Coming Home for Easter: The Challenge and a Method

Steven Spielberg’s 1982 motion picture classic E. T. — The Extraterrestrial captured the hearts and minds of moviegoers around the world, with its combination of comedy, drama, and tragedy. The plot of the film described E.T.’s quest to “go home” and was framed in the context of the relationship between the visitor from space and his human friend, Elliott. E. T. is accidentally left behind when his spaceship is forced to flee from human intrusion. He knows he will die if he remains in the Earth’s environment, so he must return home. At the end of the movie, when his friends return to earth to retrieve him, he feels a sense of triumph that he has met the challenge and can now return home, to a place that will welcome him and where he can grow to new heights.

E.T.’s trial on earth and his need and desire to go home parallels in many ways the annual opportunity which all Christians can experience through the season of Lent. In her wisdom the Church provides this sacred time of preparation so that we can search our hearts for ways to ready ourselves more fully for our ultimate return to God. While our preparation during the Lenten season gears us for the Easter Triduum, a broader view shows that the season is a gift which brings special opportunities in our daily life to prepare for our return home to God. Sometimes, as with E.T. in the movie, our communication link with our heavenly home is cut or does not function properly, through our lack of use or other problems. Lent, therefore, is a time to retune our communication system so that we will be ready when the Lord calls.

Spring Training for the Faith

Those who follow baseball know this is the time of spring training. Although in many areas of the country it is snowing and bitter cold still lingers, in Florida, Arizona, and California the best baseball players in the country are working hard to prepare themselves for the coming season. All the players come to their respective training camps with one goal in mind — to play in the World Series. The pain, sweat, and hard work that are involved in being a baseball player are worth it, if the goal can be accomplished.

Baseball players must prepare themselves for the season in at least three important ways. First, they need to get in shape. Running, exercising, dieting — all may be necessary to drop extra weight and obtain the stamina that will be necessary for the long season ahead. A player who is in good shape stands a much better chance of helping his team to reach the World Series goal. Next, a player needs to practice the fundamentals of the game. Constant work in the batting cage will hone the offensive skills needed to score runs. Endless hours in the field shagging flies and fielding ground balls will develop the defensive skills needed to win. Lastly, good baseball players must develop a positive mental attitude in order to succeed. Baseball is a team game in which individuals can shine, but it is the team that wins or loses. A winning team must have a winning attitude.

The Challenges

The season of Lent is the Church’s “spring training” in the faith, an annual period of preparation for our eventual return home. It provides us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the festival of Easter, but as with any good preparation, including baseball, there are some challenges along the way. The first great challenge is appropriately found in Scripture. On Ash Wednesday, we hear the prophet Joel (2:13 a) cry out, “Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God.” Yes, the basic challenge from the Scriptures is to return home to God. We know that too often we drift away from God. Thus, Joel’s warning is an important reminder as we begin this sacred 40 days of preparation for the Easter Triduum. An additional challenge is presented by St. Paul writing to the Church at Corinth: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” (II Corinthians 5:20b) The apostle to the Gentiles knew well from his own life the need for reconciliation and thus he reminds the faithful in Corinth of their same need. Lastly, Jesus challenges us to consider our need to fast, pray, and give alms. (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18) The words of the prophet Joel, Saint Paul, and Jesus must be applied as much today as when they were first proclaimed.

Throughout the season of Lent, Scripture continues to challenge us to be reconciled as we prepare for our return home. The Gospels read during liturgical year A (and often used each year for parishes with RCIA programs) provide a series of challenges for all. Initially, we hear of Satan’s temptations of Jesus (Matthew 4:1-11) to excessive power, wealth, and prestige, the three great lures for humanity for all time. We are next invited to go to Mount Tabor, witness Jesus’ external transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-9) and to ask what type of personal interior transformation we need. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:5-42) forces us to ask: are we drinking the waters of secularism or those of wisdom and grace provided by Christ? The Lord’s encounter with the man born blind (John 9:1–41) prompts us to contemplate: how blind are we to many of the situations around us? Are we too caught up in our own little world; is our perspective myopic? When Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead (John 11:1-45) he tells the crowd, “Untie him and let him go.” (John 11:44c) How are we chained to the past — injuries inflicted or received, failures, disappointments? Can we allow the Lord to free us, so that we can be freer to serve others? On Palm Sunday we read the passion, forcing us to ask how we have added to Jesus’ burden as he walks bravely to Golgotha and the cross. What can we do as ministers to lighten the burden of others?

The next major challenge we face comes from society. We have all heard the expression that we are to live in the world, but not of the world, but what does this mean? Contemporary society provides a framework for our day-to-day life. We must abide by the basic law of the land; we live in a democratic and capitalistic nation and, thus, must follow the basic framework that exists. The challenge is to live within this basic structure, but not to buy into many of its ideas, that are contradictory to the message of Christ and the precepts of the Church. Many today suggest that there is an ongoing “war against Christianity.” Many Christian principles that have met the test of time for centuries are now being challenged and/or discarded as passé or no longer applicable. Acceptance of abortion upon demand, public acknowledgment by law of gay marriage, and the rejection of Christian symbolism in public areas are three prominent examples of the contemporary attack against Christianity. This “war” has been driven by a pervasive drive to secularize society. God and organized religion have been placed on hold or in many cases discarded as no longer relevant or useful.

A third Lenten challenge is specific to religious and especially the ordained. We are all aware of the contemporary environment, that since 2002 and the revelations of sexual abuse among some of our members, we live under a cloud of suspicion. As a result of the Dallas accords of 2002, the highly prized judicial norm in the United States of the presumption of innocence has been reversed. Any creditable accusation makes us guilty until innocence is proven. We are constantly on guard and cautious of what we say and especially what we do. The natural desire that many seek, namely, to be more present to individuals, has now been curbed; we are forced to think twice in how we minister.

Lent also provides an opportunity to challenge ourselves in important ways. How do we utilize the time we have? Do we find ourselves wasting too much time, especially on things that are rather frivolous, and not productive to our ministry? After reflection, do we spend time engaged in activities that are detrimental to ourselves and to others? On the other hand, if we are not too careful, ministry can be all too consuming, leading us to forget that we are human and need time for ourselves. As a motor vehicle cannot continue to run unless it is periodically “gassed up,” so too we must regularly refuel ourselves so that we can continue to minister well to the faithful. Overwork and burnout, especially with the reality of fewer religious and priests and an increasing need for our presence and services, are lurking around the corner. Therefore, it is essential, and a significant challenge for many, to step back occasionally and re-energize ourselves. The Lenten themes of reconciliation and coming home provide the perfect opportunity.

Meeting the Challenges

The three specific challenges offered above, namely Scripture, society, and our roles as priests and religious, must be addressed if our Lenten journey is indeed to be profitable for ourselves and those we serve. Meeting the challenges of Jesus proclaimed in his Sermon on the Mount, to pray, fast and give alms can be done traditionally, but there are more creative ways as well. Prayers seem so basic to our lives as religious and priests, but we must all admit that at times we get away from what is foundational to our life as Christians, and even more so for those who have chosen consecrated life and/or priesthood. When was the last time we read and reflected upon a whole book in the Bible, possibly a Gospel or one of the many letters of Saint Paul? Spiritual reading should be an integral element of our daily prayer life, but possibly during Lent the emphasis should be greater. We all know our faults and failures in prayer, and thus we know what we need to do. We must take the time and do what is necessary to fill the gaps and holes in our spiritual life.

Spiritual direction is another essential element of our prayer life. Do we avail ourselves of this most important opportunity for growth? If we have a director, does this person help us to grow so that we do not become stale or stagnant in our spiritual lives? If we do not have a director, we need to ask for guidance to find an individual who can feed us internally. Without this input we will be much less effective as ministers to God’s people.

Fasting can and must be much more than simply refraining from certain foods. While there certainly is merit in eating less, both from personal health and spiritual perspectives, we should ask why are we engaging in this activity? Fasting must be more broad-based, however, then simply food. Can we, for example, abstain from liquor, cigarettes, or other habits and activities that are unproductive at least and unhealthful at worst? Are there activities that waste time, money or opportunity from which we can absent ourselves?

While most priests and religious do not have the material resources to participate in almsgiving in a traditional way, those with more giving to those with less, nonetheless we possess several gifts to share. Possibly the greatest commodity we have is our time. Yes, we do need to be mindful of our own needs and be cautious that we do not “burn out” in ministry, but that does not mean we cannot and should not aid others. Many times, all people ask, or need, is five minutes of our time. They do not necessarily expect an answer, but simply an ear to listen. Our ability to serve is another way we can give alms. How can we use our personal talent or that of our community to assist others? Can we share the material resources we have, meager though they be in some cases, with others who have even less?

We must meet the challenge of society. First, we need to acknowledge the reality of the situation of the contemporary world. We cannot bury our head in the sand like the proverbial ostrich and hope that the problems we face will magically go away and the pristine Christian message will once again be not only accepted, but honored. Once we acknowledge the reality of our society, we must do what we can to live the ideal we seek to the best of our ability. What can we do to enhance the community in which we live? Are we active participants or simply docile members who expect others to “fix” that which is broken? We cannot and need not find remedies for situations that are beyond our scope, but an adage applies to our actions: “Think globally but act locally.” In other words, we can have a broad perspective, but we need to work on the local level, making our world a better place and building the kingdom of God brick by brick.

Meeting the challenges of religious life and priesthood can be a tall order, but we must not shirk this most important responsibility. There is little that we can do individually to transform the contemporary environment of suspicion, the cloud that darkens our ministry, save to conduct our ministry to the best of our ability. Restoring confidence will take time, but we must do our little part. We can and must be generous with our time in the service of others, with the proviso that we need not save the world. Fortunately, Christ did that once for all time. Thus, while guarding ourselves against “burnout,” we must be generous in assisting others.

Conclusion

In E. T., the visitor from another world struggles, but he is willing to do whatever is necessary to get home. He knows that if he does not return home soon, he will die. Lent is our annual time to once again prepare ourselves for our eventual return home to God. None of us knows when this will happen, but we do need to use the season well and wisely. Thus, we can use the image of spring training, going on all around us at this very moment as a method to get ourselves in shapes for the major events to follow. Let us, therefore, take the initiative to prepare well, to take up the challenge of Scripture, society, and our own religious and priestly lives and do what we can to make ourselves that much better prepared to go home to the Lord. Let us realize that the goal we set, not to be in the World Series, but namely to be with the Lord, is worth every ounce of our effort. As St. Paul writes in I Corinthians 2:9, “Eye has not seen and ear has not heard, nor has it so much as dawned on man, what God has created for those who love him.” Let us live and believe the same!

Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC About Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC

Fr. Richard Gribble, CSC, is a Holy Cross priest, presently serving as a professor of religious studies at Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. He has written extensively on American Catholic history.

Comments

  1. Avatar Denis jackson says:

    I don’t really understand Lent and Easter these days. If we take seriously that we are truly children of the living loving God and know that we are One in .Christ Jesus . We have been transformed . Amen .

    So why do we need to be dragged back and forth with these old fashioned liturgical practices ? What is the point? Surely once is enough . I don’t understand why the church system with its liturgy can’t launch into the deep …ad altum . So that we can be encouraged to bask in the glorious freedom of the sons & daughters of our God .
    What’s the point of going back time and time again to the passion & Easter story when we know full well that we are a glorious Easter People?
    It’s as tho the church hasn’t grown up properly and we need to keep walking backwards which becomes after a while repetition and extremely boring and irrelevant .
    I mean are we divinised or not?

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