The Juxtapositions of Easter

stabat materI have had a busy Holy Week. It’s overwhelming how so many very different things happen at once. That’s true of our spiritual life in general: work, and friends, and medical issues, and liturgy, and all the rest, all at the same messy time. It’s true, too, of the liturgies of Holy Week.

Holy Week begins with a strange juxtaposition. More than one person asked me about it this week: what’s going on with Palm Sunday? Even the name is confusing: “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.” Which one is it?

On the one hand, the Mass begins with Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We sing Hosanna. (Hosanna, it turns out, is a Greek twist on a couple Hebrew words: it appears in the Bible only here, as the acclamation when Jesus enters Jerusalem.) We wave our palms. We acclaim the king.

And then, by the time the ordinary Mass begins, our Hosannas are forgotten. In the first reading, his beard is being plucked. In the second, he is emptying himself, taking the form a slave. The Psalm cries “why have you abandoned me.” And in the Gospel, we read the Passion in its entirety – already, right at the beginning of Holy Week.

Our palms remain awkwardly in our hands, while we are given the voice of a different crowd, crying not Hosanna but Crucify.

But that awkwardness, that strange juxtaposition, is just the point. We who wave the palms are the ones who betray him. And he who is crucified is also the king. This is the triumphal entry that he has eagerly expected. It’s all about that juxtaposition – the palms hanging limply in our hands.

***

This year we have another, but paradigmatic, juxtaposition. March 25 is ordinarily the Annunciation, the moment of great joy, when Christ comes into the world. This year it also happened to be Good Friday, dated according to the changing moon. Our celebration of the Annunciation is deferred till after Easter Week – but the juxtapostion is normal.

For March 25 is not just nine months before Christmas. We know Christmas is at the solstice, in the bleak midwinter. And it seems just an accident that the Annunciation awkwardly falls so close to Holy Week. But it is not awkward. It is the plan.

In fact, the Church settled on March 25 before it settled on December 25. Though we celebrate Easter following the old, lunar calculations for Passover, the traditional date of the Crucifixion was March 25. It is also the traditional date for the creation of Adam, the fall of Lucifer, the sacrifice of Isaac, and the crossing of the Red Sea.

These things go together. They are all one. Just as Christ is both king and crucified, and we are the crowd that both acclaims him and betrays him, so this is the time of when Adam is re-created, Satan is defeated, the first-born is sacrified, and the seas of death are conquered.

These are not just awkward, accidental juxtapositions. It all goes together. That’s the point.

***

Many years ago, some half-Christian family bought us a strange cross. Though it is the shape of the instrument of torture, on it are happy scenes from the life of Christ. Another awkward juxtaposition. Is he the Lord of happiness or the Lord of the Cross?

Here, the liturgical calendar has to de-juxtapose. On one level, the liturgical year simply comes down to the problem of reading the long Bible. It would be nice to read the whole Bible everyday. It all goes together. And it’s all important – we are not a religion of the 3×5 notecard, where everything can be said in a few words. The Bible is long, because there is a lot to say.

On some level, Holy Week is simply the time when we read this central passage. In fact, we read it a few ways. On Palm Sunday we read from the Synoptic Gospels, whichever Gospel we are reading that year. On Good Friday, we read from St. John. And we need those two accounts; they are different; they are richer in juxtaposition. John is like a commentary on the other Gospels – they tell us of the Eucharist, he tells us of the feet washing, etc.

Liturgically, we can’t read it all every day, so we break it up. But that crucifix we were given has sort of the right idea: the one who dies on Good Friday – yes and the one who rises again early on the morning of the third day – is the one, too, who healed the lepers, taught with parables, came to Cana in Galilee; the one who oversaw Noah and Abraham, David and Solomon, Ezra, the Maccabees, and the prophets of the exile.

In the thickness of the Bible, and the complexities of the liturgical year, we see the rich juxtaposition that makes up the whole of the Christian faith.

What parts of the faith do you find most hard to reconcile with one another? Can you learn anything by thinking about that juxtaposition?

Liberation from our Past

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

IS 43:16-21; PS 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; PHIL 3:8-14; JN 8:1-11

Easter is but two weeks away. And as we look forward to Easter – and realize that Lent is all about looking forward to Easter – this Sunday’s readings remind us that the Christian life is about looking forward, not back.

Repentance is such a different thing depending which way we are looking. Looking back, repentance would be about beating ourselves up. Looking forward, repentance is about transformation, on the way to transfiguration and resurrection. So too Confession.

And I have been pondering the eschatological aspect of the Mass: “until you come again,” “a pledge of future glory,” “as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.” Christ who died prepares us to meet him face to face.

***

This is the key to our Gospel reading this week, the woman caught in adultery. There is no question here (any more than in Pope Francis’s comment, “if he has repented, who am I to judge?”) of remaining in sin. Jesus concludes, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

The question is whether we get stuck in the past. Jesus “bent down and wrote on the ground.” One classic interpretation is that, like writing in the sand, our past sins can be wiped away at a stroke by the hand of Jesus – and we can move forward.

***

There is also, of course, an important teaching in this reading against judgment: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” But again, Jesus is looking ahead.

The key is given in the Epistle, from Philippians. The reading concludes, “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” Straining forward.

But this theme runs through the whole reading.

Watch how he plays with the word “possess”: “I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sister, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.”

First, there is the tension between “hope that I may possess” and “I do not consider myself to have taken possession.” Christian hope doesn’t mean we think we are perfect – but nor does it mean we give up on being perfect. It means we hope we are on the path to perfection. Not that we are without sin, and ready to condemn those who sin, but that we strive toward the goal.

Second, there is the tension between “that I may possess” and “I have indeed been taken possession of [or, taken hold of]by Christ Jesus.” Again, Christian righteousness is not about thinking we’re perfect – but about thinking he is perfect, and the author of our perfection. We hope because we know he can do it.

And so hope rests on faith: “not having any righteousness of my own based on the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings.” Faith is essential: not because by it we are already perfect, but because by faith we discover the power that can make us perfect: Jesus who is our goal, and who transfigures us so that we can enter into union with him.

Those who would condemn the sinner don’t realize that life is about transformation. We pray for her transformation just as we pray for ours, trusting that all the strength is in Christ. Just as he died and rose from the dead, so too he can bring life to our souls dead in sin.

***

Our first reading, from Isaiah, returns us to the Lenten image of Israel in the desert. He begins with the Exodus: “Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea, and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together, never to rise.”

But then, after calling to mind God’s work in the past, the prophet says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” The point of those stories of long ago is not to look back, but to look forward. Christ is working our Exodus, this Lent, our passage through the desert to the promised land.

“For I put waters in the desert, and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.”

God has not forgotten us. He has not left us to how we were. The joy of the Gospel is that Christ is working transformation in us, not leaving us as we were but working a new work in us.

How are you stuck in the past? How can Christ liberate you?

Why Not Eat?

gluttonyOne of the pillars of Lenten penance, and of traditional Christian living, is fasting. We “give up” various things for Lent, but traditionally, the focus is on not eating. For almost the entirety of the Catholic tradition, you only got one real meal a day through the whole of Lent. (And although it wasn’t formally included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, there was an older tradition of giving up another pleasure of the flesh for Lent, too.)

There’s wisdom in this practice.

***

Thomas Aquinas defines four central virtues of human life. There’s prudence (picking the smartest means to reach our ends), justice (giving people what they deserve from us), fortitude (doing what’s difficult), and temperance (giving up what feels good when it isn’t appropriate).

As the modern practices of “giving things up” for Lent makes clear, there are a lot of forms of temperance. Not getting distracted from your work is a kind of temperance. So is being simple. Humility, not getting angry, and gentleness are all forms of temperance.

And yet, being bodily creatures, there is a more basic kind of temperance: temperance from the pleasures of the flesh. On a biological level, the most basic temperance is about food, drink, and sex. Nowhere is temperance more vivid, more basic, more direct than in these fleshy passions. Nowhere is it more obvious that our desire for pleasure is out of control.

It must be said: temperance is the lowest of the four virtues. But fasting also requires a lot of prudence (both in picking how much to eat and in using fasting as a means to greater ends) and fortitude (because it’s tough). Justice is much higher than temperance – but the other three virtues all help us to be just. It’s hard to treat other people right when you have no self-control.

***

I often teach John Cassian’s Institutes, a classic piece of Egyptian-desert monastic wisdom from the early Church. Most of the Institutes is organized around what would later be called the seven cardinal sins, along with the deepest sin, pride. (Cassian’s seven are gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, self-pity, sloth, and vainglory. The later tradition would refine self-pity into envy, which is unhappiness focused on other people’s excellence.)

One of the many things I love about Cassian is the way he starts with gluttony. Gluttony is far and away the least of these sins. It is not connected to any Commandment, it doesn’t involve any grave disorder.

In fact, what makes gluttony interesting is precisely its naturalness. Of course, it’s not natural to eat too much. (Cassian adds pickiness and snacking to his description of gluttony.) And yet the desire for food is a healthy, normal desire.

You have to eat or you will die. All the other kinds of sins you can completely give up. But gluttony requires prudence. In fact, the greatest sin connected to gluttony would be hurting yourself by fighting too hard. Cassian has a lot of extreme things to say about fasting (he was an Egyptian monk) – but his closing word is “fast as if you were going to live a hundred years.” That is, fast in a healthy way.

It would be healthy to eat a lot less than we do. Many of us (especially fat Americans) would probably be healthier after forty days of one meal. Doctors even say that the biggest thing you can do to live longer is just eat less.

Fasting is not about killing yourself. It’s about learning to be prudent, learning that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do.

***

After Vatican II, the rules on fasting were mitigated. Previously, fasting had been defined as one meal a day (with an allowance for two snacks); now–at least in Canon Law–there is no rule. Previously, there were three short seasons of fasting, the Wednesday-Friday-Saturday of Summer, Fall, and Winter Ember days, in addition to Lent; now they are gone. Previously, every day of Lent (except one Solemnity) was a fast day; now only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are. The fasting rules are much easier.

This is part of a greater pattern after the Council, including, for example, the modification of many liturgical prayers. There had been a genuine heresy running through the Church, Jansenism, which saw nature itself as evil. After the Council – for good reason! – things were revised to focus on love instead of on evil. We can only understand evil when we understand love. We are in a remedial time, when the Church tries to focus on the most essential of all, and rediscover the goodness of God. There was good reason for taking the emphasis off of self-denial.

But that doesn’t mean we should forget fasting. Precisely because eating is necessary, fasting is a good way to rediscover the difference between saying food is evil and simply saying we don’t need so much. It’s a good reminder that love goes beyond the law.

What have you learned from fasting?

Fourth Sunday in Lent: Through Death to Resurrection

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

JOS 5:9a, 10-12; PS 34: 2-3, 4-5, 6-7; 2COR 5:17-21; LK 15: 1-3, 15-32

This weekend we pass the mid-point of Lent and come to Laetare Sunday. There are three and a half weeks behind us, to Ash Wednesday, and three weeks ahead, to Easter. The Entrance Antiphon says, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning,” etc., so this Sunday is called “Rejoice,” in Latin, Laetare. (An interesting point: in the reforms after Vatican II, they did not change these entrance antiphons, so that we could keep the wonderful old musical settings.)

We celebrate having survived halfway through the hardships. The liturgical color, as on Gaudete Sunday, halfway through Advent, is rose.

And the reading, in this year from Luke, is the great joyful Gospel of the Prodigal Son.

***

The punchline of our Gospel is at the end. The angry older brother complains at the fine treatment of his louse of a little brother. The father says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”

Recent preachers have sometimes liked to call this the Parable of the Older Brother. The older brother gets almost as many verses (eight) as the younger brother (thirteen). You could read the story as a set up for thinking about jealousy. There are many other such stories in the Gospel, such as the servant who is forgiven a great debt but will not forgive a much smaller debt. (That parable is in Matthew 18 – but Luke seems to draw a different point from it in the chapter after the Prodigal Son.) The older son, too, has received everything from his father. His jealousy is not becoming.

We can focus on the father, too, whose mercy is a beautiful icon of the “prodigal” mercy of our Heavenly Father, both clement (sparing in punishment) and merciful (pouring out bounty).

But in the context of Laetare Sunday, it perhaps makes more sense to focus on the Prodigal. As we hopefully look forward to Easter, and ponder our Lenten sacrifices, it makes sense to think of death and resurrection. The simple moral of the story seems to be that we have to bottom out to appreciate what we have. The experience of fasting, the experience of the Cross, makes us newly aware of the goodness of life. Indeed, it is in light of this truth that we understand the older brother’s stinginess and the father’s generosity. It is a basic fact of human existence that we have to lose things to appreciate them.

***

Death and resurrection is the theme to which the other readings point us. In our Old Testament review of the history of conversion, this week we get Joshua. Now, the story is truncated almost beyond recognition.

It begins with the Lord telling Joshua, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” But what has just happened is that, after forty years of wandering in the desert, God has opened the Jordan so they can cross through. The book gives us a strange historical detail: the wilderness generation had not circumcised their children, so God commands a general circumcision before they enter the land. Abraham had been given circumcision as a sign of the promised land; those who were told they would not enter seem to have been told to set aside that sign. But after their suffering, the sign is re-instituted.

Once again, it took forty years in the wilderness for the Israelites to appreciate God’s promises to them. And God called them to celebrate the promise through pain. Through death to resurrection.

In the paragraph we are given, God takes away the manna – because now they will have a land flowing with milk and honey. The manna was a sign of God’s provision, but they needed deprivation to see it. And even that heavenly bread is taken away as a stimulus to enter into the promise. Through death to resurrection.

***

As usual, our Epistle, from Second Corinthians, transfers these physical parables into spiritual realities. The center of our paragraph is all about reconciliation: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”

But the first sentence is about death and resurrection: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” That reconciliation involves leaving behind the old ways. Through death to resurrection – “passing away” is, in Greek too, a word connected to dying.

And the final sentence is about Christ’s death: “for our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.” He entered into our punishment, into our penance, so that our Lent could be a path to moral resurrection.

Because finally, Easter is not about feasting on the fatted calf, but on knowing the Merciful Father himself.

What have you learned from your Lenten penances?

Should we fast on Sundays during Lent?

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

I recently saw a post in which someone argued that we should fast even on Sundays during Lent. I think he was incorrect.

His argument was that you don’t hear about people breaking the fast on Sundays until recently. It seems like Lent used to be really hard on every day.

The source to go to on things like this is the Code of Canon Law. Now, St. John XXIII called for a revision of the Code of Canon Law at the same time that he called the Second Vatican Council (and, incidentally, a diocesan synod for Rome). He thought – and I don’t see how one could seriously disagree – that times had changed sufficiently to need some adjustment of Catholic practices. We don’t live in the Middle Ages anymore, in so many ways. (Apart from medicine, I wouldn’t mind going back to the way the Church was then – but that’s irrelevant: that’s not the world we live in.)

The revision he called for gave birth to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by St. John Paul II. It’s a great document, easily found online, where you can see what the Church really asks us to do in our time. For example, Book IV is on the Sanctifying Office of the Church; part three of that book is on Sacred Places and Times; Title II is on Sacred Times; and Chapter II is on Days of Penance.

There you can read:

Canon 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

That is, that we do penance is a matter of natural (or divine) law. But then the Church sets aside some ways that we do communal penance, to draw us together. (In fact, Vatican II specifically asked for more communal penance – sadly overlooked. Strangely, the new Code drops the Ember Days, which were precisely communal days of penance.)

Canon 1250 tells us that every Friday is a day of penance, as is Lent. Canon 1251 says, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” That’s helpful. It tells us (a) we are supposed to use some sort of abstinence from food as a penance on every Friday; (b) this is contradicted only if there is a solemnity – the highest kind of feast, but not just any kind; (c) meat isn’t necessarily the way to do it.

I tell my students, once upon a time, telling people who lived by the shore that they had to eat lobster was like telling them they had to eat bugs. It was nothing fancy; it was penance. But that’s not how it works in the United States today. For many of us, fish on Friday is more like a feast; maybe better to eat vegetarian, a long monastic tradition.

Canon 1252 tells us, by the way, that abstinence from meat (or whatever) is for those ages 14 and up; fasting is for adults (perhaps 18) until 59. Good to know!

Nothing here about Sundays, of course, because now only Fridays are penitential.

***

But the 1983 Code is a revision of something previous, and harder to access. In 1917 a previous effort was made to codify the law for the modern world. It is called the Pio-Benedictine Code, because it came out under Benedict XV, but its main instigator was St. Pius X, himself a reformer. It’s in Latin, and not as easily available online. I forgive the blogger who failed to check it!

There we learn, in its canon 1250, that abstinence from meat did not mean you couldn’t eat eggs, dairy, and condiments made with fat. Good to know! (That’s not how the Orthodox do it.)

In 1252.3, we find that every day of Lent was a fast day. But in 1252.4, we learn that on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, there is no fasting or abstinence from meat. That’s the Old Code, the hallowed way of the ‘50s: no fasting on Sundays!

Then comes the really exciting part: the 1917 Code has footnotes to the older laws. There was not a Code before 1917. There were lots and lots of rulings. The main ones had been gathered, in the twelfth century, by Gratian, into a book called Gratian’s Decrees. But then alongside that were tons of more recent statements. The 1917 Code tells you about these things.

Gratian is, of course, also in Latin, but a very nice edition is available online. There we learn that in the twelfth century “the fast is not to be lifted in Lent except on Sundays.” Even then. (Gratian also tells us, by the way, that Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, specifically exempted Sundays in Lent too. And he says we distinguish ourselves from some heretics who did fast on Sundays.)

According to the 1917 Code, there was no other legislation on the matter beween Gratian in the twelfth century and Pius X in the twentieth. So be at peace! Enjoy your Sundays!

How do you celebrate Sundays in Lent?

The Mercy of Lent

good-shepherd-2It is Lent in the Year of Mercy. It seems an appropriate time to ask what Mercy is, what Lent is, and why they go together.

People tend to think that mercy means non-judgment – that mercy is the opposite of justice. If that is so, why bother with Lent? Why should I suffer, and why should I repent of my sins, if God doesn’t really care if I’m a bad person? Why should I try hard if God loves me regardless? It seems like Jesus suffered so that we wouldn’t have to; Jesus was good so we wouldn’t have to be.

But this confuses three related but distinct things: mercy, clemency, and unconditional love. God is all three – but they are different.

Clemency means relenting in punishment. Clemency is when you know someone’s committed a crime, they’ve been convicted, and you decide not to punish them. God is clement. He does not punish all our crimes. He does not, in this sense, give us the justice we deserve – or else he would never have come to suffer for us, the just for the unjust (1 Peter 3:8). “God commends His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Mercy is connected to clemency, but mercy is not clemency. Mercy is more like compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin for “suffer with.” Mercy comes from the Latin “misericordia,” a heart for misery. Mercy’s heart goes out to people. Already this is more than clemency. Clemency lets things go. Mercy lets nothing go. Clemency might be described as not caring – God doesn’t care that we have sinned, it doesn’t matter – but mercy is caring. God does care.

In Greek, mercy (the eleison we sing at Mass) is connected to almsgiving (elemosyne). Mercy gives alms. Mercy reaches out to help.

The Middle Ages saw in the Good Samaritan a classic image of Jesus himself. The Good Samaritan is merciful. He is clement, too, I suppose: when he sees the man bleeding on the side of the road, he doesn’t say, “you deserved it for walking in this dangerous place.” There is clemency there. But clemency alone would lead him to walk away. Non- judgmentalism goes nowhere near so far as mercy.

Mercy pours oil and wine on our wounds, puts us on his donkey, and takes us to the inn. Mercy heals. Mercy is generous. The God who is mercy is a God overflowing with goodness, pouring out his goodness – his oil and wine – on those who suffer.

***

The mercy of Lent comes out in the Lenten Prefaces at Mass. “By your gracious gift each year your faithful await the sacred paschal feasts with the joy of minds made pure, so that, more eagerly intent on prayer and on the works of charity, and participating in the mysteries by which they have been reborn, they may be led to the fullness of grace.”

“You have given your children a sacred time for the renewing and purifying of their hearts, that, freed from disordered affections, they may so deal with the things of this passing world as to hold rather to the things that eternally endure.”

In these prayers, we see Lent as a gift, a reason to give God thanks. Lent is a gift because it is a time of healing. It is a time where we learn to pray better, to live more spiritual lives, to enter more deeply into the mysteries of Christ.

And it is a gift because sin is bad for us. God is clement, he overlooks our sins – but overlooking them doesn’t help us anymore than the bleeding man was helped by the priests who passed by on the other side of the road. Yes, he overlooks our sins – but he does far more. He heals us.

Because sin is sickness. Sin is the absence of love. Sin is the absence of God. We do not want to be left in our sins. We want to be healed.

Lent is a place for discovering that the mercy of God is not to leave us in our sins, but to pour oil and wine on our wounds, so that we can become better. It is a time to discover that penitence is not merely sadness, but a road to happiness. Like a retreat, Lent is a time of joy, because Lent is a time of walking more closely with the happy God.

But God, who is rich in mercy, for His great love with which He loved us (even when we were dead in sins) has made us alive together with Christ (by grace you are saved), and has raised us up together and made us sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the exceeding riches of His grace in His kindness toward us through Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:4-7).

Where is God’s mercy in your Lenten penances?

Crossing through the Desert

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

EX 3:1-8a; 13-15; PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11; 1 COR 10:1-6, 10-12; LK 13:1-9

In these middle Sundays of Lent, the Gospel readings call us to conversion, and the Old Testament readings give us a brief history of conversion in the Old Testament. This Sunday they give a dense meditation on the passage through suffering.

In the Gospel, “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” All year, we are in Luke’s Gospel; here, in chapter 13, we are after 9:51, the pivot point, when “Jesus steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Luke’s Gospel, like Lent, is the journey to the Cross.

And some tell him about what horrible things Pilate does to people.

Jesus’s response is twofold. On the one hand, he says that having horrible things happen to you is not necessarily a bad thing. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!”

And yet he has already changed the subject, from the suffering they endure in their bodies to the state of their souls. The questioners say, “oh, they suffered!” Jesus says, “they are not sinners.”

And so the second thing he says – twice, after two parallel stories – is “if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” On the one hand, he says, don’t worry about the suffering. Suffering is not evil, sin is evil, and suffering – such as the suffering inflicted by the evil man Pilate – does not prove that you are evil. On the other hand, suffering is the destiny of evil people.

He underlines this second point with the story of the fig tree: it is given a few chances, but finally, if it does not bear fruit – the fruit of repentance – it will be cut down.

***

There are two kinds of punishment. There is vengeance, an expression of hatred. But there is also correction, or discipline, which is an expression of love. Correction often makes us suffer; often it is precisely through suffering that we correct the ones we love, as when we punish our children. But that suffering is a tool.

God never hates, he is never purely vengeful. To the contrary, the only suffering that does not correct is the suffering of Hell. But that suffering is self-imposed: if we refuse to embrace the good, we end up without it. Suffering in this life is a tool of love, meant to save us from the meaningless suffering of eternal emptiness.

***

Our Old Testament reading, from Exodus, and our Epistle, from First Corinthians, are both about Moses in the desert. The desert is the place of suffering, the epitome of Lent.

St. Paul tells us “our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea.” They were saved in a fearful way. The cloud (which led them through the desert) did not feel like enlightenment. The sea (which parted to let them escape the Egyptians) was terrifying – it saved them because it destroyed what would hurt them, the Egyptians. But God saved them through those fearful ways.

He provided for them in the desert, with “spiritual food” and “spiritual drink.” It was precisely in lack that they discovered God’s sufficiency. The suffering of the desert was not a bad thing. It was a place to discover God.

“Yet God was not pleased with most of them,” and so “they were struck down in the desert.” We have to use that suffering well. Going out into the desert, we have to find God. If instead we make it a place of grumbling, the corrective suffering of love turns to the empty suffering of Hell.

All of this, says St. Paul, a sign of our Baptism. We are plunged into the water. The Greek word for Baptism means the water goes over our heads, we are submerged. But if we find God, that drowning is a place of union.

***

In Exodus, Moses finds God in the desert. “Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.” Horeb itself is a Hebrew word for “desolation,” in the midst of Sinai, which means “glaring,” as in, glaring sun on glaring sand and rock. It is in the desert that he meets God.

God is in a bush with “fire flaming” – the doubling is an emphasis. God is fire – but not fire that destroys. God has “heard their cry of complaint,” their “suffering,” their “affliction.” He has not abandoned them in the suffering. It is in their suffering, in the desert of Egypt, that they learn to turn to him.

And there Moses discovers God as I AM, as the only thing that is fully real. But we have to go to the desert, we have to pass through the suffering of Lent, to find him.

How is God purifying your sight through suffering?

Second Sunday of Lent: Our Citizenship is in Heaven

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

GN 15:5-12, 17-18; PS 27:1, 7-8, 8-9, 13-14; PHIL 3:17-4:1; LK 9:28b-36

On the Second Sunday of Lent the Church has always read the Gospel of the Transfiguration. Before Vatican II, it was always from Matthew; now it from Matthew, Mark, or Luke, according to the Gospel we are reading that year. It puts a positive spin on what Lent is about.

This year to help us understand we have a short reading from Philippians. First, St. Paul gives us a Lenten sounding message: “Many, as I have often told you and now tell you even in tears, conducts themselves as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction. Their God is their stomach. Their glory is in their shame.” Repent!

But then he gives the reason: “Our citizenship is in heaven.” From there comes Jesus, and “He will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body.” From Lent we look up to the Transfiguration (and forward to the Easter and all that follows).

The key connecting verse is, “Their minds are occupied with earthly things.” The problem with those who oppose the cross, worship their bellies, etc., is not so much the wickedness of the earthly things as the forgetting of things heavenly. God has so much to offer us – and we pay no attention. “Their end is destruction” because they chase after what passes away (full bellies, etc.) and forget the glory that last forever.

***

The first reading is the Lord’s promise to Abraham. It’s a peculiar progression. First God promises: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so shall your descendants be.” (That’s as heavenly as the Old Testament promises get.)

Abraham believes, and God counts it as righteousness. (That’s the key verse in Romans, you know: our righteousness is in trusting God’s promises.) Abraham trusts God.

But then God reminds him, as last week, that he is nothing but a wandering Aramean, and Abraham asks – with that righteous faith – “how am I to know that I shall possess it?”

There follows a strange scene: Abraham cuts up some birds, fire passes between them: odd. A key line, however, is “a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him.” Abraham discovers the truth of God’s promises by passing through the darkness. Then “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch”: God illumines the terrifying darkness, but with terrifying fire. The Lectionary leaves out the verses in between, where the Lord tells him of Egypt: “your seed shall be a stranger in a land not their own, and shall serve them. And they shall afflict them four hundred years.”

Abraham knows the truth of God’s promises not in success but in captivity, not in glory but in darkness. His act of sacrifice leads him into total trust that the Lord who has promised will do it. And so his eyes are lifted to the stars.

***

Now, in Matthew (26) and Mark (14), the Gospel of the Transfiguration occurs at the very end, just before the Cross. But Luke structures his whole Gospel around the journey to Jerusalem, so the account we read this year is early, in chapter 9.

Jesus has just told them “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be slain, and be raised the third day” – the first prediction of the cross in this Gospel, I think. And then he applied it to the disciples: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow Me.”

After the Transfiguration, Jesus will express his frustration at this “faithless generation.” He will tell them again that he will be delivered into the hands of men – and they will respond by talking about who is the greatest.

And then comes the great pivot point of Luke’s Gospel, 9:51, “when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” – to his death.

That is the context of the Transfiguration.

***

Then we can start to hear the words of this Gospel. “Moses and Elijah spoke of his exodus that he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem.” The word in Greek is exodus – it means his road out, a path both of liberation and of death. In his glory, they speak of the passage through death to glory.

Peter wants to stay with the vision – but they are taking about the road. The Transfiguration is a call forward. Our citizenship is in heaven. We are called beyond.

And they hear the words “This is my beloved Son,” like Abraham, from a frightening cloud.

The Transfiguration is a call to glory. A call to the road that leads, yes, through the Cross, but to heaven.

How do your Lenten practices call you on to heavenly glory?

First Sunday in Lent: Saved by Faith

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

DT 26:4-10; PS 91:1-2, 10-11, 12-13, 14-15; ROM 10:8-13; LK 4:1-13

I was struck this year on Ash Wednesday by the Offertory Prayer, which asked that through our Lenten observance we “may become worthy to celebrate devoutly the Passion.” The word for worthy could also be translated as “fit.” It’s hard to enter into Christ’s cross unless we have some sense of the Cross ourselves. We need to spend some time meditating on suffering if we want to understand what happens for us on Good Friday.

Our readings this Sunday help us to think about suffering in terms of abandoning ourselves to God’s care.

***

The translation of our first reading, from Deuteronomy, is marvelous. Moses is giving instructions for the people when they finally claim the Promised Land. “When you come into the land which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance, and possess it, and live in it,” say the verses immediately before our reading, “you shall take of the first of all the fruit of the earth which you shall bring of your land that the LORD your God gives you, and you shall put it in a basket. . . . And you shall go to the priest in those days, and say to him, I profess today to the LORD your God that I have come into the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us.

All that we have is a promised gift from God.

But then comes the great part: “Then you shall declare before the LORD, your God, ‘My father was a wandering Aramean who went down to Egypt.” Now, this is a bit of an overstatement. Their father – Jacob-Israel, who went down to Egypt – was born and spent most of his life in the Promised Land, but his wife and his mother were from Aramea (in the Syrian desert). The point of the wonderfully Jewish exaggeration is to say, “I am nobody, I come from nothing.”

But from that nothingness, through the suffering of Egypt, God brought us to the promise. It is not we who are strong, it is the pure generosity of God.

That is the first reading’s commentary on suffering: we join ourselves to Christ on the Cross, where we finally become aware that only God can raise us up.

***

The second reading, from Romans, takes us deeper into the element of faith. “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”

Some of our Protestant brothers and sisters take this verse out of context, but the point is important.

“One believes with the heart and so is justified.” We have no way of become just, righteous, good, except through faith – faith, indeed, in the promise. Christianity is all about promises, just as the Israelites experienced the Promised Land. I cannot raise myself from the dead – whether from physical death or from the more important spiritual death that is sin. Everything depends on the Promise and God’s strength.

“And one confesses with the mouth and so is saved.” And then we come to salvation, we reach the finish line, only if that trust in God’s promise bears fruit in a life of conversion, a life that, with the mouth and every other part of our life, bears witness that Jesus is Lord.

Not just that Jesus is Savior, but that he is Lord: our life, our profession of faith, has to show that he is master of all of our life. We can only do that if we abandon ourselves to faith in him.

***

“The word – the word of faith that we preach – is near you, in your mouth and in your heart,” says Paul in our reading from Romans, commenting on Deuteronomy.

Our Gospel this week is Jesus battling Satan in the desert. He embodies this teaching on two levels.

First, Jesus himself bespeaks his faith in the power of his Father by having the word of Scripture in his mouth. Jesus shows us that our greatest defense against the devil is to quote the Word of God against him, to trust in revealed wisdom.

(The devil, of course, also quotes Scripture, out of context – and Jesus puts it back into context, by knowing Scripture better.)

So Jesus teaches us to rely on faith. But he is that faith itself: the most powerful word of Scripture is the very name of Jesus. He is the victor, he alone.

***

This is the Lectionary’s commentary on suffering, to begin our journey toward the Cross. We must become absolutely weak, abandon our strength, and join ourselves to Christ, abandoned on the Cross – with absolute faith that it is God who will save these wandering Arameans from the power of Egypt.

I am weak, but he is strong.

How does your Lenten penance help you experience your weakness?

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?