget their petty concerns. Like the goodbye calls on September 11, the content is nothing but love.

Likewise, Jesus’ final discourse contains precious gold. Rarely does he mention sin. (So too, if we were telling our children, spouses, relatives or friends goodbye, it’s doubtful that we would catalogue their failures.) Instead, he speaks of a flow of love that began in creation, and that must wash even protesting Peter. “Unless I wash you, you will have no inheritance with me” (John 13:8). The stream image continues in the words of the Mass where the presider addresses God as “the fountain of all holiness.”

Jesus Betrayed

What we may need most in grief is presence. A woman dealing with multiple losses said appreciatively of her counselor: “I told her this was a 4-Kleenex day!”

That is our first, feeling response. Those who share it with us perform an important work of mercy. But at another level, human beings strive for understanding. Our urge to make meaning underlies the natural question, “why?” When we face distress, we seek other people of faith standing in a tradition to help us ground our sorrow within the meaning of Christ’s suffering.

That was exactly the frame of reference used by a woman visiting her brother Frank in the burn unit of a hospital. A nurse asked if she’d seen Mel Gibson’s film, “The Passion.” “Why would I need to see that?” she replied. “If I wanted to see the passion, all I’d need to do is watch you change Frank’s dressings.”

Healthy people reject a God who would cause pain. But they are drawn to one who suffers it with them.

In Luke’s account (22:48) of the betrayal, Jesus seems startled when Judas approaches him in the garden. “Judas, do you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” he asks. The symbol of love twisted to betrayal mirrors the deepest human sorrow. We are hurt the most by those we love; the others we don’t care that much about.

Yet even before Judas’ lips have lifted from Jesus’ cheek, before the kiss has dried, comes forgiveness. Within Jesus is a deep pool of compassion, also experienced by the woman taken in adultery, the paralytic lowered through the roof and the man born blind. How hard it must be for Judas to expect revulsion and find instead unrelenting love. How hard it is for us, expecting retribution, to discover instead the infinite well of mercy.

As if Judas’ betrayal weren’t enough, Jesus must also endure Peter’s too. After Peter’s triple denial, one line is heart-breaking: “The Lord turned around and looked straight at Peter…” (22:61). What hurt that look must contain; it prompts Peter to “weep bitterly.”

But another emotion is there as well, a hope that prompts Peter to repent. He and Judas do the same thing, but respond differently. When Jesus asks “Do you love me?” three times, and Peter answers yes, the slate is wiped clean. He is completely forgiven.

The message this gospel contains is that there is nothing Jesus cannot forgive. We live out the rest of our lives within that look, knowing that it falls not only on us but on our most despised enemy. No matter what any of us have done, we simply cannot move outside the circle of God’s compassion.

Lent, Continued

Jesus’ integrity and earnestness is born of his desert experience. In that harshness, with no modern conveniences, he could have died. Because he survived, he can speak authentically of God’s sustaining presence there—or anywhere. Just as Jesus would say that the Prince of this world has no hold on me, so we too belong to God, not to anything that threatens.

Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are traditional Lenten practices. The first is a call to live more reflectively, taking time with God, reading scripture or other inspirational books, journaling, or listening for God’s voice in the silence. The second isn’t guilty dieting, but a practice of many religious traditions which encourages saying no to ourselves, instead focusing on our hunger for God. In solidarity with the hungry throughout the world, we create an empty space for God to fill. Fasting reminds us that humans don’t live by bread alone and that restricting our physical pleasures can turn us towards spiritual richness. Almsgiving, what we do for others, springs from gratitude that God has given us much. If money is tight, we clean out closets, donating clothes that don’t fit or household objects that aren’t used.

Questions for Lent

Setting the Tone

Whatever Jesus goes through, he breathes into us. The story told on the first Sunday of Lent, about Jesus’ temptation, sets the tone for the season to follow. So, if he endures a desert struggle, so do we. If he must assess his priorities in response to the devil’s challenges, so must we. And if he turns from the dark, destructive voice to the life-giving one, we do the same pivot.

It’s an excellent time to ask ourselves, as we should regularly: What’s going on inside? What am I hungering for? What matters most? Lent is the ideal time to tackle the tough questions: Where have we become inauthentic or sluggish? What have we neglected? Where do we need to spend more time, money or energy? How have we squandered our gifts? Knowing that physical privations are secondary to emotional suffering, we burrow deep into the soul. What obstacles block the pathway to God? What selfishness strains our compassion for others?