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The Season of Lent 2012
The Lord Never Gives Up On Us
Second Sunday of Lent—March 4, 2012
Readings: Gen 22: 1-2, 9a, 10-13,15-18; Rom 8: 31b-234; Mk 9: 2-10
Purpose: The transfiguration lends a glimpse of Christ’s future glory. Peter, James and John miss the significance of the event; however, the Lord still works with them and teaches them despite their weaknesses.
It’s called “white coat anxiety.” Medical tests, conducted by doctors dressed in long white coats, cause anxiety. Few among us enjoy presenting ourselves for medical tests or, for that matter, tests of any kind. Tests in medicine make us anxious about results. Tests in life reveal our weaknesses and gaps in our learning.
Consequently, since most of us dislike tests, we devise methods and creative excuses to avoid them. Not Abraham. Subject to the impossible test of going to a mountain to sacrifice his son, Abraham faced and passed this impossible test with flying colors.
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. (Gen 22:1)
When they came to the place God had told him, Abraham went to work. He built an altar, arranged it with wood and was willing to make his ultimate sacrifice until the Lord stopped him.
Centuries later and coming down another mountain, the apostles Peter, James and John faced the simple fact they failed their test.
As they were coming down from the mountain,
He charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone,
except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
So they kept the matter to themselves,
Questioning what rising from the dead meant. (Mk 2:9-10)
They failed their test and descended the mountain “terrified and……questioning” (Gen 2: 32 and 34).
Why did Abraham pass, and Peter, James, and John fail? Genesis demonstrates Abraham’s faithful obedience to the command of the Lord. On the other hand, the disciples, who saw and heard firsthand the good news, were terrified and confused by what they saw on the mountain. They, as yet, had no insight into the true mission of Christ. Frankly, it seems this floundering triumvirate had no idea what to believe. James and John were more interested in high places for themselves than in service (Mk 10:35-45). They fell asleep in the garden and at the Lord’s most intense moment of suffering (Mk 14:37). Peter, the leader, ultimately denied the Lord (Mk 14:66).
These three, so much at the center of the Christ story, failed numerous tests.
Despite their test “anxiety” and failures, Peter, James and John were the first to receive a transfigured glimpse into the glorious nature of Christ after the resurrection. These struggling men participated in the ministry of Christ, and the Lord worked with them until they had a complete understanding of his nature and his mission. The Lord never gave up on them.
Likewise, the Lord would hardly give up on us. As Paul tells us, Christ Jesus died, was raised, sits at the right hand of God and intercedes for us (Heb 8:33). The issue is that our understanding is often incomplete. We learn by an accumulation of small insights. Rarely, do we make a cognitive leap in learning; rather, we learn in diminutive progressive steps.
In the Gospel of Mark, the learning curve is the same. Peter, James and John eventually arrived at a complete understanding of Christ’s role. The messianic secret was slowly revealed, while Jesus made his way to his passion and death in Jerusalem. Using actions and words, Jesus slowly, but surely, led, supported and taught his disciples.
As we traverse our own mountains of life, full of happy and tortured moments, the Lord teaches us. Slowly. We will see the goodness of God, teaching us in small lessons, if we pay attention: to the smile in a suffering child’s eyes, or joyful peacefulness in the voices of our elderly parents, that we care for and visit. We will not see the glorified “beloved son” the apostles’ saw on a mountaintop. Rather, we can see, if we are faith-filled, the power of Christ’s love to transform even our darkest days into glorious ones of new beginnings.
As we begin to enter into the depths of Lent, may we learn to see life with faith-filled eyes—in order to face life’s ups, downs, and in-betweens—learning, in this journey, of the Lord and his love for us.
For the Sake of Others, Become Dynamic Witnesses to Your Faith
Third Sunday of Lent—March 11, 2012
Readings: Ex 20: 1-17; 1 Cor 1: 22-25 / Rom 5:1-2.5-8; Jn 4:5-42
Purpose: The Jewish people were called to see Christ as the new temple. They would be required to think differently about their faith and act differently. We are equally called to act differently in a complicated and complex world.
Change. The very word itself makes us anxious. Changes in our basic morning routines, changes at work, and even changes to the language in liturgy, cause anxiety.
Some changes are simple and easy to accommodate because they require little thought or behavior modification. Significant changes, on the other hand, are difficult to accommodate because they cause systemic change. For example, a cartoon once pictured a small hamster trying to navigate a complicated maze. In the first three cartoon panels, the hamster went from obstacle to obstacle to try and navigate through the maze. The hamster met dead end after dead end. In the final panel, the hamster, rather than continually running into dead ends, breaks through the exterior wall of the maze for freedom. That’s change.
The hamster demonstrated two of three levels of change: first order and second order. With the first order, change adapts to the present frame of reference for its behavior. Consequently, the hamster crashes into wall after wall. With the second order, change adjusts the frame of reference. The hamster, rather than going down blind alleys, breaks the exterior wall for freedom. Third order change, the most difficult, would see the hamster, now outside the maze, teaching others how to think and navigate the maze this “new” way.
The mission of the Lord on earth was to transform people to a “new” way. His life focused on explaining to people a new law based in love, as opposed to the existing, and exacting, prescriptions of the law. For the Jews at the time of Christ, the change would prove to be a significant second order change, requiring God’s people to think and act differently from the centuries’ old practices of their religion. Today’s Gospel outlines the significance and difficulty of the change offered by Christ.
The Synoptic writers place this event near the end of the Lord’s public ministry. John is different. By placing this event in the temple at the beginning of Christ’s ministry as part of the “Book of Signs,” the Gospel of John, positions Christ, and his mission, in a significantly different context. Jesus takes the place of both the old temple and the old law.
“Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn 2: 18). The Jews said, “This temple has been under construction for 46 years and you will raise it up in three days?” (Jn 2:19-21). They were not yet prepared to understand that Jesus’ risen body from three days in the tomb would become the new center of worship rather than the temple and the old law.
Replacing the old order in this “new way” would require a significant change for the Jewish faithful. Christ, as in the Sermon on the Mount, proposes God’s standards go beyond the Decalogue. As the new temple, Christ would demand more. Christ would demand a second order change from his Jewish flock, adjusting the underpinning of the Jewish faith by asking converts to Christ to believe, see and think in a different manner.
This remains a fair challenge for God’s people who create today’s church. Does our faith commitment force us to believe, see and think, in a different way, as did the first believers in the early Church? Replacing the temple, the person of Christ, is the new dwelling place of God. So important was this significant change in belief, that it was underscored by Christ’s anger in the temple. Clearly, this represents radical shifts in thinking and behaving for Christ’s Jewish flock.
How do we measure up? Do we as God’s people, in this time and space, believe and act in such a way to change the mindsets, beliefs and behaviors of others? Are we dynamic witnesses of the faith that may occasionally have us become “justly angry?”
In this season of Lent, when we traditionally “give up” something, the today’s Gospel calls us to “do something:” to be active witnesses to our faith, acting in such ways that drive others to change their belief perceptions, to think differently about faith, and to act. The Gospel calls us to break outside the accepted patterns and paths of life, to create a change for others around us, thereby creating a gentle and hopeful life for all God’s people.
God’s Love and Care For Us Throughout Salvation History
Fourth Sunday of Lent—March 18, 2012
Readings: 2 Chron 36:14-16, 19-23; Eph 2:4-10; Jn 3:14-21
Purpose: The Exodus of the Old Testament, and the gift of God’s Son in the New Testament, remind us that, in our journey of faith, we are loved but also equally cared for by our God.
Although many of us make “to do” lists and then forget where we put them, significant moments in our life, and the world, are uniquely remembered in surprising detail. We remember where we were when we heard the shocking news that President Kennedy had been assassinated. We remember clearly the details surrounding the passing of our loved ones.
The Exodus was a significant event scratched into the mind of every Israelite. The flight from Egypt, and the return to Jerusalem from Babylon, were two saving and significant events every Israelite well-recalled. The Book of Chronicles, written about 400 B.C., both reminds and charges the royalty, the clergy, and the people, of God’s saving action in the past, while emphasizing the importance of keeping the lost Sabbaths holy to prevent Yahweh’s anger from rising again.
John’s Gospel also presents a saving event of importance to be forever recalled. This saving event, initiated by the love of God, the Father, was the act of giving his Son to the world. The catalyst was pure love. The pure love of the Father gave birth to salvation, as God, and: “In giving us his Son, his only Word, he spoke everything to us at once in this sole Word—and he has no more to say” (St John of the Cross in Catechism of Catholic Church §65).
Centuries earlier, it was the love of God that delivered and saved both the people of the Old and the New Testaments. With the decree of Cyrus to free the people and rebuild Judah, God’s people were no longer outcasts in a foreign land. They no longer would “…sit and weep by the streams of Babylon when they remembered Zion” (Ps. 127:1). In both the Exodus of the Old Testament, and the death of Christ on a cross in the New Testament, love moved the people to salvation.
Our lives as Christians are on a similar journey. We are not immobile or frozen in concrete. We are on a pilgrimage to build, better define and, sometimes, rebuild our relationship with the Lord. The Israelites were a journeying people, celebrating annually three Israelite pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem. We are equally a pilgrim people journeying to better understand our relationship with God. Our “faith seeks understanding,” Anselm of Canterbury reminded us, as we dig into the depths of our own theology. We struggle, and we seek, to better understand both how faith forms our lives, and how it is expressed in our lives. As Pope Benedict XVI has written, “we are not some causal and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, and each of us is necessary”(Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, Ap. 24, 2005).
As we race towards Easter, we are reminded that our lives are loving gifts from the Father. As was the redemptive Exodus for his people, as well as their rescue from Babylon, and the saving love demonstrated in Christ’s death on the cross, God walks with us in the hills and valleys of our life.
Nicodemus testifies to the journey. In John’s Gospel, he appears in the “darkness” of unbelief in Jerusalem at Passover during his encounter with Jesus. A Pharisee (and member of the Sanhedrin) begins his conversation with the Lord on the Passover festival of flight. His nighttime “journey” to belief ends, temporarily, at the tomb of the Lord (Jn.19: 39) until the light of Easter moves him from the darkness of unbelief, to the light of belief.
As we experience similar movements to define and understand our faith, we are tested. As with Nicodemus, and the apostles themselves, we seek to move from our own darkness to the light of clarity. Central to our movement, is the knowledge that God is with us. Never will he forget us.
Significant events we do remember. The significant event of God’s love for us may sometimes slip out of our focus on our life journey. In the middle of the Lenten season, we pray we remember that we are children of God, whom he will always, and forever, love. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God” (Eph 2: 7).
Christ Teaches Us Acceptance of the Way of the Cross
Fifth Sunday of Lent—March 25, 2012
Readings: Jer 31: 31-34; Ps 51: 3-4,12-13,14-15;Jn 12:20-23
Purpose: Suffering is part of life. However, we are never alone in our suffering. As the Jewish people did, we also walk with suffering. But we have with us on our journey, the example and the hope of Jesus.
A covenant was an agreement between two parties. Jeremiah proclaimed in today’s reading that the Lord writes a new covenant, not on stone cold, inanimate tablets, but on the living, beating hearts of his people. This short oracle in Jeremiah about the new covenant has been called, by many scholars, one of the most significant and important verses in the entire Scriptures. The old covenant between Abraham and God, found in Gen 12:2, made Abraham the father of many nations. Although other covenants were made with Isaac, Jacob and Moses, this Abrahamic covenant is the greatest covenant until the time of Jeremiah, and the new covenant between the “…house of Israel and the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31).
This new covenant, however, would be radically different. It would be personal, written between the Lord and his people, without any intermediary. This covenant would not be broken, as the old one was, because of the transformation of the people’s hearts and spirits by the personal relationship they had with Yahweh.
“‘This is the covenant I will establish with the people of Israel after that time,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people’” (Heb 8:10).
However, what does this new covenant that was written eternally on our hearts, because of the suffering and death of our Lord, say to us in the contemporary Church with our myriad of issues? Does the new covenant speak to our actions? Does it frame and form our lives?
In Jeremiah and John, specifications of this new covenant emerge: “…the change is in the human partners to the covenant. The new covenant becomes in fact what the former was in theory” (Fahey, Footprints on the Mountain, 227). This new covenant is not a new set of laws. The new covenant promises a personal relationship with God to a responsive people. Their hearts will “…learn and respond to God directly” (Fahey, 226).
But the covenant is actualized through suffering. Suffering leads to future glorification; it is the lot of all God’s people. Different from the sufferings of the present, for both the Israelites and for John’s audience, suffering now comes with the new covenant.
We walk under the gentle shadow of a personal covenant with the Lord, sealed by his suffering and death. At some point in life, we will need to carry our crosses; however, we bear them with confidence for the Lord walks with, and carries, these crosses with us.
The cross of suffering spares no one. For some, suffering may be a difficult flaw or sin, seemingly incapable of stopping. For others, it may be the pain of failed relationships or the loss of a dream unfulfilled. The cross is a reality of the Christian life evidenced by “The Sign of the Cross” we make as we begin liturgy or our prayers. How each of us uniquely carries our cross is the challenge, and the opportunity, of our faith lives. The challenge lies in how we are faithful to our God, despite the cross we bear. The opportunity is our glorification as well as our realization of hope.
If this seems too overwhelming, or impossible, for us to achieve, Christ taught us how to face sufferings as he prepared to accept his cross. The struggle of the Lord to accept his fate is played out in questioning, tears, cries and prayers in his agony in the garden. It is the Lord’s facing and accepting of his human emotions that become the catalyst for Christ’s acceptance of his fate.
We face the same set of emotions in the face of suffering. Like Jesus, we are filled with tears and crying as we feel abandoned, and pray that our cup may pass us. Suffering does not discriminate.
Life is not a “rose garden” and the garden of our lives is sometimes overgrown with thorns. As we prepare for Easter, we pray that, when pricked by life’s sufferings, we recall the covenant of the Lord to be with us. The same Lord, who by his dying and rising, strengthens us to carry with hope the non-discriminatory crosses of sufferings in life.