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?

Dust and Ashes?

AshesMed2P1210554Today let us pause for a pastoral moment.

I want to ask a question about our proclamation about the Gospel.  But before I ask it, I want to underline that I think this is a real question.  (If I believed all the answers were obvious, I wouldn’t be maintaining this website – or my career as a seminary professor!)  I propose the following as a question to think about, not as a facile answer that everyone obviously ought to follow.

***

Supposedly there was a study several years back that asked American Catholics what their favorite sacrament was.  The most popular answer was, “Ash Wednesday.”

Today’s question is: what does that mean for evangelization?

Now, obviously this is something to laugh (or cry) about, since Ash Wednesday is not a sacrament, not even a day of obligation.  Obviously American Catholics are in need of serious catechesis, first, to know what the word “sacrament” even means, and second, to know that in the sacrament we encounter Christ in a unique way.  Every sacrament – especially the most blessed sacrament – contains Christ, the creator and redeemer of the world, really present to work the Gospel in our hearts, in a way that Ash Wednesday simply does not.  To say Ash Wednesday is your favorite sacrament is, on one level, to show that you have never discovered Christ.

Fine.  Point made. Ash  Wednesday should not be your favorite sacrament.

***

But as I received the ashes this year, in a church packed beyond the limits of the fire code, from a priest with a perpetual the-Church-is-such-a-pleasant-place dumb grin on his face, stretched even wider as he imposed the ashes, as if to say, “don’t worry! we’re happy!” I had this question about evangelization.

Every day of the year that priest grins welcomingly.  Give him the benefit of the doubt: his jokes, his pleasantness, his smile, these are all done in sincere hope that people will come back.

But they don’t.  The grins don’t bring people to church.  What brings them to church, in droves?  “Turn away from sin!”  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

That’s very strange, isn’t it?  They say you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  But gosh, it seems like the only time the Church is truly popular is when she tells people they are sinners who are going to die.

***

One aspect of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is surely the sheer physicality of it – one could even say, “sacramentality”: a rich but sometimes confusing word.  Ash Wednesday lets people do stuff.  (Or at least experience stuff being done.)

Anecdotally, the main place I’ve experienced young non-Catholics asking to come to church is to light candles, to be in the gloom, to kneel in front of statues.  Very strange!  You’d think – at least, many people seem to think – that in our modern age, that stuff would be repellent.  But surely part of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is the sheer mixture of physicality and spirituality: smoke, candles, statues, kneelers, ashes!

Let me say that I think this can all be very superstitious: not necessarily a good thing.  Nonetheless, it’s strange how powerful an attraction it exerts on our contemporaries.  Maybe the tradition had a better knack for evangelization than we realize.

***

But at Ash Wednesday, the focus is not on candles – candles never draw people the way Ash Wednesday does.  Candles, in fact, are a lot more upbeat than Ash Wednesday.  (Aren’t they?)

Soot on your forehead.  “Repent!”  “To dust you will return!”  That’s what distinguishes Ash Wednesday – and what draws the crowds.

One of my favorite saints is Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican itinerant preacher in the fifteenth century.  This was his strategy: he went from town to town basically preaching Ash Wednesday.  With anything in history, it’s hard to know how exaggerated the numbers are – did he really draw tens of thousands to hear him tell them to fear hell? – but anyway, it’s historically undeniable that the guy was spectacularly popular.  And really . . . negative.  He preached the Gospel, to be sure.  But always a Gospel tied up with repentance and death and ashes.

Times change.  Vincent Ferrer’s time was miserable: full of war and plague and famine.  Miserable people, maybe, are more attracted to this message than are fat rich Americans.  That’s a good point: there’s plenty of room for asking what speaks to people in our time.

***

But the strange thing is, even today, what draws the crowds is Ash Wednesday.  Maybe, as in the time of Vincent Ferrer, instead of compelling people to go to Mass and receive communion – surely not the wisest part of our Ash Wednesday ministry – we should set up free-standing Ash Wednesday apostolates, with preaching about death and sin and repentance and opportunities to take on physical penances.  (The second most popular part of Catholicism?  Lenten penance!)

Or maybe not.

So I conclude with a serious question, a question to which I don’t know the answer:

What does the popularity of Ash Wednesday mean for your work of evangelization? 

Lent and Our Baptism

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

We now begin the great season of Lent. So what are we doing? Before we decide what we are doing concretely, it would be good to know what the theological point is.

Historically, Lent developed like this: first, there was Easter, the annual solemn commemoration of Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Then there was a question of when to baptize converts. The theology of Baptism is about Easter:

“We are buried with him by baptism into death: that just as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom 6:4-5).

Baptism is a death to our old way of life – a death united to the death of Christ, and therefore a rising to new life, relying not on our own strength, but on the strength of God, which brings physical resurrection as a symbol of spiritual resurrection: new life, moral reform, and above all new spiritual life, to call God Father and live as if we believe it. Baptism is the beginning of this new life.

So it made sense to celebrate Baptisms at Easter.

***

But how to do this right? Easter itself should be fully celebrated, treated as the awesome event it is. But we completely misunderstand Christ if we do not see the way that he transforms our entire life. His death and resurrection does something to us. Baptism, by which we are plunged into Easter, does something. It does not leave us the same.

Baptism is about conversion, newness of life. Baptism – like all the sacraments – is about Christ transforming us, changing us, filling us with the power of his Spirit.

So part of solemnizing Baptism (and Easter), part of proclaiming what it really means, is to enter more deeply into the life of conversion.

***

Lent is originally a pre-Baptism retreat. There are three key aspects of that retreat.

The first is prayer. Above all, Baptism is about being united to the Father, falling in love with the Father, discovering our happiness in the Father, as Christ is supremely happy in union with the Father. Baptism without prayer – joyful, adoring prayer – is meaningless. So it makes sense to prepare for Baptism by spending time in prayer.

But union with Christ, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit also unites us to all others who are united to them (the Church, in the deepest sense) and all who are called to that union (all of humanity). And so a second pillar of the pre-Baptism retreat is almsgiving: the joyful embrace of our neighbor, in all his need. Almsgiving is a nice approach: it’s not that we seek our happiness in our neighbor – we seek our happiness in the Father! – and so we focus on our neighbor’s needs, embracing him in mercy and charity.

Finally – and, really, third, though also important – we dig into this truth that nothing but God can truly make us happy. That’s the true meaning of fasting: to take a step away from the other things that we use as replacements of God. Fasting from food is a brilliant approach: because we do need to eat, so we can’t treat food as an evil. Instead, we can change it from being our end to being only a means, eating enough to keep ourselves going, but not seeking our happiness in food, and even accepting a little pain in our bellies.

Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting: experiences of what Baptismal conversion really means.

And of course, we all need to rediscover our Baptism, so the last step in the development of Lent was the rest of the Church joining the Catechumens in this Lenten practice, rediscovering our own conversion.

***

Interesting that it comes before Easter, before Baptism.

First, it must be said that grace is at work in us even before Baptism: it is the Holy Spirit who draws us to the font. We don’t magically begin our Christian life after we receive the sacraments. The “magic” is that Christ works in us to draw us to himself in the first place.

Second, we do receive grace in a new way in the sacraments. Part of the pre-Baptismal Lenten retreat is the experience of longing: longing to be better at fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Yes, part of Lent is the experience that we’re not very good at this. Even for us who have been baptized, part of Lent is begging Christ to continue to transform us, begging for that baptismal grace to permeate us more deeply.

Third, our Lenten penance gives way before Easter joy. In the end, the Gospel is good news; ultimately the Christian is full of joy, not penance. Heaven won’t exactly be full of chocolate, but all our longings will be satisfied: the fast ends with a feast.

How can you think about your Baptism this Lent?

Sixth Sunday: For the Glory of God

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

LV 13:1-2, 44-46; PS 32:1-2, 5, 11; i COR 10:31-11:1; MK 1:40-45

Our readings this Sunday open very simply. The first reading is from Leviticus. The Gospel is going to be about the healing of a leper, so we start by reading part of the Old Testament rules about lepers. You can get a better sense of this if you glance at the reference in your Missal: “Reading 1: Lev. 13:1-2, 44-46.” Verses 1-2 and 44-46. What do you suppose is in the middle? More of the same!

But the basic point is made clearly in the second part: “The one who bears the sore of leprosy . . . shall cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean!’ As long as the sore is on him he shall declare himself unclean, since he is in fact unclean. He shall dwell apart, making his abode outside the camp.”

The Hebrew is even more dramatic: instead of “he is in fact unclean” it just says, “he [is] unclean.” It’s just a fact.

The law seems harsh. He has to dwell apart, alone. He has to tell everyone he sees to stay away from him. And there is much else besides, in verses 3-45.

But the only thing harsh is the reality. Leprosy is a horrible, and very contagious, disease. He is unclean. What misery.

***

Mark’s Gospel continues to rush along. After the first physical healing, last week, this week we have the first leper, and the first request.

The dialogue is bracingly direct. “If you will,” says the leper, “you can make me clean.” “I do will it.” English is a cluttered language. In Latin it’s just, “Si vis.” “Volo.” The horror, not just of the Old Testament, but of humanity, the paradigmatically horrible disease of leprosy, is completely subject to the Lord’s will.

Volo. Poof! Jesus has power over nature, power to heal.

***

Again comes the same little theme in Mark. “See that you tell no one anything.” “The man went away and began to publicize the whole matter. He spread the report abroad.” “People kept coming to him.”

Jesus wants to heal – he “wills it”! But he does not want to be known merely as the physical healer. His works have a deeper mystery in them, somewhere higher he “wants” to bring us. The one who has power over leprosy has power, too, over our loneliness, our distance, our sin. He has power to unite us to the Father.

With Ash Wednesday this coming week, we take our long break from Ordinary Time. But if we continued, the next reading would be the paralytic to whom Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven.” “Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’?”

It’s a wonderfully paradoxical question: it’s easier to say “your sins are forgiven,” but vastly more difficult to accomplish the true healing of sin. But the point is, He who has power over one has power over the other. He heals the paralytic, and the leper, not so people will come find a miracle worker, but so that they will find a Savior.

***

Our second reading continues our tour of First Corinthians. It is just four verses, but very rich.

“Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God. . . . I try to please everyone in every way, not seeking my own benefit but that of the many, that they may be saved.”

First: the glory of God. There is a direction in all this. There is direction in the miracles: Jesus doesn’t come just so we can heal leprosy (wonderful as that is). He does not come to make us comfortable in this world. He comes to lead us to the glory of God.

But we can put the same point the opposite way: he leads us to the glory of God through healing. There is direction in all this. No, physical healing is not the end – but it is the means, the path, the way.

So second: Paul does “try to please everyone in every way.” Our works of healing, of whatever kind, do have significance. Paul does not try to please because pleasing people is an end in itself. No – he is “not seeking his own benefit.” In fact, Paul isn’t seeking his own healing – except for the supreme healing that Jesus offers him.

Healing is not an end in itself: but it is the means, the way that Jesus shows his love, and his power to save, and the way that we show Jesus’s powerful love to the world.

Where are you called to bring healing?

Fifth Sunday: Hope in the Word of Christ

Goodness gracious is life full and overwhelming! Thank God for the joy of the Gospel! I pray I will soon be able to write more regularly. For now, I again offer a meditation on the Sunday readings a couple days late. It is from the nourishment of the liturgy, from Scripture read with the Eucharist, that comes all our hope. If I can do nothing else, let me meditate on the Sunday readings, and find hope in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

***

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JB 7:1-4, 6-7; PS 147:1-2, 3-4, 5-6; 1 COR 9:16-19, 22-23; MK 1:29-39

Mark’s Gospel continues to rush along. This week we had Jesus healing Simon’s mother-in-law, going away to a deserted place, and coming back to preach in the villages. We can get a better sense of the drama if, again, we see the order of events.

In verses 1-8, we begin with John the Baptist – we read that on the Second Sunday of Advent.

In 9-11, Jesus was Baptized (Baptism of the Lord, the first Sunday of Ordinary Time).

In 12-13 he (very briefly!) goes out to the wilderness to battle the devil (First Sunday of Lent).

In 14-20, he calls the first apostles, to be fishers of men (Third Sunday).

In 21-28, he preaches, is recognized by the demons, and his fame spreads everywhere (Fourth Sunday).

Then in 29-39, this last Sunday, the Fifth, Simon’s mother-in-law is his first physical miracle; then he does lots of miracles; then the crowds follow him to solitude; then he comes back to preach.

Quite a rush of activity! Mark doesn’t want us to miss the point. He compresses it so we can read it all together – but he also eliminates details that might distract us. Note, for example, that he is famous before he has done any miracles, merely for his preaching and casting out demons. We have noted the rush to repentance. We have noted Jesus’s own focus: he has a message of repentance to preach, and does not want us to get ahead of ourselves, lest we proclaim ourselves orthodox before we have repented of our sins.

***

Another way to view Mark’s tight composition in chapter one is to look at the order of Jesus’s words.

His first saying is: “repent!”

His second is: “follow me!”

His third, to the demon who identifies him without repenting, is: “be silent!”

And this week, his fourth saying is, “Let us go on to the nearby villages that I may preach there also.” Driven.

***

Notice three kinds of miracles in these readings from Mark. At the lowest level, and last in Mark’s presentation, are his physical healings. A step above (and, in Mark, before) those is casting out demons. And a step above (and before) those is his preaching, his all-powerful word.

What is the casting out of demons? Let’s think of it as internal healing. Today, we might say there are two kinds of psychological healing. Some of it is physical, chemical: we flatter ourselves that “we know now” that epilepsy, for example, or even depression (sometimes) is more a physical ailment than a spiritual one. Fine: Jesus has the power to cure bodies, too! Other kinds of “psychological” ailments, however, are of a more spiritual nature, relating to sin and even to the impact of various kinds of demons: and Jesus is master over those, too.

But this upward motion, from healing our fevers to healing our brain chemicals to healing our spiritual ailments, culminates in his preaching: “For this purpose I have come,” he says. Not just to wave a magic wand, but to speak the truth to us – the truth about God, the truth about man, the truth about repentance and worship – and to heal us precisely so we can embrace that truth.

The people chase after him because he heals their bodies, but also because he heals their souls, and speaks with authority.

***

The reading from Job reminds us why we long for his word. Our “life on earth” is in so many ways “a drudgery.” We are like “a slave who longs for the shade.” At night we lie awake and are “filled with restlessness until the dawn,” and so many of our days “end without hope.” Lord save us!

The people rush out to hear him, not because he lays a new burden them, but because his word is hope, healing, peace, rest. How we need his word. How we need him.

***

In our reading from First Corinthians, Paul says, “woe to me if I do not preach!” He has given up “my right,” and instead “made myself a slave to all,” “weak, to win over the weak.” He has given his life “to all, to save at least some.”

The richness of the Gospel, as always, comes through in two directions. First, Paul has found the pearl of great price. Jesus’s word, the Gospel, the truth of his healing, is worth loosing everything for. Worth giving his life for: worth following Jesus to the wilderness, and through the villages, and deep into repentance, because this alone is true life.

But in so doing, Jesus and his Spirit come to dwell in Paul, so that he too becomes the messenger of Jesus’s Gospel, an instrument of his grace.

How do you let Jesus preach his Gospel to you?

The Presentation and the Heart of Mary

van der weyden presentationAnother day late, I would like to offer a meditation on the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. The Presentation points us to the heart of Mary – most immediately, for two reasons.

First, it is here that we get the prophecy, “and your own soul a sword shall pierce”: Simeon points us forward, and tells us that Mary has her own kind of share in the suffering of Christ.

Second, the Presentation is of course the fourth joyful mystery of the rosary – and for many, I think, one of the most baffling. What are we supposed to learn from this mystery? It seems a shame to let this feast pass without taking a stab.

(I recently read a Catholic giving the advice that we need real, personal prayer – “not just the rosary,” he said. Well, if we pray the rosary badly, with our lips and not our hearts, then we certainly need more. If we pray it well, “with our minds in harmony with our voices,” as the Rule of St. Benedict tells us to pray the Psalms, we find in the rosary the great revelation of Jesus Christ – and, at the same time, the great revelation of the heart of Mary, which reveals the true depths of our own hearts. There is nothing more Christ-centered or more “personal” than a rosary well-prayed. So today, let us consider the riches of this obscure mystery.)

***

The first point about the Presentation is sacrifice: they came “to offer the sacrifice of a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons, in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.”

Luke is quoting Leviticus 12, which says, “two turtledoves or two pigeons, one for a burnt offering and the other for a sin offering.” A holocaust is burned entirely, a sign of worship, an acknowledgement that all we have comes from God and is meant to lead us to God. The sin offering is not burned entirely – part is saved for the priest to eat – as a sign, on the one hand, that we are incapable of worshiping God properly without help, but on the other hand, that we are purified through worship.

But sacrifice is about the heart: it is not the doves God wants, it is Mary’s heart. Indeed, what Leviticus 12 first says is, “if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons.” The Old Testament always makes provision for the poor. The point is, it doesn’t matter to God whether it’s a lamb or a turtledove or whatever: what is important to him is the worship that is offered, in the hearts of his people, through these sacred signs.

In fact, whether lamb or dove, they are only symbols of offering the child himself. God doesn’t want us to kill our children – but he does want us to worship through them.

***

That leads to the meaning of this child, the Christ, “the consolation,” or “calling near,” “of Israel,” that Simeon awaits; the “salvation,” the “light for revelation,” the “glory” that Simeon proclaims; the “redemption of Jerusalem” that Anna proclaims.

“Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted —and you yourself [literally: your soul] a sword will pierce— so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”

Jesus is redemption. But here in the Temple, when he is first offered as sacrifice, he is “for the fall” as well as the “rise . . . a sign that will be contradicted.” Jesus, says our reading from Hebrews, will be “tested through what he suffered,” and so will we.

Like every sacrifice, Jesus reveals what is in our hearts. When we discover that God is beginning and end, the giver of every gift and the only true joy, are we bitter, or exultant? Are we cheerful givers, or do we resent God?

His suffering will pierce Mary’s heart with a sword. How will she respond? How does she respond at the Presentation, when she offers sacrifice? Is she glad to know God, or sorry?

***

And thus “the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” The grammar is interesting: the contradiction of Jesus reveals the thoughts of hearts, their opposition to God’s glory or their rejoicing in it.

But so too does the piercing of Mary’s heart: will we stand with her, or against her? Will we join her in joyfully offering sacrifice? Or will we refuse, for “fear of death” (as the reading from Hebrews says), fear that God must be greater than all other goods, that we must offer our own lives, even our children, to him?

“Who will endure the day of his coming?” says the first reading, from Malachi. “For he is like the refiner’s fire”: the sacrifice, the obedience demanded, to prove whether we accept God as God, or whether we refuse to serve. Will we join Mary, and “offer due sacrifice to the LORD”?

Where is the refiner’s fire in your life today? Where does God call you to acknowledge him?

Fourth Sunday: More on the Gospel of Repentance

Life has been really hectic, so this week, my reflection on the Sunday readings comes the day after.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

DT 18:15-20; PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 7-9; 1 COR 7:32-35; MK 1:21-28

Last Sunday we saw the first appearance of Jesus in Mark’s “roaring, rushing” Gospel.  Jesus appears saying, “repent!”  The disciples follow.  In Mark, everything is direct and to the point.

This week we read the very next verses of Mark, chapter 1, and the rush continues.  “Immediately” (that’s one of Mark’s favorite words) after Peter and Andrew, James and John join him, Jesus goes into the synagogue in Capernaum, and teaches with authority.  And immediately a demon recognizes him, and Jesus silences him.

It’s all the more dramatic if you have a red-letter Bible (where the words of Jesus are in red).  Jesus’s first words (last week) are “repent and believe.”  His second words (also last week) are “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.”  And his third words (this week) are to the demon: “be silent and come out of him!”

“I know who you are!”  “Be silent!”  That’s a strange way to open the Gospel.  Right from the start Jesus is preventing those who would reveal who he “really is.”

***

There are various ways to answer the classic question, why does Jesus silence those who know him?  (He does it to demons, those cured, those who see him transfigured, etc.)  Here, let us focus on our readings: how does the Bible, read liturgically, answer our question?

First, notice that this whole Gospel reading is about his “teaching with authority” – that phrase precedes and follows the silencing of the demon.  (Mark likes this structure; I think scholars call it a “sandwich.”)

The first time, he is teaching in the synagogue: teaching them the meaning of the Old Testament, teaching them the way of life of God’s people.  The second time, “He commands even the unclean spirits”: he conquers the unclean spirits.

Putting this together with last week’s reading, we could say, Jesus is talking to them about repentance.  In a sense, the way Mark sets things out, we might say that Jesus doesn’t want to talk about himself until he has talked about us.

Profession of faith is the culmination of Mark’s Gospel: at the Cross, the Centurion is the first to fully profess that Jesus is “the Son of God.”  But that profession can only go with a full understanding of its moral implications.  First, its implications for Jesus: who he is cannot be separated from his willingness to die.

But also its implications for us: who he is should not “get in the way of” our seeing that he calls us to repentance.  To the contrary, the whole point of his coming is to change us.  Beware the one who says “Lord, Lord” but doesn’t embrace the moral transformation (symbolized by his synagogue preaching and his victory over demons) that that profession really entails.

***

The other two readings take us in this direction.  The reading from Deuteronomy simply underlines the importance of “a prophet like you”: “to him you shall listen” – whereas it seems the people have a hard time listening to the unmediated word of God.

Reading this back into the Gospel, it’s important to encounter Jesus as man – even as “moral teacher.”  Yes, we must worship him.  But that can’t mean “faith alone,” can’t mean that we profess him as Lord but ignore his call on our life.

Rather, we can only understand why God becomes man, and what his salvation really means, if we see that he comes to walk as a man – in righteousness, even to death – and that he comes to teach men to be men, to proclaim a Gospel of repentance.

Put another way, beware orthodoxy without love, people who give the right “doctrinal” answer but don’t care about living it out authentically.  The demons do that!  Not everyone whose doctrine is orthodox is a true Christian, or a good teacher.

***

And that means, too, living it out practically.  Our second reading is from 1 Corinthians 7, Paul’s discourse on marriage and celibacy.  Here, Paul would spare us the “distractions” of marriage.  It’s a funny pairing with this Gospel.

But read it this way: Paul’s advice isn’t about orthodoxy.  It’s (dare I use the word) “pastoral.”  You don’t have to be celibate.  But Paul says, look, get beyond the rules, and think about how you can really pursue “the things of the Lord,” not “the things of the world.”

Some of us try to do that in marriage – fine! says Paul.  But don’t get so stuck on having professed the right rules that you miss the deeper importance of following with your whole heart.

“Repent, and believe in the Gospel!”  This is the good news.

Are there any ways that you are more worried about “being right” (like the demon in our Gospel) than with following Christ with your whole heart?

The Psalms on Where We Stand

King David, Westminster Psalter

King David, Westminster Psalter

We come to the second-to-last line of our Psalm:

“My foot stands on a straight path.”

It’s a fitting place for a prayer to end.  In the course of Psalm 26 (as in many Psalms) we have considered our eyes, our mouth, our heart, and our kidneys.  Each of these body parts points to a different aspect of how we relate to the world around us.  But our feet, and where they stand, points to givenness.

At the end of our prayer, we say, “here I am, in this spot – this career, this house, this vocation, this family, these friends, this culture,” and, by thinking about our feet, we say, “given that I’m here, where will I go?”

The basic dynamic is simple: on the one hand, it’s up to me to walk, to head off in the right direction.  On the other hand, an awful lot of my life isn’t up to me.  I stand in a particular place.

***

There’s a modern philosophy called existentialism which focuses on radical freedom.  Every moment is separated from every other moment.  Every moment is a moment of decision!  (We have the expression “existential angst” to talk about how it’s scary for everything to be up to us, “in our hands.”)

Existentialism is beloved of both Christians and non-Christians.  And of course there’s something true about it.  Ultimately, what matters is the state of our heart, and that really is all about our decisions.

But there’s something really false about this, too.  Everything is not up to us.  Or rather, what’s up to us is how we deal with the particular place where we find ourselves.  We do no favors to ourselves – to our responsibility, our dignity – by pretending there’s not a situation given to us.  St. John Paul liked to call it our “task”; we could also call it a “call,” or vocation: we have a reality to deal with.

***

There’s a strange theme in the Bible, of children being punished for their parents’ sins.  The Bible is aware this is strange.  For example: “the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations” (Ex 34:6-7).  Forgiving, but punishing children?

Modern Christians are tempted to solve everything by saying the Old Testament God is evil and unfair.  But that strategy fails on a lot of levels.  The most important problem with it is that the Old Testament is God’s Word, and full of wisdom!

Here’s the simple fact: we do suffer for the sins of our parents, even our grandparents, to the third and fourth generation.  This is a big part of “where our feet stand.”  My feet stand in the good things and the bad things my parents and grandparents, and their whole generation, have bequeathed to me.

Just as existentialism does me no favors when it pretends everything is up to me, it does me no favors to pretend that the sins of my fathers don’t affect me.  Oh, I suffer for them!

But even more important, they are the place where I stand, the ground I have to walk across.  This is where I live my faith: in the place my parents and grandparents – and, in another way, their whole generation – gave to me.

***

But in our Psalm, the line is, “my foot stands in a straight path.”  So here are three ways I can look at my situation, the place I stand: I can see the way I bear the consequences of my grandparents’ actions, especially of their sins; I can see the way I simply must live wherever I am; but finally, I can give thanks for where I stand.

My foot stands in a straight path.  The place where I stand, where I find myself, is a good place, a path leading right up to the heavenly Jerusalem.

This means, first, giving thanks for all the good things in life.  That I know Christ, above all, and everything else about my life: these are gifts.  I don’t claim responsibility for where I stand: I give thanks.

But, too, I give thanks for all the bad things in my life.  I recognize that God’s Providence has put me here, and God’s Providence will bring me home.  This is a good place to be, a straight path to heaven, if I receive it from his hand.

What parts of your life do you have the hardest time recognizing as paths to God?  What failures of recent generations present tasks to you today?

 

Third Sunday: The Gospel of Repentance

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

JON 3:1-5, 10; PS 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 COR 7:29-31; MK 1:14-20

This week we return to the Gospel of Mark – and how classically Mark it is.  We are in verse 14 of this roaring, rushing Gospel.  Already we have met John baptizing in the wilderness; Jesus has been baptized; he has gone into the wilderness to battle (for just one verse, in Mark) with the devil; and John has been arrested.  A roaring, rushing Gospel!

And now we come to Jesus’s first words in Mark’s account: “Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God: ‘This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.’”  Twice we have the word “Gospel”: good news, a happy message.

But this happy message is a bit unsettling: a lion’s roar.  “This is the time of fulfillment” – what does that mean?  “The kingdom of God is at hand.”  Exciting, but where is this leading?  “Repent!”

Here is the key word, the same word John the Baptist had proclaimed, “proclaiming a baptism of repentance,” in verse 4.  This explains “the time of fulfillment”: now is the time of repentance, the time of conversion.  This explains “The kingdom of God is at hand”: now we will change our behavior, live as if God is king.  This explains, even, the good news: the good news is repentance, a change of heart.

The Greek metanoia, you probably know, means “a change of mind,” a new way of thinking, a new attitude.  The Latin poenitentia adds an important insight: the pain, poena, of change.

***

But the real key is not in linguistics, it’s in the story.  Immediately, in the roar of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, then James and John.  “They abandoned their nets and followed him.”  “They left their father Zebedee in the boat along with the hired men and followed him.”

Repentance means leaving the old way of life, dropping it right where it lays, and following Jesus.  We can work back the other way.  If the good news is repentance, it’s also true that repentance means recognizing the good news: recognizing that Jesus is worth leaving everything for.  Repentance means acknowledging him as our king, accepting the Lordship of God, going his way, not ours: the kingdom of God is at hand.  There are lots of ways to fill this out – it means accepting, for example, God’s wisdom expressed in the nature of things – but most immediately, most roaringly, it means dropping our nets and following Jesus as our king.  Mark’s theme is always, let’s not get distracted: this is about following Jesus.

That is “the time of fulfillment”: the time when following Jesus becomes everything.  That’s the good news.

***

Notice too, of course, that it immediately turns also to preaching the good news, evangelization.  If we accept Jesus as king, we go forth to extend his kingdom – to extend the good news of dropping everything to follow the good king.  “I will make you fishers of men.”

***

That’s the theme, put boldly, in our short reading from Jonah.  The children’s story is fun, where Jonah is all about getting swallowed by a whale.  But that’s just a side issue in the real storyline of Jonah: God calls him to go forth and preach the gospel of repentance.  His reluctance – which leads, among other things, to getting swallowed by a whale – just shows us what a radical repentance that gospel calls us to undertake.

“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,” is Jonah’s good news.  This is the drama of the good news: it’s good news because the opposite is bad news.  Not to follow Jesus, to remain in our old ways, is destruction, annihilation – not because God imposes nastiness on an otherwise happy Nineveh, but because without Jesus we are lost.

So they “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. . . . They turned from their evil way.”  That is the good news of repentance: it looks a little rough, and that’s often the point: we are so inclined to sit in our boats and miss the One Necessary Thing that the call to follow Jesus feels like pain, poenitentia.  But he calls us to the gospel, to freedom from the emptiness that is life without him.

***

And that is the meaning, too, of our reading from First Corinthians: “the world in its present form is passing away.”  That’s not an imposition: all earthly splendor fades.  It just does.  When Paul calls “those rejoicing” to act “as not rejoicing, those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully,” it’s not that he’s tearing them away from joy.  He’s tearing them away from what cannot satisfy, and calling them to the good news.

But the good news means repentance, a change, a tearing away, from emptiness to fullness of life.

Are there parts of your life where it’s hard to see how repentance, following Jesus, is good news?