A Thursday Meditation on the Wedding Feast at Cana and the Heart of Mary

280px-Giotto_-_Scrovegni_-_-24-_-_Marriage_at_CanaLet us enter into one of the luminous mysteries by considering the virtues and the beatitudes.

Consider Mary’s Faith.  Cana seems to be the very first miracle of Jesus (though even if we’ve seen miracles before, it’s hard to believe they can happen again).  She has absolute confidence that Jesus can do the impossible and that he loves us enough to do it, even in this thing, so insignificant and so concretely miraculous.  And her faith draws her to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Hope.  She believes in Jesus’s power over creation.  And she believes in his love for his creation, a love that does not destroy the couple, does not destroy his creation, but builds them up, in the happiest, most affirming way.  And her hope draws her to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Charity, her love for God and for man.  She loves God’s creation, loves marriage, loves the celebration, loves the wine that blesses it!  She loves the couple, thinks of the couple, frets over the couple.  Ah, but most of all, think of how she must have loved Jesus, the deep, joyful affection she must have felt when she saw his love for the couple.  And love unites her, profoundly, in an ever new way, to Jesus.

Consider Mary’s Poverty.  She has nothing.  She has nothing to offer but her prayers.  She asks nothing for herself, but for their happiness.  Even what she asks is nothing that can be hoarded, only the pleasure of celebrating human and divine love.  And in her poverty she relies on nothing but Jesus, and loves nothing but Jesus, and the joys of his kingdom, celebrated in the marriage feast.

Consider Mary’s Sorrow.  Such a rich, real, human sorrow: “they have no wine!”  Not a selfish sorrow, not a whining sorrow, but a deep compassion for the needs of others, for the deeply human needs of a bride and bridegroom to celebrate their wedding.  And because this is what she sorrows for, she is consoled by the presence, the love, the concern of Jesus, only Jesus, who brings the most abundant consolation.

Consider Mary’s Meekness.  She does not fight, does not blame, does not strive – she only inherits.  Meekness does not grasp, but trusts in the Father to provide.  “Whatever he says”: we receive everything as total gift, trusting that he will not leave us orphans.  And he gives her the earth – not just pie in the sky, Jesus provides wine, here and now, for this celebration, of this marriage.  He cares for the meek on the earth – and her meekness binds her to him even more.

Consider her Hunger and Thirst for Justice.  Justice doesn’t mean punishment or vengeance.  It means things should be right.  The poor couple!  This isn’t right, this isn’t how it’s supposed to be!  At Cana, Mary doesn’t only long for heaven, she longs for things to be right here on earth (and so glimpses the true heavenly city, where all is right).  She thirsts not for the wine, but for the blessing of their wedding, the celebration as it should be.  And Jesus always satisfies.  How that love of Justice makes her love him all the more.

Consider her Mercy.  Misericordia: it is a heart for misery, a feeling of others’ pain.  In Greek we say Eleison, connected to begging for alms, eleemosyne.  She feels for them; her heart is totally united to their disappointment when their wedding feast isn’t as it should be.  She begs for them.  And mercy is hers!  When she feels mercy for them, she feels even deeper the merciful heart of Jesus.

Consider her Purity of Heart.  There is nothing selfish here.  Nothing worldly, either.  What a wonderful mystery, the wedding feast at Cana: there is nothing impure about weddings, nothing impure about feasts, nothing impure about good wine.  It is all the gift of the Creator.  Our hearts are impure, and so we experience all these impurely, to be sure.  But the pure hearts, Jesus and Mary – in these goods things they see only God, the giver of good.  Purity of heart does not hate the world, it just loves God – and loves Jesus, the God who enters into the world, with blessings!

And consider how she Makes Peace.  Fascinating: there is no war here.  To the contrary, what is happening in a wedding, and in a feast, is a union of hearts.  The true peacemaker goes far beyond disarming combatants, or putting them in separate corners.  The true peacemaker makes a banquet, celebrates real fraternity, real, deep union.  Daughter of God, Mary witnesses God as the Father who makes union among his children.

And so she sees the real heart of Jesus, the adorable, wonderful, peacemaking Jesus, the Bridegroom who brings joy to every wedding and every feast, here and in eternity.

How could you contemplate the loving heart of Jesus today?

Second Sunday of Easter: Faith and Mercy

Divine-Mercy

ACTS 4:32-35; PS 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 JN 5:1-6; JN 20:19-21

This Sunday, by decree of St. John Paul II, is Divine Mercy Sunday.  It is obviously a time to think about God’s mercy.  But let us truly think about it.  Let us think especially about why this, of all Sundays, should be the celebration of mercy.

This Sunday used to be called “Low Sunday,” or “Sunday of putting off the White” (garments): both references to it being the end of the Easter octave.  In short, this new feast urges us to think of mercy in terms of Easter, as the culmination of Easter.  It is not a Friday feast, not particularly focused on Christ’s death.  It is a resurrection feast.  Indeed, this is the rare feast that does not get its own readings: the readings are unchanged from when this was merely the octave of Easter – indeed, basically the same as they were even before Vatican II.

Divine Mercy Sunday does not replace the old Octave of Easter, it is just a new name for the old celebration.  Why?

***

The readings are (and always have been) heavy on John.  The first reading is from Acts, but the second is from the First Letter of John, and the Gospel is John.

The Gospel is Doubting Thomas.  First Jesus brings peace and the mission of reconciliation to the Apostles, on Easter Sunday.  But Thomas is not there on Easter, so the next Sunday, Jesus appears again, for Thomas.  Divine Mercy Sunday is first of all Doubting Thomas Sunday.

Thomas says, “Unless I see . . . and put my fingers . . . I will not believe.”  When Jesus appears he says, “Do not be unbelieving, but believe,” and then “Have you come to believe because you have seen me?

Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”  John concludes, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples . . . .  But these are written that you may come to believe.”

A lot of “believing”!

And in the Epistle, John says, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ is begotten by God.”  “Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”  Believe!  Like Paul, but in his own key, John is very insistent on salvation by faith.

***

We always do well to return to John’s Prologue, which also culminates in a call to faith:

“Whoever received him, he gave them power to become children of God:

to those who believe in his name, who are born,

not from [their] blood, nor from the will of the flesh, nor from the will of man,

but from God.”

How do we become children of God?  By faith: “to those who believe in his name.”  (Through Baptism, yes – but we forget that when we have our children baptized, the priest asks, “what do you ask of the Church,” and the answer is, “faith!”)

John adds an explanation.  We are not children of God by human nature (not by our bloodright), and we who are in the flesh certainly can’t “will” ourselves to be sons of God.  No, “the will of man” cannot reach to this.  Jesus gives us a rebirth we cannot possibly attain by mere act of will: we are born “from God.”

And so, says John, the “power to become children of God” is given “to those who believe in his name”: who trust in Jesus (Jesus I trust in you!) to do what we cannot do.

***

This is Jesus’s double mercy to Thomas: to reach out to him to nurture faith, and then by that faith to give him new life.

It is his mercy to the Apostles.  On Easter, and again on Thomas’s Sunday, John says they were hiding: “the doors were locked, where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews.”  But Jesus gives them his peace, breathes his life into them, gives them new birth in his Spirit and so says, “I send you” – and in Acts we find that now “With great power the apostles bore witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.”

It is only his mercy, only their trust in him, that takes them from fear to powerful witness.  They believe in his name, and he gives them his peace: there is no other way.

And through them he extends his mercy to us.  Through their preaching: “these are written that you may come to believe,” says one of the Apostles, “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through this belief you may have life in his name.”  And through the sacraments that he gives to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit.  Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them.”

This is the mercy of Easter, the mercy of rebirth in Christ, the mercy of rebirth through faith.

Where is Jesus calling us to trust more deeply in the power of his resurrection?

A Baptismal Meditation on Easter

grunewaldchrisreThe heart of Easter, of course, is the reading of the Gospel accounts of Christ’s resurrection – or rather, the impact of that resurrection on those who discovered it.  But what does it mean?  What do we discover when we discover the Resurrection of Christ?

We can perhaps better understand Easter if we understand that, in another sense, the heart of Easter is Baptism.  Historically, that is the reason for the celebration.  In the early Church, every Sunday celebrated the Resurrection – but Easter (originally tied more to Passover) became the time to baptize catechumens.  We noted at the beginning of Lent that the pre-Easter season, too, was originally about the catechumens.

In the Middle Ages a strange thing happened: the Easter Vigil withered away, and gradually became a sort of liturgical odd duck on Holy Saturday morning.  The reason, again, seems to have been the catechumens – once there was no one to baptize, Easter Vigil lost its original significance, though Easter was still celebrated as, by now, the center of the cycle of Christ’s mysteries.

The Easter Vigil was restored to Saturday night only recently, by Pope Pius XII, in 1951 – both as part of a rediscovery of liturgical spirituality, and as a rediscovery of the catechumenate.

In fact, I recently learned that the Church’s liturgical norms specifically say that baptized non-Catholic Christians should NOT be received at Easter Vigil (as I was!), precisely because it undermines the centrality of Baptism in that Mass.  (And, indeed, undermines the doctrine of Baptism, by confusing the radical rebirth which is Baptism with the less radical reception into full communion of those who are already baptized.)

***

Though the Gospel is central, as Christ is radically central, the interpretive key to Easter is in the New Testament readings.

At the Vigil, the great reading that follows the Gloria is from Romans 6: “we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Absolutely essential to Paul’s understanding of the Paschal mystery – at the very center, in fact, of Christianity itself – is what Augustine calls the “two resurrections.”  There is the resurrection of the body – but also the resurrection of the soul.  Christ promises to raise up our body, yes – but far more important, far more central, is that he raises up our soul, from death in sin, to life in Christ.

Easter is not primarily about bodies, it is about souls.  “Our old self was crucified” – not bodily, but spiritually, in Baptism – “with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.  The death he died, he died” not primarily in the body, but  “to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.  So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”

The Epistle for Easter morning, from Colossians, repeats the same theme: “If you have been raised with Christ” – in the soul, by Baptism, though we have not yet risen bodily from the dead – “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. . . for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”  No, we have not yet received the resurrection of the body – but we have received the resurrection of the soul.

That is the joy of Easter: we find that God has the power to raise up, not only our bodies, but our sinful souls.

***

The readings at the Vigil all attest to this great reality.  They go through salvation history, yes, but they speak above all about the resurrection that Christ will bring to our souls.

This is most clear in the later readings, from the prophets.  The seventh, Ezekiel, says, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleanness, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you.”  The waters of Baptism give new life to the soul.

The sixth, from Baruch, says, “O Israel, why is it that you are in the land of your enemies?”  Why do we dwell in death?  “Learn where there is wisdom, where there is strength, where there is understanding.”  Find conversion in Christ: this is the message of Baptism and repentance.

In the fifth, Isaiah asks: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy?”  The solution is not a deeper focus on the body – that is what is crucified – but, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good.”  Catechumen, be converted by God’s holy Word!  Renounce the empty promises!

And in the fourth, Isaiah says, “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with great compassion I will gather you,” likening their situation to Noah and the flood.  We have been abandoned to sin and death – but Christ rescues us, by conversion: “All your children shall be taught by the Lord, and great shall be the prosperity of your children.  In righteousness you shall be established.”  Not only in bodily life, but in the life of the soul.

***

The first three, more narrative readings teach the same things.  Creation culminates in the image of God, and God’s blessing of man.  God did not only make our bodies, he made our souls.  God who can lift up the body can lift up our souls as well.

At the sacrifice of Isaac, Abraham says, “The Lord will provide.”  Abraham has absolute trust in God’s provision for him – and lives the coresponding life of conversion.

And in Exodus, “the Israelites walked on dry ground through the sea,” as we walk through Baptism, “the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left.  Thus the Lord saved Israel that day from the Egyptians,” as he saves us from sin.

In what areas do you doubt God’s power to bring resurrection to your soul?

A Holy Thursday Meditation for Good Friday

Ugolino di Nerio, Last Supper

Ugolino di Nerio, Last Supper

A few details from Holy Thursday give us an interesting angle on Good Friday.  Christ feeds us and washes us. . . .

First: Christ feeds us.  “And as they were eating, he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.’ And they were very sorrowful and began to say to him one after another, ‘Is it I, Lord?’ He answered, ‘He who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me’” (Mt 26:21-23).

Now, there are a few ways to interpret this, and indeed the Evangelists take it in different directions.  Matthew reminds us that Jesus is (as so often) quoting the Psalms: “Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me” (Ps 41:9).

It is poignant that the disciples say, “Is it I, Lord?”  To be with the Lord at table is no sign that we are not a Judas.  We cannot even know ourselves – Peter is not Judas, but despite his gallant attitude in the Upper Room, he too will abandon the Lord before the Cross.

The Cross is the test of our friendship.  “Do you love me more than these?”

***

Indeed, our closeness to Jesus at the table is not to our benefit if we will not follow him to the Cross.  Mark (Peter’s disciple) always simplifies, but the lines he keeps go straight to the heart.  “He said to them, ‘It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born’” (Mk 14:20-21).

Better if he had not been born!  How those words must have pierced Peter’s heart!

Indeed, the reading from I Corinthians ties this to the Eucharist: “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29).  Our presence at the Eucharistic table is dangerous.

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26 ).  “I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread” (1 Cor 11:23).  The Eucharist is the memorial, also, of betrayal.

***

John, who always takes us to the interior of things, adds two significant details.  First, he contrasts the closeness of Judas with the closeness of John: “One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.  So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, ‘Lord, who is it?’” (Jn 13:23-25).

 

Three kinds of closeness: Judas sits at the table, but betrays Jesus.  But John leans on the heart of Jesus, and follows him all the way to the Cross.  Let this meditation not be too negative about prayer!  That table fellowship is the source of Judas’s condemnation – but it is also the source of John’s closeness.

The lesson here is not that closeness to Jesus accounts for nothing.  It is everything!  We cannot follow Jesus to the Cross unless we lay close to his heart in the Eucharist.  The lesson is not that only suffering matters.  The lesson is that we must distinguish between true and false intimacy.  We can think we are close, but we need to be closer.

(So it is nice that John gives us a third, in-between intimacy: Peter, who like us, is not close enough to follow Christ to the Cross – but who is close enough to return.)

***

Then John gives us a second detail, “Jesus answered, ‘It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.’ So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him” (Jn 13:26-27).

In the other Gospels, it is “he who has dipped his hand in the dish.”  But in John, Jesus dips, and gives – he feeds Judas as a mother feeds a child.  What exactly happened at that dipping, I don’t know.  But John reminds us that we must let Jesus feed us.  It is precisely the refusal to receive everything from Jesus, the demand that we feed ourselves, that we rely on our own strength, that keeps us far from Jesus.

That is the true lesson of the Cross: only Jesus has the strength to carry us to true intimacy.

How could our prayer lean more truly on the heart of Jesus?

Palm Sunday: The Perfection of Preaching

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

MK 11:1-10; IS 50:4-7; PS 22:8-9, 17-18, 19-20, 23-24; PHIL 2:6-11; MK 14:1-15:47

Our second reading this Palm Sunday, from the Christ hymn in Philippians, says, “he humbled himself, becoming obedient.”  The Letter to the Hebrews says it more boldly: “Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb 5:8).  He, the all-knowing, learned obedience . . . .

What exactly does Christ accomplish in Holy Week?  He is already God – what more can the work of the Cross add to that?

***

Our first reading tells us first about the development of Isaiah the prophet himself – but also about what happens to Christ.

First he says, “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.”  The prophet must know – must learn – how to speak to those who need his message.

Next he emphasizes the learning: “Morning after morning he opens my ear that I may hear.”  The prophet has to listen – and even that listening is itself a gift from God.  Lord, teach me how to speak to the weary!

But then we hear what method he learned: “I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard.”  This method was suffering.  To speak to the suffering, the weary, the beleaguered, the prophet had to become like them, to enter into their darkness.  Perhaps, even, he had to let those who were beaten beat him – then they could hear him.

Finally, he tells how he can do this: “The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint.”  Isaiah “learns” to “speak” more than words.  He learns how to suffer for the people, because he learns – and so can teach – that God is all-sufficient.

***

What does Jesus “learn” through suffering?  He has nothing to learn, he knows all.  But he learns how to preach, how to bring his Gospel to the people.  He learns, even, how to call them in, to let them share with him.  He enters into their suffering to be near them.  He brings his nearness to God into their darkness to enlighten them and raise them up.

***

Jesus, then, says the hymn in Philippians, “humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.”  He who knew all joy learned to say in the Garden, “my soul is sorrowful even to death.”  He whose very existence was joyful obedience to the Father learned to say, “Take this cup away from me – but not what I will but what you will.”

He who was revelation itself learned to speak the words of the Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  What Christ our light “gained” through the Cross was union with us who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.

“Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name.”  Already he was Son, God from God, light from light: above every name.

But now he achieves a new name: Jesus.  Right there at the beginning of the Gospel, the angel told Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” and “they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us)” (Mt. 1:21 and :23).  He gained nothing – but closeness to us.

On the Cross, he who as God had everything “adds” to that possession the name “God with us.”  He who is fulness itself “adds” the title “he will save his people from their sins,” the name of that “name above all names,” Jesus.

***

How can we comment on the endless fullness of the Gospel of the Passion?  He learned how to preach – and there is no commentary we can add to match the nearness of that preaching through suffering.

In the spikenard and the ransom to Judas we see the inversion of our relation to money.  We see the inversion of Judas’ greed and the gentle generosity of Jesus giving bread.  We see Jesus turn politics upside down as he lets Pilate condemn him to being named King.

In the stories of Peter we see Jesus “learn” what it means to be abandoned.  But most marvelously, we see that Peter too learns – learns that Jesus knows abandonment, and so learns Jesus’s nearness to him in his sin.  What Jesus “learns” is the perfection of preaching, by emptying himself and taking the form a slave.  And so we, with Peter, learn to enter into his divinity by entering into his humility.

Where do we need to empty ourselves to let Jesus draw near?

St. Joseph

Guido_Reni_-_Saint_Joseph_and_the_Christ_Child_-_Google_Art_ProjectMarch 19, the feast of St. Joseph: deep in Lent.  But more to the point, a week before the Annunciation.  Recall what we said at the beginning of Lent: the real deepest mystery here is not the Cross, but the Incarnation, God-with-us.  God has entered into our life, with all its sufferings.  The Cross is the fulfillment, but the Incarnation is the beginning – and indeed, if God does not fill man with his presence, the suffering of the Cross is meaningless.

In short, it is right, here, deep in Lent, leading up to Good Friday, to have a little reminder of Christmas.  Emmanuel: God is with us.!

So a few Biblical reflections on St. Joseph, largely culled from a Christmas sermon by Msgr. Ronald Knox.

***

“Her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  At first glance, and in most of our translations, the picture we get is this: Joseph is law-abiding.  He finds out his betrothed is pregnant, presumably by another man.  He wants none of her – but fortunately the angel convinces him it’s okay.

Did Joseph really distrust Mary?  Was Joseph, the “just man,” that obtuse?  Was Mary’s goodness so unclear that he thought she was sleeping around?

As happens surprisingly often, the King James is a more literal, better, translation: “not willing to make her a publick example, he was minded to put her away privily.”

First: the word is not necessarily “divorce.”  (How could he divorce someone he hadn’t married?)  The Greek is more like “let her loose,” send her away.

His reasoning – not willing to “put her to shame” or “make her a publick example” – is a Greek word that just means he doesn’t want everyone looking at her.  Far from publicly rejecting her (which a divorce would surely have done), to the contrary, he wants to get her out of sight, to preserve her dignity.  This is from Matthew, but it’s interesting that in Luke, she runs away to her cousin’s house for six months.

The just man knows the dignity of Mary, and wants to preserve it.  The just man wants to do it all right.

***

The angel tells Joseph, “you shall call his name Jesus.”  Joseph has a task.  Joseph is the namer.  He is not the biological father, but he does need to act as foster father.  The genealogy of Jesus, which Matthew has just given, traces his descent from King David through Joseph.

Msgr. Knox points out something funny about the census that drove Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.  Today, a census determines how many people are in each house on a given day.  But back then, the census was done genealogically.  What Joseph needed to do was to go at some point to Bethlehem – to City Hall, as it were – and say, “I am Joseph, the son of Jacob son of Matthan; I live in Nazareth with my wife Miriam and one child.”

But that picture of the census changes the story a bit.  It’s not clear Mary even needed to go to Bethlehem with him.  There’s no indication in the text – and lots of indications to the contrary in the history – that Joseph needed to be there on a particular day.  In short, it was not Caeasar’s fault that they were in Bethlehem when Mary gave birth.  It was Joseph’s choice.

But Joseph is the namer, and the descendent of David – how proud a lineage!  How much he might have considered the importance of his task!  No, it’s not an unfortunate accident that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Joseph wanted that to happen.  The just man, attentive to detail, made it so.  He wanted everything to be just right.

***

Finally, if there was no mad rush for everyone to be in Bethlehem on December 25, the “no room for him in the inn” looks a little different.  Translated literally, it says, “there was no place for him at the journey’s end.”  Or as John says, “he came to his own home, and his own people received him not.”

When the heir of David came home, it was not the busy inn that turned him away.  It was his friends and relations who made no space for him – or had nothing better to offer Joseph and Mary than the shed where they kept the cattle.

I don’t think it bothered Joseph and Mary much: they had Jesus.  They did “receive him, and believed in his name.”

***

This Lent and Holy Week, let us imitate St. Joseph.  Let us receive Christ, make him the best space we can, do our best to love his holy name.  Let us welcome him into our human family, and accept the poverty and work and suffering that come with him, not so much because God wants us to suffer as because we count the suffering as nothing, for the joy of being with Jesus.

Are there earthly comforts you value more than the presence of God in your life?

Fourth Sunday of Lent: The Saving Punishment

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

2 CHR 36:14-16, 19-23; PS 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; EPH 2:4-10; JN 3:14-21

This past Sunday’s gospel begins with a very strange idea – very central to our faith: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.”  In the original story, “The people spoke against God . . . . Then the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died” (Numbers 21:5-6).  God sent punishment – and it was by their acceptance of that punishment, by looking on the serpent that killed them, that they were saved.

Our Sunday readings help us to understand this strange dynamic, and what it reveals to us about Christ and Christianity.  And by teaching us the saving value of punishment, these readings give us not only a preview of Good Friday, but also a glimpse of what we are about in our Lenten penance.

***

The first reading, from the very end of the Chronicles of Israel, summarizes the exile.  “Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion.”  But for the wickedness of the people, “there was no remedy.”

So God gave them the Exile: the Babylonians destroyed their city and their kingdom, and “Those who escaped the sword were carried captive to Babylon.”

The prophet nicely sums up the drama of sin: “Until the land has retrieved its lost sabbaths,  during all the time it lies waste it shall have rest.”  The people had refused to give up their projects, to set aside their work for the Lord’s day.  So God set their work aside for them.

But then, beyond all expectation, “Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth the LORD, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.  Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him!”

The Lord takes away, and then the Lord gives back.  There is absolutely nothing Israel does to gain this redemption: they do not earn it, and they do not fight for it themselves.  It is purely miraculous.

***

Our reading from Ephesians puts this drama into the language of the interior life: “God, who is rich in mercy,  because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved.”

Sin is death: death for the land, death for the kingdom, death for our souls.  And there is no natural resurrection from that death, no possible way for the sinner to become just.  Christianity is not about trying harder.  It is about resurrection: a miracle.

“By grace you have been saved . . . and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast.”  The Israelites cannot pat themselves on the back when Cyrus rebuilds their temple – nor have we anything to boast about when Christ saves us by grace.

Yet we are truly saved: “we are his handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance.”  It’s not that good works don’t matter.  It’s that the good works are a gift: just as God created us without any contribution from us, so he makes us good as a pure gift.  And so, just as we do truly exist even though we are not responsible for our existence, so we truly become good, even though we did not make ourselves good.

***

“Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert,” says our Gospel, “so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

“By grace you have been saved through faith,” says our reading from Ephesians.

Faith is the recognition that we are saved by grace.  That recognition matters; it is the foundation of our holiness.  This is the lesson the people learn in the Babylonian exile: they learn that salvation is God’s free gift.  It is the lesson Moses’s people learned in the desert: we need God, and God wants to save us.

And it is the lesson we learn on Good Friday: the wages of sin are death.  We are dead because of our sins.  “People preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.”  The Cross is our lot.

But when we look to the Cross, we find God there, “who is rich in mercy,” and who will bring us new life.

Lenten penance is not about trying out works righteousness; it’s not about how if we just try harder, we can save ourselves.  It is, rather, about learning the depths of our sin, the depths of our foolishness, and longing for Christ to come and bring us to life.

How is this Lent teaching you about your own “preference for darkness,” your own need for Christ?

Third Sunday in Lent: Turning to God’s Wisdom

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 20:1-17; PS 19: 8, 9, 10, 11; 1 COR 1:22-25; JN 2:13-25

This Sunday’s readings began with the Ten Commandments.  The other readings, including the Psalm, are like commentaries on this.

Immediately after the reading came the second part of Psalm 19:

“The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul;

The decree of the LORD is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple.

The precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart;

the command of the LORD is clear, enlightening the eye.”

The Psalmist does not merely obey the Law.  The Psalmist relishes the Law.  Indeed, the Psalmist’s relish turns obedience on its head.  Obedience sounds like we are following something imposed on us.  Perhaps we fear punishment, perhaps we accept the rules out of reverence for the rule-giver, but the rules themselves seem like impositions.

But to the Psalmist, the Law is not an imposition, it is a wonderful gift.  The Lawgiver is more like a fabulous teacher than like a judge.

Some day perhaps we will walk through the many levels of the Law.  But notice the words for the Law in the Psalm above: law, decree, precept, command, also ordinances.  The Tradition reads in these not only the Ten Commandments, but the hundreds of other little rules given in the Old Testament – and prefiguring the detailed guidance the Holy Spirit gives us in the “new law” of grace.  The Ten Commandments are just the beginnings of God’s wonderful teaching.

***

As the Psalm commended God’s law immediately after the reading of the Ten Commandments, so the last words of the Gospel commended it in another way.  Jesus, it said, “did not need anyone to testify about human nature.  He himself understood it well.”

Pope Bl. Paul VI called the Church “an expert in humanity”; St. John Paul II often repeated these words.  We trust the Church not just out of “obedience,” but because the Church is wise!  But the Church’s wisdom is rooted in a deeper wisdom.  God who made us, knows us.  In Jesus, indeed, the Word (the wisdom!) through whom the world was made enters into human experience: the ultimate expert in humanity.

The first half of Psalm 19, in fact, speaks of God as master of creation.  Only then does it speak of the beautiful wisdom of his law.  We trust in God because God knows what he is talking about!  What a gift to receive wisdom from him – first the written wisdom of the Law, then “not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts” (2 Cor 3:3).

***

But there is a problem, identified in our reading from First Corinthians.  Although “Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,” Jesus seems a stumbling block and foolishness.

Sometimes people read this powerful section of First Corinthians too quickly, and completely miss the point.  It’s not that Jesus is against wisdom – any more than the Cross, followed by the Resurrection, is a lack of power.  He is very powerful!  He is the true wisdom!

No, it is not Jesus who is against wisdom.  It is us.  We are foolish.  So foolish that when we see true wisdom, we reject it.  So foolish that when God, God himself, shows us the way, we think we have a smarter way.  Just as “the weakness of God,” conquering death itself, “is stronger than human strength,” so “the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.”  It looks foolish to us – because we are fools.

***

Our Psalm gives us a particular angle on this:

“The ordinances of the Lord . . .

are more precious than gold, than a heap of purest gold;

sweeter also than syrup or honey from the comb.”

Here are two kinds of worldliness: one accumulating gold, the other pursuing sensuality (even in its most innocent kind: syrup and honey!)

The Psalm puts a positive spin on it, but here is the great struggle of sin: mostly, we prefer gold and syrup to the wisdom of God.  That is our foolishness.

***

And this is the dynamic in our Gospel story, where Jesus drives them out of the temple: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”

God calls them to prayer – the ultimate sweetness.  They look for gold (with which, perhaps, to buy syrup).

We can see this even at a higher level: God offers us himself, and even in our relationship with God, we are more interested in spiritual good-feelings (honey) or in how God can make our life on earth better (spiritual gold).  Notice how much of the Ten Commandments focuses on prayer – and how little of our thought turns in that direction.  We just want to fight about murder and marriage.  Well, we should embrace the Lord’s law in those things, too – but then, above all, go to meet him, and receive him, in prayer!

Lent is our time to come to grips with our sinfulness: to see how much we prefer honey (fasting) and gold (almsgiving) to the sweetness of the Lord (prayer), who is wisdom itself.

How has worldliness infected your spiritual life?

The Mountain of Lent

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18; PS 116:10, 15, 16-17, 18-19; ROM 8:31b-34; MK 9:2-10

This Second Sunday in Lent, year B (that is, Mark’s year) presents us with an embarrassment of riches.  The Gospel is the Transfiguration, about which much should be said – but at least it has its own feast day.  The first reading is the Sacrifice of Isaac.  This reading needs really a lot of unpacking, and unfortunately the only other time we read it will be Easter Vigil, when there is too much else going on.

For now, however, let us just consider what these things have to do with Lent.

***

The Lectionary, you know, was changed, mostly in good ways, after Vatican II.  But the Transfiguration has always been the reading for this Second Sunday.  Why?

There used to be readings in this first week of Lent (the Lenten “Ember Days”) that give some different models for the Forty Days.  We know of course about Noah in the Ark and Jesus in the wilderness.

But there is also Moses: “When I went up the mountain to receive the tablets of stone, the tablets of the covenant that the LORD made with you, I remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water” (Deut 9:9; cf. Ex 28:18, 34:28).

And then Elijah gets chased away by Queen Jezebel: “he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness and came and sat down under a broom tree. And he asked that he might die” (as we might be starting to ask, ten days into Lent!).  “An angel touched him and said to him, ‘Arise and eat,’” and gave him bread and water.  “And the angel of the LORD came again a second time and touched him and said, ‘Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.’  And he arose and ate and drank, and went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb, the mount of God.”

Both of these characters are fasting for forty days – and going up a mountain.  Both of them are beyond their strength, sustained only by the Lord.  And both of them are going up to meet God.

***

Although, interestingly, Jesus is talking precisely to Moses and Elijah in the Transfiguration, the Transfiguration isn’t about forty days.  But it is about climbing the mountain of God, and it is perhaps in that way that it it serves to frame our Lent.

Yes, Lent is a long difficult fast, a “journey too great for you.”  But in order to understand that struggle, we have to see its goal – just as, in order to understand the Israelites wandering forty years in the wilderness, we have to see the Promised Land at the end.  We are going up to meet the Lord.

A couple nice details: “his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them.”  A more literal translation would say, “no clothes maker could make them so white.”  We are on our journey to become clean – nay, not only clean, but dazzling, filled with the light of God.  No human power can do it.  But we go up to the mountain to meet Jesus, who can fill us with light.

The story ends with them “questioning what rising from the dead meant.”  But again: the journey is too long for us, but the power that raises Jesus from the dead will be our strength, too, our bread from heaven, our sustenance that “gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

***

The sacrifice of Isaac is a complicated story.  But notice here, too, Abraham is going up the mountain.  He is asked to make a sacrifice too hard for him, a Lenten Cross no man can be expected to bear.  But God provides – Abraham in fact names the place “God provides.” Christ helps him carry his cross, so that he can offer perfect sacrifice.

And the story ends, like our Lent, not with the death of Isaac, but with the promise of life.  “I will bless you abundantly and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore.”  It is the sign of God’s life-giving power.  It is worth climbing the mountain, starving and gasping for air, to meet the Lord, the giver of life, at the top.

And so our second reading, from Romans, gives the simple principle:  “He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?”  Why do we fear?  Why do we hoard for ourselves?  Why instead do we not go out to meet Christ in the wilderness, and let him be our bread from heaven?

Where do you secretly ask yourself whether God is worth the trouble?

First Sunday in Lent: Christ Joins Us In the Desert

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 9:8-15; PS 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 PT 3:18-22; MK 1:12-15

The Christian lives – and we find ourselves, here in February – between two great poles: Christmas and Easter.  In one, God becomes man.  In the other, that God-man dies on the Cross.  Sometimes it seems rather a tension: Christmas is so happy, Lent and the Cross so miserable.

Do you ever find it strange, when we say the Creed during Mass, that we bow down at “became man” – and then immediately stand up for “for our sake he was crucified”?  There is a kind of prioritization here: awesome as is the mystery of the Cross, we treat the Incarnation as even more awesome.

In fact there is some evidence that Christmas is not the original feast of the Incarnation; the Annunciation is, March 25.  Which is, of course, right in the middle of Passover season, a classic date, depending on the year, for Easter.

Rather than thinking of Christmas and Easter as two separate feasts, we might think of the Incarnation and the Cross as one and the same.  The Cross is simply the culmination of the mystery of God made man.

***

Our Gospel reading for the first Sunday in Lent is Christ going into the desert: his forty days.  We often think of Lent as an imitation of Christ’s days in the wilderness, but I think that’s backwards.  To the contrary, it is Christ who enters into our Lent.  We don’t do Lent because he did it – he did it because we need to do it, and we need him there beside us.  Christ joins us in Lent – just as the Cross is the culmination of God becoming man: he dies because we must.

Lent is our baptismal retreat.  In our Gospel from Mark, Jesus has just been baptized; he goes out to be “tempted by Satan” and “among wild beasts,” but “angels ministered to him”; and he comes back to say, “Repent!”  We need that repentance.  We are among wild beasts, and tempted by Satan.  We need angels to minister to us, and the Holy Spirit to “drive” us, as it drove him.  We need Lent.  And we need the strength of Jesus to get us through it.

We need Baptism, which our reading from First Peter calls, “not a removal of dirt from the body but an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

Note first: Baptism is about a clear conscience, conversion, repentance.  It is about lifting up our hearts to the Lord, turning to God.  That’s what we do here in the wilderness of Lent.

But it is “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ”: only through his life-giving power can we live this Lenten Cross as a lifting up and not a sinking down into despair.  Only Christ turns the desert into a place of praise, because only Christ can give life to the dead.

***

In our first reading, God gives Noah the rainbow as a sign of his covenant, and isn’t that sweet.

But look closer at the imagery: God has destroyed the earth through rain.  His promise is “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all mortal beings.”  And the sign of that promise, the rainbow, appears precisely in the clouds, when it rains, as a kind of shield to protect the earth.  Or rather, it appears after the rain, as if, when the waters of death threaten, the beauty of God intervenes to hold them at bay.

The Cross of Christ is the rainbow – just as when Moses holds up the serpent in the desert.  When suffering and death appear – and Lent and the Cross – we look up into the darkness, and there is the beautiful Face of God.  There on the Cross is the Incarnation.  There in the waters of Baptism, with its call to repentance, is the Spirit of the resurrection.

***

Conversion hurts.  Change hurts.  Growing out of our selfishness, and pride, and yes, our sensuality: it all hurts.  (Almsgiving fights selfishness; prayer opposes pride; fasting is against sensuality.)  Lent hurts.

We need the rainbow.  We need to contemplate the beautiful face of Christ, there on the Cross, to know that God is with us through that pain.  Because, indeed, the point of all this is not suffering, but union – not the Cross, but the Incarnation.  Before he goes to die he prays that we may be united to the Father as he is united: that’s the point.

Christ offers us Lent.  Indeed, he gives death itself as a gift, a retreat, a time of transformation.  But the goal is not to suffer, the goal is, through conversion, to enter into the Unity of the Trinity.  And the means, the narrow path to survive in the desert, is a Lenten wilderness not walked alone, but side by side with Christ.  He enters into our wilderness, joins us on our retreat.

Where is your rainbow?  How does the beauty of God help you find hope in suffering?