Lent arrived this year mixed with a strange alchemy of the secular and the sacred. Ash Wednesday coincided with Valentine’s Day, suggesting that as we journey into the 40 days with Jesus, God has sent us a love letter. That may be a bewildering way to think of engaging Lent, but as the Gospel for Ash Wednesday reminds us, even our ascetical practices should be characterized by joy. After all, how can we look gloomy when it is Christ who companions us to the desert, the divine Word of love speaking to us of dying to our sins while being raised to new life in him?
And so, if the readings for Ash Wednesday set us on a course for this season of preparation, please allow me to suggest that the Lectionary for each of the Sundays of Lent might set a vibrant wind in our sails as well, even as our little ship glides toward the promised shore, aglow with the new fire and cleansed by the saving waters of holy Easter.
The Good Zeal
The Gospel of Mark proclaimed on the First Sunday of Lent could not be more striking in its simplicity and immediacy: The Spirit, mystically united in Christ and made visible in the mystery of the Lord’s baptism when testified by the Father, literally expels Jesus into the desert. This holy desire that is at the heart of all genuine religious experience, is the same zeal that launches us into Lent.
It is well to remember that seeking God is hard and serious stuff. Mark’s account of Jesus in the desert imagines long-term trials and fidelity. Although we may have witnessed those wonderful moments of conversion in ourselves, our brother priests or the lives of the faithful, time has a way of snapping at our heels over the years, like an artful, toothy and sly monster. Zeal looks great when the oil is still fresh on your hands after ordination and as a beloved associate who can do no wrong, but what about a seasoned pastor who has to close a school or merge two or three parishes? Forty days in the wilderness without a lifeline is a long time.
But not so long to endure if we remember that love letter, the Word made flesh, who remembers us still. Memory of the covenant God has given us, such as those consolations we have received beginning with our baptism. So those angels ministering to us in the dryness of our prayer, the labor of our obedience, bear us up to proclaim the Good News. Can we name the grace of an encounter in our sacramental ministry, those treasured moments that may have escaped us: that Eucharist where the bread from heaven fed our people in ways that we couldn’t fathom; that confession that disclosed God’s mercy to me after spiritual direction. All unimagined and, yes, undeserved: the simple grace of knowing that despite the heat of the desert, the harshness of the winds, the occasional rough terrain on the path to God, I did the right thing when I could have chosen poorly. That is how the Spirit has rebooted us, even now.
God asks a lot from us. That is a pathetically simple description of the “Binding of Isaac” in the First Reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. Yet we also know that God demands even more from himself, as the Second Reading describes the divine holocaust enkindled by Christ’s free gift of himself for our salvation. God’s self-emptying is the ground zero of love, which can go no further in its zenith, perfection and completeness.
All the more to remember that when we climb Mt. Tabor as the Lord’s ministers with Christ, we do so while drawing closer to the love beyond all telling, now revealing itself in a very intimate way. Abraham had to face the existential darkness of annihilating not only his offspring, but also killing off the promise God gave him as a potential blessing. Can we trust God’s truth that much? Mt. Tabor was a revelation of God’s truth as well; it harbors the vision of who we are in relationship to Christ. “Listen to him.”
So honestly: what is it like to encounter the truth of yourself in Christ? How do you respond when the living God holds up a mirror as you follow him up the mountain? If truth be told, most of us would hide our faces and rather not face the truth about ourselves. Indeed we prefer perhaps the spectacle of Mt. Tabor rather than its demands. I know one priest, now deceased, who kept televisions blasting in just about every single room in the rectory day and night. We know that rectories can be lonely places after busy days, solitary spaces that face us with truths about ourselves. And so the default position my be that third Glenlivet, a cozy Lazy-Boy in front of three hours of Netflix every night or just a little “harmless” soft porn on the Internet for an hour. There are a lot of ways of hiding our face.
It is common enough to think of the Hebrew Scriptures as a series of “thou shalt nots.” Picturing God as a stern taskmaster, a fearful parent or judge comes from a misreading of the Decalogue, which appears in the first reading for the Third Sunday of Lent. We somehow become trembling children withering in the shadow of the Law of Moses.
But the Ten Commandments are better read as “The Ten Freedoms.” These indeed are moral imperatives inscribed so that we maximize our humanity and move toward sanctity before God in the context of a covenantal relationship in community. At bottom, the Decalogue is there to guarantee our freedom and dispel what enslaves us. To take an obvious example: having false gods or idolatry substitutes for the mature relationship God is asking us to cultivate with the Creator. We become the true and authentic persons God made us to be when we are utterly free from what pulls us away from our relationship with the Ground of All Being.
Jesus purges the Temple of harmful excess in order to love more deeply and freely. We know that the cleansing of the Temple occurs early in Jesus’ ministry as a sign that the kairos moment is at hand: The Son is about to deliver all things into the hands of the Father. And so the Temple and its precincts are rightly claimed as a worshipful encounter, free from idolatry (including images stamped on coins with the head of Caesar) and things not of God. John alludes to the underlying desire present in Jesus when he repeats an earlier scriptural text: “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Jn 2:17). And indeed such zeal did consume Christ, who becomes the new Lamb of sacrifice, the new Temple replacing the old when that glorified body is raised on the third day.
I will not be the first to claim that there is something distinctly priestly about Christ’s cleansing of the Temple. There is a unique purchase on the call to sanctification of the Body of Christ. We sometimes might be shortsighted when it comes to the power of the Word made visible to continue to sanctify the faithful in word and sacrament. Words have become cheap sound bites, but every time we preach we are inviting the People of God into a collaborative, saving act of naming grace.
That sanctification is more obvious in our sacramental ministry, but our words can become robotic after a while. Do we really ponder our call to utter the following words, “Do this in remembrance of me” or “I absolve you of your sins in the Name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit”? This is the language of sanctification and also the law of freedom because Christ has set us free under the Law of love. Lent’s word of love is inscribed in our hearts.
Sin Never Wins
One of the great contradictions of our lives as Christians is that God will even use our sin to convert us. Priests are aware of this paradox perhaps most acutely. We don’t have to hear too many confessions before we realize that the key to conversion is a humble, jaw-dropping sense of God’s mercy. When we recognize that we are not only the subjects of God’s compassion and love, but also his chosen instruments for for the sake of the Kingdom, we cannot but weep. After all this mess of mine, God still wants me in the vineyard as his laborer. Is it any wonder why Pope Francis continually reminds the Church of the gaudium born of God’s mercy?
From the perspective of the Second Reading for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, God has loved us “even when we were dead in our transgressions” (Eph 2:5), but also has called us through these very sins and faults. We can waste our time fantasizing that we are battling some Manichaean dualism plaguing our lives, a sparring match between good and evil, God and Satan. But such drama forgets that God will never be defeated by sin; our mistakes become chisels to sculpt our redemption in Christ’s image. In the Gospel Our Lord adverts to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness, drawing a parallel between the ancient sign of a curse as a remedy and the lifting up of the Son of Man.
Christians intuitively know what has healed them; John 3:16 refuses to go away. We see these signs everywhere. God has come in the middle of the night to bail us out of jail for free. As priests, this particular verse holds primacy of place because Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, a religious leader. A member of Israel’s religious clergy came to the Lord looking for something more. Has Nichodemus become discouraged by apathy or because he has seen and heard it all over the years? Is it all just an endless recycling of Temple rituals and practices? Jesus shines a spotlight on what matters most: God’s self-gift for the sake of our liberation.
A Thousand Yeses
We miss the point of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent if we think we can control just how we lose our lives for Christ. That destiny is freely given over at ordination by vowing obedience. If we are servants of the Good News, we cannot be picky about the way we wash the feet of our fellow disciples. I was at a large national convocation of priests and deacons a few years back that centered on preaching. When the keynote speaker responded to a question of how we might imitate Christ’s zeal for proclaiming the Good News, someone shouted, “Jesus did not have to run a parish!” OK, fair enough. I almost immediately imaged the poor fellow buried in papers at his desk — a far cry from the somewhat removed cultural and poetic metaphor of a grain of wheat dying in order to become fruit for others.
At the same time, Jesus clearly is speaking of himself in John 12:24-25, since he is about to be glorified as the Son of Man, emptying his life for the sake of others. That is how we die — for others, which might be easier said than done. I sometimes think we romanticize the hagiography of the martyrs, capturing only the last second of the surrender to death. The fact is that it takes a lifetime to make a martyr, a timeless witness for the kingdom of God. Our bodies are a “living sacrifice,” as Paul tells us in Romans 12:1, made possible by the renewal of our minds. Even when it is a death by a thousand cuts through work in tedious administration, endless meetings and uncomfortable confrontations, we can turn our lives as Christ’s ministers into a sacrifice of praise with a thousand yeses.
It is true to say that those who would lose their lives and find it have already died with Christ at baptism. That baptism is with us for eternity, so that wherever the Lord is, his servant shall also be. Baptism has enlivened the Christian community with a desire to see Jesus. Priests take on the role of Philip in today’s Gospel; we bring those seeking the Lord to a visible encounter with his person so that when he is lifted up all people will be drawn closer to the Father through the glory of the Son. This is the new covenant, foretold by Jeremiah, when all people, from the least to the greatest, shall know the Lord because the glory of the Lord has shattered the sin that binds us and leads us breathless as we run to the empty tomb at dawn.
GUERRIC DEBONA is a Benedictine priest of St. Meinrad Archabbey and author of “Between the Ambo and the Altar” (Liturgical Press, $23.99) as well as other works on preaching.