In reflecting on the scriptures for Passion Sunday (March 29) believers are frequently urged to meditate upon Jesus’ suffering while on the cross. We should also reflect on the psychic and emotional suffering before the actual crucifixion.
Imagine Jesus in Gethsemane, looking down through the ages and visualizing the multitude of humanity trapped in behavior that is destructive of others and self. He realizes that he alone can provide a safe path out of the trap - and that the path goes through the cross. Kathleen Norris writes in Amazing Grace that the original meaning of the Hebrew word “yeshua” can mean rescue or making a safe path. This, to my mind, is what happened. Jesus looked across the world and down through the ages, saw us trapped and realized that he had to provide a path. This would lead us out of slavery to our own destructive behavior patterns. He must have realized that he did not have to go forward. He pleaded with his Father to be allowed to avoid walking this path. Yet his understanding of the text of Isaiah:
I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard; my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting.
The Lord GOD is my help, therefore I am not disgraced; I have set my face like flint, knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
told him that he had to proceed. How did he find the strength and courage? Paul writes to the Philippians that Jesus:
“Who, being in very nature] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-11, NIV)
Once we grasp that his rescue set us free, we can only be grateful.
In the scriptures for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (March 22) we will hear what, IMO, is the most challenging statement in all of the gospels. Before we get to this, we will hear a promise in the first reading (Jer 31:31-34) and a plea for help in Psalm 51. Then, in the second reading (Heb 5:7-9) we get a foundation for meeting the gospel (Jn 12:20-33) and for meeting the challenge.
In Jeremiah we get this promise:
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD. I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
No longer will we have an external law, one that we must obey under the threat of punishment. We will have one that lives in our hearts and is followed out of a sense of joy. Yet we sense that we can not do this ourselves, and so we pray in Psalm 51:
A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me.
Lest this seem impossible, the writer of Hebrews gives us the foundation for our hope:
Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
Then, in John, we have the challenge issued to the Greeks who wished to see Jesus.
Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be. The Father will honor whoever serves me.
The phrase “hating his life in this world” calls for some explanation. What it means to me is that, true to the promise, the Lord will plant his law in our hearts. The Lord will also create a clean heart within us - but we must desire for our hearts to be open. The challenge, then, is to be willing to give up those things in our hearts which keep them closed. When we see what it is in this world that is closing our hearts will will “hate”, ie. love it less, and be willing to give it up.
Sometimes the challenge is not just becoming willing to give up obstacles to God’s presence within us. It is simply becoming able to identify the obstacles. If we take inventory we may find that the obstacles are numerous and that some of them are disguised as good things. Thus, with David we pray:
Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me.
Paul’s reminder that it is by grace, not by our strenuous efforts to heed warnings, that we are rescued
and John (3:14-21) telling us that God gave his only son to rescue us from Babylon.
It is a natural for individuals and societies to ignore warnings of disaster as Israel did. For individuals the disaster may be medical, legal or personal. For Israel, it was defeat and exile into Babylon.
Psychologists, social scientists and theologians have given us many explanations of how we ignore warnings. For example, we may say:
“I’m too busy to deal with this now”
“…that warning applies to other people” or
“It’s not that bad. I’ll get help if I need it.”
(The last one got me into physical therapy for a knee problem that could have been prevented.) The reality is that there are some problems which paralyze us. We find ourselves trapped and unable to get out without help. We can get help, Paul reminds us in our second reading for Sunday:
“God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —,”
And how were we brought out from death into life? This Sunday we hear John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave* his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
In the middle of Lent we hear words of hope and reason for gratitude.
The scriptures for the third Sunday of Lent (March 8) immediately bring to mind a line from Elizabeth Scalia, author of Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life. Scalia writes that modern idols are no longer golden statues or large temples. Rather they are the things that we chase after in the hopes that they will make us popular, important, attractive, wealthy or happy. They are the things that we serve in order to get what we want. We pursue trends, looking at the internet to find the “five best places to …” or the latest clothing fashion.
In contrast to this, our first reading (Ex 20:1-17) starts with this reminder of the source of our freedom and happiness:
“I, the LORD, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery."
We are cautioned, not as a threat, but out of love, that we should be careful in our choice of what and whom we serve. When the causes that we pursue, be they social, political or religious become so important that we place them before the Lord, we are serving idols.
Elizabeth Scalia’s book at times makes uncomfortable reading because it reminds us of how easy it is to be seduced today’s cultural trends. In an interview she quotes Flip Wilson as saying we are now members of the “Church of What’s Happening Now.”
Many of these activities and trends can serve good ends. In the gospel (Jn 2:13-25), we find Jesus enraged by the activities of money changers in the temple. The end which they served - providing animals for the temple sacrifice - was a good one. The problem was that they had turned from providing a service to “making my Father’s house a marketplace.”
The scriptures for the Second Sunday of Lent (March 1st) give us clear examples of being caught in a double-bind. In the Mystery of Christ: Liturgy as Spiritual Experience Thomas Keating describes a double-bind as a situation in which one must choose between two courses of action and both courses are perceived to be the will of God. The choice may be agonizing as it was for Mary, an engaged virgin when she was asked to a mother and not by Joseph. In the first reading for Sunday, (abridged from Genesis 22) Abraham is direct to sacrifice Isaac on a mountain in the land of Moriah. Abraham and Sarah had waited all their lives for Isaac. He was the only promise of old age. Abraham goes forward, somehow trusting. He finds out that he will not have to sacrifice Isaac. The Lord promises;
I will bless you and make your descendants as countless as the stars of the sky and the sands of the seashore; your descendants will take possession of the gates of their enemies, and in your descendants all the nations of the earth will find blessing, because you obeyed my command.”
This story has produced endless commentary designed to explain the tension inherent in Abraham’s faith in God in the face of an apparent contradiction.
The double bind faced by the disciples after the transfiguration (Mk 9:2-10) is also dramatic. On the mountain, the disciples see the transfigured Jesus and learn that he is the Messiah, the one for whom Israel has waited. Yet,
As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.
The disciples must have felt a strong urge to tell everyone the good news, yet they were urged to keep quiet. Their response?
So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.
The double-bind is not seen as a common spiritual experience - although I suspect that it is. We just don't recognize it because it does not occur in as dramatic a manner. In the most common form it is the challenge of choosing between two good courses of action, each of which seems desirable. Keating gives the example of persons who choose the contemplative life wishing that they were in the active life - or the reverse.
What should we do when in a bind? We can realize that others have gone forward in faith, asking the Lord to work out a solution and trusting that He will.
...redoubled our efforts.” Jim, one of my favorite bosses, used to quote this management proverb. It reminds me of the theme in the scriptures for the 1st Sunday of Lent (Feb 22). The connection is not immediately clear. Let me explain.
In engineering program management, teams are often assigned a problem, develop a solution and spend immense time, energy and money implementing their solution. If the chosen solution does not work right away, the natural tendency is to pour even more time and effort. In a desperate hope that the solution will work the team will tolerate tremendous stress and burnout rather than accept failure and start over.
This is a natural response in the engineering and intelligence analysis world. I’ve seen it happen and done it.
So what is the connection to Sunday’s scriptures? In Gn 9:8-15 we will hear after a flood, Noah and his sons knew that the solution was keeping God’s Covenant. Then in the very short Gospel reading (Mk 1:12-15) we read that
“The Spirit drove Jesus out into the Desert and he remained in the desert for forty days.”
Mark didn’t record it, but in Luke we learn that the Devil proposed solutions to Jesus. These three solutions were 1) gaining power over the world, 2) accepting the pleasure of food and comfort, or 3) gaining possession over the worlds goods. (Our teacher Msgr. Chester Michael called these the “3 P’s”) Jesus rejected all three of them. As in my comparison to engineering programs, they will lead to frustration and failure. Most of us will stick with them for a long time and change direction only after experiencing burnout.
Jesus returned from the desert proclaiming:
“This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel.”
Trappist monk Fr. Thomas Keating has often written that to repent means to change the direction in which we are looking for happiness.
The Gospel of Mark recounts several instances in which Jesus sought to hide his dealings from public view. On the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Feb 15th) we will first hear the rules specified in Leviticus for one who suffers from Leprosy. Then in the gospel, (Mk 1: 40-45) Jesus heals a man from leprosy; charges him to fulfill the rules from Leviticus; and then charges him:
“See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.”
Why the command to “tell no one?” Jesus' action in commanding his followers to silence about his messianic mission is known to biblical commentators as the messianic secret. It is the subject of much speculation.
Without going into the question of Jesus’ motives, we can find that this is a very normal human urge.
The front page of Washington Post for February 10th has John Feinstein’s moving tribute to University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith (1931-301). Feinstein tells of interviewing Smith and asking him about his role in furthering desegregation restaurants in Chapel Hill.
“Dean, you should be proud of doing something like that.”He looked me in the eye and said, “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”
Dean Smith, a practicing Baptist, did not elaborate his motives. However, he shared the instinct for secrecy displayed by Jesus after healing the leper. Both, it seems to me, were afraid that publicity would detract from the work that they were supposed to do.
It is often wise to conceal the good that one does. There are, however, exceptions and times when publicity is desirable.
Publicity and honor are sometimes appropriate and may even help in doing one’s work. In his Introduction to the Devout Life (Part Iii, section IV) Francis de Sales writes:
“… good men seeking to grow in grace can take their natural rank and position, so long as they are not engrossed by such things, and do not involve themselves in anxiety, contention, or ill will on their account. I am not speaking here of those whose position is public, or even of certain special private persons whose dignity may be important. In all such cases each man must move in his own sphere, with prudence and discretion, together with charity and courtesy.”
Francis de Sales set forth some good criteria on accepting - or not accepting - pubic honors. It seems to be that Dean Smith set a good example for us.
On the fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time (Feb 8) we can find a connection between each of the three scripture readings that we will hear at Mass. The first reading from Job speaks of drudgery, suffering and sleeplessness. The Gospel (Mk 1:29-39) is a story of Jesus’ healing many people from various diseases. The second reading (1 Cor 9:16-19, 22-23) Paul defends himself against criticism over pay for his teaching. Accused of preaching for pay, he says he is preaching out of gratitude. Christ has rescued Paul and he is now preaching not for payment but in repayment. Job, or any of those who received healing might react in the same way.
As an advocate of workplace spirituality, I suggest that we might extend this attitude to all of our daily work. We can start with the premise that all work (excluding the production of actual vices) is creative and a service to others. it is, in some way, an exercise of our God given talents to serve others either by making products or providing service. Done in gratitude and as repayment, our works somehow, help build the Kingdom. This is an attitude that could reshape our entire economy. When we go to work, we are repaying the Lord for past healing and rescue from difficult and sometimes tragic situations. We are also serving our employer and our customers. For some suggested in Gregory F.A. Pierce’s Spirituality@Work: 10 Ways to Balance Your life on the Job
On the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Feb.1) we come to a gospel passage subject to many interpretations. Some scholars have attempted to explain such passages by finding entirely natural causes, rather than accept them as "literally" true. While I have no wish to get into this debate, it does seem to me that we can draw from our own experience, find similar events and then find explanations that fit our own lives. We are not dismissing the passages as mythical. Instead we are adopting an interpretation that makes sense in our own framework.
That said, the scriptures for next Sunday include this passage from Mk 1:21-28:
"...In their synagogue was a man with an unclean spirit; he cried out, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!” Jesus rebuked him and said, “Quiet! Come out of him!” The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him..."
If we adopt a flexible interpretation of the meaning of "unclean spirit" we can an arrive at an understanding consistent with our own experience and the biblical text. Let us suppose that the man in question had a lifetime controlled by resentment, hatred and anger at what someone had done to him decades earlier. Can we not say that this man has an unclean spirit, one that will destroy him and he cannot release? If your answer is yes, imagine that the man was threatened by Jesus' preaching of love and forgiveness. The man had lived in resentment and anger for most of his life. This was a defense mechanism. Letting go of it would mean going defenseless. the unfamiliar was threatening. When Jesus spoke words of healing, the spirit of resentment within him cried out "go away" almost as if it were someone else. Jesus said, in a way, "Let it go" when the man did, it was almost as if he were convulsed in shock at his new state.
This interpretation may seem a stretch to some. Maybe I am being so flexible that I set aside the miraculous aspect of this man's healing. Yet, I can look around and find many people, political groups, and entire societies consumed by political, religious, and racial hatred and resentment. We need to rebuke such unclean spirits and cry, "quiet, come out of" them.
We will hear the story of Jonah and his preaching in the first reading for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Jan 25th). When he heard the call to preach to Nineveh, he might have responded his own version of Is 6:8:
Jonah did not wish to preach to Nineveh, the capital city of a land of cruel warriors who persecuted Israel. He fled, was in a shipwreck and was rescued by a whale. He preached this message:
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed, “
Then the people of Nineveh believed God and repented;
(We can wish that all preachers would be as successful - and brief.)
The gospel (Mk 1:14-20) gives us another example of quick response. As Jesus
passed by the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting their nets into the sea;
they were fishermen.
Jesus said to them,
“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”
Then they abandoned their nets and followed him.
In the year 2015, we rarely see such conversion and quick response - certainly not of an entire city as with Jonah. Maybe we should listen to Paul in our second reading (1 Cor 7:29-31). The measures Paul advocated seem extreme. Yet we could all use a little urgency. We are offered the gift of life and deepest happiness, yet we tend to delay our response. The people of Nineveh sensed an immediate danger and responded. When we delay it is because we a preoccupied and fail to sense either impending danger or the great gift that is awaiting our response. The scriptures for this Sunday, challenge us to respond. If we don't, we can at least pray to be freed from our preoccupations.