Friday, February 26, 2021

Into the Fire

Second Sunday of Lent 2021: Gospel: Mk 9:2-10

 Did you ever pick up a shovel as a child and set out for the flower bed to dig a hole down to China?

 When I was six years old, it was first-grade lore that you could.  Some of us tried, but as far as I know, no one ever made it.  Just as well!  If we could have dug down far enough, we would have reached not China but fire.  As we learned in later science classes, earth’s core is molten stuff called magma, not a healthy place to visit.

 But during Lent, we are in fact called to dig down into the core of our life to the fire that burns there.

 In the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, read at Mass on the Second Sunday of Lent every year, Jesus invited Peter, James and John to climb a high mountain with him. There he “was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them” (Mark 9:2-3).  This transfiguration revealed the fire that burned within him.  It was an overwhelming experience for the three disciples who would have known the story of the Exodus from the synagogue.  Before them on the  mountain,  where Jesus burned with light in the company of Moses and Elijah, they could not have escaped the memory of Mount Sinai, where both of these prophets met God. The God of the Exodus spoke to Moses in fire.  This same God led the people through the desert from Egypt to the Promised Land in the form of a pillar of fiery cloud, often called God’s glory.  And the voice from just such a cloud spoke to the terrified disciples, calling Jesus “my beloved son” and telling them to listen to him.  The disciples could have finished the sentence, had they not been so befuddled with awe and fear, “as Moses listened on Mount Sinai.” Then, “[s]uddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them” (Mark 9:8).  But they would never see him in the same way again.

Why are we reading this story during Lent?  First of all, it is grounded in the story of the Exodus,  the context in which much of Lent is situated.  The book is read almost daily in the Office of Readings.  A number of the passages read at Mass quote portions of the Law revealed to Moses on Sinai by the God of fire, and the gospel readings urge us to obey its prescriptions about how to treat other people of all sorts.  And the story of the Passover from the Book of Exodus, the story that sets off the journey from Egypt into the desert, opens the Liturgy of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening, thus plunging us into the paschal mystery spread out before us on Thursday, Good Friday, and in the magnificent readings of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. 

 Secondly, we read the story of the transfiguration early in Lent because it points us toward the season's goal.  Jesus burns always with God’s presence, but the presence is veiled through much of his public life, though the stories of his ministry hint at it often for those baffled followers not able yet to see it.    For example,  we read of those possessed by the one whose aim is always to twist and derail  God’s creation as he had done in conversation with the first human beings in Eden (Genesis 3) and tried to do again in conversation with Jesus in the desert. Jesus set these possessed ones free and brought them back to themselves and their families. Similarly, he healed lepers condemned to isolation by the Law revealed on Sinai and reunited them with their communities.  Again, he provided bread in abundance to the crowds, heirs to those who gathered God’s gift of manna day after day for forty years in the desert.  

On Good Friday, darkness took over the earth, but on Easter Sunday, Jesus, the fiery Sun of Justice broke through the darkness to deliver all peoples from ultimate death.  That is where our Lenten journey is taking us through all our penitential efforts to prune away what holds us back and keeps is down beneath the thumb of sin and death.  So the Second Sunday of Lent makes the promise that leads us from this present "valley of darkness,” whatever form that takes in our lives, into the presence of the Risen Christ who embodies God’s fiery glory in human flesh.

 We think of Advent as the season of hope, but Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan offered a different perspective in his book The Road of Hope: “Keep going forward on the Road of Hope….St. Paul knew that ‘imprisonment and afflictions await me’ (Acts 2:23) and Jesus himself foresaw that the road to Jerusalem would lead to his great Passion (see Matthew 16:21). Yet both continued onwards.”  Jesus traveled knowingly toward suffering and death, but he assured the bereaved Martha after the death of her brother Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25).  St. Paul followed Jesus’ path years later, trusting that whatever he suffered was worth it because it would bring him to the risen Lord who had appeared to him on the Damascus Road  as “a light from the sky, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13).  Both Jesus and Paul traveled in obedient hope toward the light beyond the approaching darkness of their deaths. And we are called to do the same through Lent to Easter, when the Crucified of Good Friday will appear to us in the flame of the Paschal Candle.  So Lent, too, is a season when hope fuels us to travel on, to Easter and beyond.

 As our Lenten prayer and pruning leads us deeper and deeper into our own reality, we need not wait for Easter to discover that at the deepest heart of our being we find Christ, “in whom [we] live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  This is the crucified and risen Christ in whose inner being burns the holy Fire of the Exodus journey seen by three disciples at the Transfiguration.  He is the glory of God into whose living flesh we have been baptized, or maybe at Easter.

 So let us take up the spiritual picks and shovels that will uncover who we really are in Christ, and let us travel on through Lent in hope until we reach that Fire!


Note:  Francis Xavier Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan (1928-2002) was a  remarkable man. A native of Vietnam, he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of Saigon six days before the city fell to the North Vietnamese Army.  He was imprisoned by the communist government of Vietnam in a re-education camp for 13 years, nine in solitary confinement (Wikipedia).  While there, he did not spend his time and energy brooding on his own suffering but instead found every way he could to scribble messages to his people on whatever scraps of paper he could get. The messages are not complaints, though complaints would certainly have been justified.  They are calls to hope.  They were eventually compiled into the book, The Road to Hope: A Gospel from Prison.  The most recent edition was published in 2013 by Wellspring. Pope Benedict XVI said of the book: “During thirteen years in jail, in a situation of seemingly utter hopelessness, the fact that he could listen and speak to God became for him an increasing power of hope, which enabled him, after his release, to become for people all over the world a witness to hope—to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude.”  The late Cardinal’s cause for beatification was officially opened in 2007.

Copyright 2021 Abbey of St. Walburga


Sunday, February 21, 2021

Into the Desert

Lent is the season of the desert.  Every morning in the Office of Readings  through most of Lent, we read a passage from the Book of Exodus which centers around Israel’s years in the desert as they traveled from slavery to the Promised Land. On the First Sunday of Lent, we read about Jesus’ venture into that place of presence and memory for God’s people to confront the Voice that derails us from our own spiritual journey to the Promised Land.

 For the people of Israel and for us, the desert is a stark place of revelation.  It offers no entertainments.  It offers no comforts.  It offers no place to hide.  In the desert we are brought face-to-face with life.  And death.  And, hardest of all, ourselves.

 In the desert, the people of Israel found themselves freed from slavery but shackled by their own fears, their own insufficiencies, their own pettiness.  The fears were justified:  inexperienced nomads in that harsh landscape really did find their own survival plunged into uncertainty. Where were they going?  When would they get there? What would they eat when their unleavened bread ran out?  What would they drink?  How would they provide for families and flocks?  And who was this God who had brought them here—why?  Their insufficiencies were real.  There were no paying jobs in the desert, not even the job of slavery which actually did provide them with a place to live and some sort of sustenance.  They had no maps.  They were strangers in this unfamiliar landscape. They knew nothing about surviving this harsh climate.  They had to rely totally on this God of their ancestors who had sunk into the oblivion of forgetfulness over those 400 years in Egypt.  And on Moses, who suddenly seemed the cause of all their problems.  Their pettiness, their selfishness, their spirit of complaint, however, had all traveled with them since they left home in Egypt.  The food wasn’t right. The drink wasn’t satisfactory.  They had nothing to do beyond surviving during those long stops along the way.  They were ungrateful.  They were quarrelsome. They were low on courage.   And there was no way out but back. But that road was closed.  As we take in the picture, we see that they had no entertainments.  They had no comforts.  They had no place to hide.  And they didn’t have any Lent to motivate them to leave some of those consolations behind. 

In the desert, Jesus sought none of them.  He came face-to-face with the Tempter. who had been at work undoing God’s beloved human beings from the start.  He was brought face-to-face with his own life and his own truth: if you are the Son of God, the Tempter said again and again, here is what you should do.  And Jesus wouldn’t do it.  He was brought face-to-face with his own death when the Tempter offered him a quick escape.  And he wouldn’t accept that escape, either. He was brought face-to-face with the heart of the struggle ahead.  And he did not refuse it.

 The desert people of God  look back at us from the mirror every morning.  Jesus does too—we are his Body.  But his is the harder  act to follow.

 There is one certainty about the Lenten desert he calls us into.  We will come face-to-face with our own reality as heirs to God’s people and as members of Christ and as  sinful people of hope somewhere between those truths.  And we will come face-to-face with God.  In fact, St. Benedict says we must:  he urges us to seek God always and everywhere, even in the desert.  Perhaps especially in the desert, where our need is more apparent.  And Jesus promises: seek and you will find.

 Blessed travels!   

 Copyright Abbey of St. Walburga


Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Work of Lent

The call of Lent is always at heart a call to conversion.  Jesus himself provided the script when he made his first public appearance after his baptism and his desert conversation with the Tempter.  Then and now, the Tempter’s goal is to persuade us to desert our own true identity as God’s beloved for a different name than Christian, with a different allegiance defined by a different voice, a voice that promises all gain, no pain.  Knowing very well that we may already have taken at least a few steps down that path since we made or renewed our baptismal vows last Easter, Jesus calls: “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).

 The Rule of St. Benedict puts a number of tools in our hands for accomplishing that purpose.  They begin with choosing which voice we listen to:  Jesus’ or the Tempter’s.  We know what St. Benedict’s choice would be! To the opening call we all know by heart—“Listen…with the ears of your heart” (RB Prologue 1), he adds a bit farther along, “If you hear his voice today, do not harden your hearts” (RB Prologue 10).  He is quoting Psalm 95, with which he urges us all to begin every day. 

 In commenting on that line in The Road to Eternal Life, Michael Casey, OCSO, identifies four causes for our hearts to harden, that is, to grow an outer shell that will not allow God’s voice in.  All four merit serious attention as we prepare to step into the Lenten work of conversion.  Today, I would like to focus on just one of them:  “A second cause of hardness of heart is using all our energy on things that don’t really matter. Switching the metaphor slightly, Bernard of Clairvaux sees spiritual blindness as the result of spending too much time and energy on pursuits of no great significance.” Or, we might say a bit more colloquially, spending our life as a game of Trivial Pursuit. 

 The opportunities are, of course, legion.  While we all have serious commitments to keep and worthwhile choices to make, it is so easy to lay them aside for a while when we are tired, overwhelmed by too many demands (including those we make on ourselves, of course), frustrated by failures, wounded by conflicts, or drowning in the chaotic sea of possibilities that tug at us from every side. There is nothing wrong with taking a rest break when it all becomes too much.  In fact, Jesus provides an invitation for just such times: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).

The problem arises when we lay our deepest commitments and best intentions aside for a bit and then forget where we have put them.  To speak from personal experience, I sit down at the computer in the morning intent on putting into writing the thoughts I’ve been pondering about Lent for all of you (and myself).  But my morning coffee seems long ago, I’m overwhelmed by the number of e-mails I should be answering, and other jobs pressing, so the visual tug of my online news site calls out to me to read it from beginning to end, as if the latest gossip about the British royal family mattered to my day, or the newest buzz about an obscure mollusk recently discovered near the Hawaiian islands will nudge me closer to the reign of God.  Twenty minutes disappear, and the essay on Lent is still nothing but a blank page.  (And I don’t even care about the gossip or the mollusks!)

 Casey notes that the way we spend our time determines the quality of our lives far more than we sometimes admit.  It is not that God doesn’t take any interest in the endless doings of the human race and the planet we live on—just read through some of the detailed rules of the Book of Leviticus to prove otherwise.  It’s that every day of every year of our lives offers us only 24 hours to grow into the gospel life Jesus is offering us, sometimes in the apparently trivial, but often in the obviously significant.  Those mollusks probably won’t do much for my response to that call. 

 So Lent is a very good time to do some serious pruning.   The tools Benedict proposes in chapter 49 of the Rule, "On the Observance of Lent", much amplified by the rich array of tools laid out in Chapter 4, “On the Tools of Good Works” include quite a number of sharp blades for cutting back the thorns Jesus describes in the gospels.  Those thorns include things like, “worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke [the Word of God we ponder in praying the Liturgy of the Hours and doing our lectio divina], and it bears no fruit” (Mark 4:19).  (Matthew and Luke provide other versions of this parable of the Sower.) Switching from the imagery of sowing and harvesting to the imagery of the vineyard, Jesus says in John’s gospel: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. You are already pruned [by] the word that I spoke to you” (John 15:1-3). In fact, the Word is the most important pruning tool of all!

Originally, Lent began with the First Sunday of Lent.  Contingencies irrelevant here caused the days from Ash Wednesday to the First Sunday to be added.  They always seem to me to be a runway that allows me to get up some speed before I launch into the heart of the Lenten season. So here is my suggestion to you:  take these days to search out what seem to be for you the thorns that keep God’s word from bearing fruit in you—ask for a little help from the Holy Spirit to see and hear more clearly; spend some time reading through St. Benedict’s list of Lenten tools in RB 49 and the whole tool shop laid out in Chapter 4—ask yourself which ones would best suit the work of dealing with your particular varieties of thorns; write them down, with enough detail to keep you honest as the season unfolds and they lose the appeal of a fresh start.  Try praying Psalm 95 daily during Lent, either as part of the Hours or on its own, to ask God for the grace to hear and heed his word, with the help of your tool selection.  Make periodic checks on the state of your inner briar patch—does it look any thinner?  (Effort is what Lent calls for, not resounding total success!)  All along the way, pray to St. Benedict for his support. 

 If pruning thorns gets wearisome—and it probably will because it’s hard work—there is another option to St. Benedict's toolbox you can turn to instead:  the daily biblical readings for Lent both prune and promise, helping us to remove clutter and look forward to the fruits we hope to see at Easter. (Daily Liturgical Readings.)

 By Easter, be prepared to be surprised by that wheat field or orchard that was so dead-looking today!  There will be ample reason for all those alleluia's!

 Let us all pray for one another that our Lenten efforts will bear fruit not only for us but for the world around us which is in such sore need of every sign of new life.