A perfect and generous love

Friday of the Third Week of Lent (C)

My heartfelt thanks go to Fran Rossi Szpylczyn, blogger at There Will Be Bread, for inviting me to write the following reflection for her readers, and for the community of faith at St. Edward the Confessor in Clifton Park, NY.  This post and a wealth of deep spirituality and theological pondering, evidence of Fran’s  perfect and generous love, can be found here, on There will Be Bread. I encourage you to visit.

It happens every year about this time, give or take a couple of weeks. Of course, I am talking about the midpoint of Lent, but I’m also talking about the change of seasons. Lent, like spring, is a time of conversion, of reawakening, of planting new seeds, of grace-filled turnings, returnings, and reconciliations.

Around the fourth week of our Lenten practice, new spiritual growth emerges like tender buds urged on by shortened nights. We carefully push back the winter mulch and beckon the sun’s warming rays.

This morning as I walked my dog, a neighbor who I pass every day remarked: “you look happy this morning.” He was right; I know I had joy written all over my face. The birds seemed to chant, Come out! Come out! Squirrels giddily complied, springing crazily from tree to tree, dropping to the ground, and diving in and out of unraked leaves. I spied a family of eight wild turkeys jauntily making their way up a neighbor’s drive. Upon my return I searched the back of my garden for surprises, something I do every morning now. Two days ago I noticed a few snowdrops pushing through the mulch; today I saw hundreds waving their happy little heads in the breeze.

On days like this, when love fills me to the top, I recall the words of Thomas Merton:

“If I were looking for God, every event and every moment would sow, in my will, grains of (God’s) life that would spring up one day in a tremendous harvest.” [1]

Like Merton, I am aware (or, at least, I always try to be aware) that it is God’s love that I feel when the sun warms my skin, and it is through God’s love that I hear the chirping of springtime birds, and it is God’s love that motivates and urges and surprises me year after year with the arrival of brave little flowers and tender buds.

Today’s first reading bursts with lush and verdant imagery. The Prophet Hosea’s final exhortation to the Israelites to repent and return to the Lord is given with an expectation of the Lord’s joyful response. Of course! Of course, the Lord would respond with a promise of new life!

I will be like the dew for Israel:
he shall blossom like the lily;

He shall strike root like the Lebanon cedar,
and put forth his shoots.

His splendor shall be like the olive tree
and his fragrance like the Lebanon cedar.

Again they shall dwell in his shade and raise grain;

They shall blossom like the vine,
and his fame shall be like the wine of Lebanon.
[Hos 14:6-8]

The whole of Sacred Scripture is the story of God’s desire for our homecoming, and the paths we take in life represent our response. Every Lenten practice provides opportunities to assess and course correct so that we might continue to draw closer to accepting God’s invitation. On Ash Wednesday, we heard these words from the prophet Joel, “Return to Me with all your heart.” [Joel 2:12]. Today’s Responsorial Psalm includes an emotional expression of God’s longing for reconciliation. “If only my people would hear me, and Israel walk in my ways, I would feed them with the best of wheat, and with honey from the rock I would fill them.”

What God offers us is so abundant, so rich, so fruitful, so ridiculously good. Why is it so difficult for us to accept it? What is it that causes us to separate ourselves from the Love of God? Today’s gospel helps us answer that question.

One of the Scribes who valued Jesus’ teaching approached him, asking “Which is the first of all the commandments?” [Mk 12:28b]. While Christian awareness of the commandments is limited to ten, there are 613 commandments in the Torah, so this was an important question to ask. Jesus told the Scribe that Love is first: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” [MK 12:30-31].

Love of God and Love of neighbor. This greatest commandment is the summation of all other commandments, and as the Scribe indicated to Jesus, more than burnt offerings and sacrifices. Everything Jesus taught is an expression of this greatest commandment. Yet, the history of the world reveals our consistent inability to obey.

Our fundamental problem and its resolution are one and the same: God’s gift of free will. We have taken the gift but have lost touch with the giver. God urges us to love, yet we use our freedom to ignore God’s will. Again, words of Merton speak to me:

“If these seeds would take root in my liberty, and if (God’s) will would grow from my freedom, I would become the love that (God) is, and my harvest would be (God’s) glory and my own joy.” [2]

If my every action is a reflection of my love for God, my response to God’s love will infuse my thoughts and words, my relationships, and the work of my hands. I will become love.

This kind of love means I will use my freedom and hold nothing back; I am to love completely, perfectly, generously, and without pause because the love of God inspires me to do so.

Come out! Come out!

The readings for today can be found here. 

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With just a little over two weeks to go before the Triduum, let’s also express our love of God and neighbor with prayer. Let us pray for those individuals whose Christian journey has just begun; for the elect who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil; for the hungry, the lost, the lonely, the hurt, the disillusioned; for the homecoming of all of our brothers and sisters who have been distanced from our faith communities. And let us love God and neighbor by praying most fervently for those to whom our love seems the most difficult to give.

_____________________________________

[1] Thomas Merton. New Seeds of Contemplation. Reprint edition. New Directions, New York. 2007. p 16-17

[2] Merton, New Seeds. p 17

Night Skies, Mountaintops, Prayer, Transfiguration, and all the Theophanies Therein

2nd Sunday of Lent (C)

There are pivotal moments, for those who are attentive to them, when God’s presence is indisputable. For many, simply being in a natural setting is enough to attune the senses to a greater awareness of God, and God’s desire for us. Awe opens our hearts to listening and transformation. Prayer takes us there. The readings for the Second week of Lent speak to two of these moments.

First, for those unfamiliar with the word Theophany, it refers to those times in the bible, particularly in the Hebrew Scriptures when God makes Godself unmistakably present to human beings, and this divine manifestation leads to callings, covenants, commands, and missions. Modern day people do not experience Theophanies in the same way Scripture tells us Abram, or Moses, or Elijah did. In fact, we get really nervous around people who claim that God literally speaks to them. But, we do experience moments of God’s presence and grace during prayer, in human relationships, and our interactions with nature. Many times these experiences simply affirm our faith, others are transformative and steer us toward making difficult changes or decisions.

The story of Abram’s deepening trust and growing relationship with God leads to a covenant between God and all of Abram’s descendants. Standing in awe beneath the canopy of stars, the elderly and childless Abram puts his trust in God’s promise to bless him with descendants greater in number than the uncountable stars overhead. This remarkable relationship between Abram and God is sealed with a ceremonial pact, like that between friends. God instructs Abram to bring a variety of animals and birds to the ceremony, but the symbolism recedes against the do-or-die oath to which both Abram and God agreed.

Abram’s star-gazing reminds me of the summer of my sixteenth year when I spent a week with my best friend and her family at their lake house on Sodus Bay, NY. We sunbathed, boy-watched, and sailed, but the nights were the best by far. On more than one occasion we ignored the closed gates of the public beach, spread our blankets on the still warm sand and lay beneath the stars, our conversations revolving at first around the things 16 year old girls talk about, but later taking a philosophical turn.

Light pollution did not exist in those days; the grand homes along the shore were discretely illuminated, unlike the runway lighting that seems to be used today. The beach was dark, optimal for star gazing. As our eyes adjusted we entered the vastness of space. My sight went beyond the sprinkling of the brightest stars, recognizable constellations and occasional meteor shower, through the gossamer folds of the Milky Way, going farther, visually dissecting the darkness in search of the most distant galaxies. More than I could fathom, far more than even young eyes could take in, the light of countless stars surpassed the darkness. Space, my view of infinity and all that was known and yet to be known was radiant, diaphanous, yet somehow opaque. It was like a prayer. It was a prayer. My God! My small, young life lay like a single grain of sand beneath the vastness of the universe and the history of the world. Uncountable. Uncounted, except by my creator, whose illusive existence was gradually concretizing for me. Theophany? Probably not. Grace? Absolutely.

What about Peter, James and John, who witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop? Is Luke’s gospel account the story of Jesus’ definitive prayer experience, or the disciples’ comprehension of Jesus’ true identity? Was Jesus the only one who was transfigured?

Jesus went to the mountain to pray; he needed to discern the timing of his final mission. Should he leave Galilee when there was still so much more to do, or should he face the inevitable, prepare his disciples for his departure, and start his death march to Jerusalem? Did Jesus’ decision include turning to his knowledge of the Law and Prophets? The appearance of Moses and Elijah with him on the mountain tells us so.

Both Moses and Elijah experienced theophanies on mountaintops, in fact the same mountain: Mt. Horeb. God spoke to Moses from within thick cloud [Exodus 19:9]; Elijah heard the Lord’s voice in a whisper [1 Kings 19:8-13]. Both men received instructions from God as to what they were to do.

And “while he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white.” The result of Jesus’ intense prayer was visible clarity.

Peter, James and John, asleep as usual, woke up just in time to witness Jesus’ glory. Groggy but still able to comprehend the magnitude of what was happening Peter tried to make the moment last. But a cloud descended on the mountain, enveloping everyone, Jesus, Moses, Elijah and the terrified Peter, James and John. And God spoke “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.”

While not in the same league as The Transfiguration of Jesus, there is always something sacred about our literal mountain top experiences. There are certain things that can be seen and understood from the top that cannot be grasped from below.

My husband and I have completed many challenging day hikes in New York State, Vermont, California, and Utah, to name a few locations. And I have had a few of what I might call moments of clarity upon reaching the summits. One memorable example occurred on a perfectly clear summer day at the top of Black Mountain, a modest peak amidst the mighty Adirondacks, but a perfect climb for a young family like ours. If you are familiar with this hike you will recall the moment when at the highest point the trail opens near a fire tower to the north, with a spectacular view of all of Lake George and surrounding mountains up to the southernmost part of Lake Champlain. I remember standing at the summit with my family, my heart pounding, my eyes flooding with tears, a great lump forming in my throat, and the only words I could form were ones of gratitude for the abundant glory of creation and my ability to experience it with my husband and daughters.

God speaks. God is present.

The single truth that can transform the world: Third Sunday of Advent

 

3rd Sunday of Advent (C)

Do you realize how precious you are?

Before the collective eye rolling begins, I want to suggest that pondering this question is far more important than fretting about the state of the world. So let me ask again: do you realize how precious you are?

I’m serious, and so are the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent. And so is Pope Francis, who inaugurated the Jubilee Year of Mercy this past week, on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and the 50th anniversary of the close of the Second Vatican Council.

So, do you realize how precious you are? Maybe? Sometimes? Not often? Me neither. But I should. I know it is true, every hair on my head [LK 12:7], yet I resist it. I resist saying it aloud. It feels awkward, and I know I’m not alone; I belong to a race of creatures who thrive on a diet of self-loathing and unworthiness.

Some might object, saying, if we were that precious why would God allow us to do harm to one another and to the earth? Really? Is the mess human beings have made of our world God’s fault? Every day, throughout the world, men and women inflict their feelings of imperfection, envy and greed onto others. Sometimes the damage is minute, a petty argument, a grudge. Other times it is harmful, violent, and as we know all too well, deadly. Would we do these things, or allow others to do them if we lived in a state of awareness of how deeply God loves us? Think about it. The condition of the world and our collective anxiety over it is a symptom of our lack of self-knowledge.

This idea of self-knowledge, and the lack thereof came to me earlier this week as I reflected on the words of the Prophet Zephaniah in the first of this weekend’s readings.

“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” [Zeph 3:14]

Meanwhile, I was berating myself for having picked up the axe of frustration from an online commentary the day before, swinging it in the direction of some point I desperately felt I needed to make. In doing so, I almost nicked the tender shoot I vowed to nurture in my heart this Advent season.

The words of the Prophet leapt off the page:

“The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” [Zeph 3:17-18]

God will sing joyfully, because of us? We’re not talking about God humming a happy tune here; the text says God is going to sing as one sings at festivals, for us. On stage, with a backup band, and a laser light show. (Okay, the text doesn’t say that.)

The word of God came to the Prophet Zephaniah as he witnessed the deplorable state of his nation; he foresaw the Day of the Lord looming and painted a bleak picture of the fate of Jerusalem’s enemies. However, the prophecy concludes with a joyful foretelling of the end of the Babylonian exile when the Judahites would return to Jerusalem; he promises renewal, forgiveness, salvation and an assurance that the Lord’s dwelling place would be amongst them. No more fear, the Lord is here!

Who is not comforted by the thought of an almighty Savior who not only rejoices in our reunion but who also dwells among us? If only we understood this is our reality.

Our creator is in love with us: powerfully, unabashedly, unconditionally, over-the-moon in love with us. All of us. Every single one of us.

How do we know this? Through grace-filled, revelatory interactions with others, through the unceasing and rejuvenating gifts of the earth, through the persistence of hope that breaks through despair and dwells in the depths of our hearts, and through our compulsion to work for a just and peaceful world.

If every human being—irrespective of belief— allowed their thoughts and actions to be guided by the knowledge of his or her belovedness, preciousness, singular, irreplaceable value, and exquisite human beauty, the resulting surge of love would extinguish all hatred from the world. It would be abundantly clear that all that matters in the world is already in our possession. Not only would each person’s self-knowledge be changed, but the entire world would be transformed with it.

With this understanding heeding the advice of John the Baptist in today’s gospel [LK 3:10-14] becomes as natural as breathing. We act from a place of self-knowledge when we recognize our abundance, share what we have with others, practice mercy, and turn away from deadly lies and destructive acts

In an interview with Italian Jubilee Publication ‘Credere’ published December 3, 2015, Pope Francis said, “The revolution of tenderness is what we have to cultivate today as the fruit of this Year of Mercy: God’s tenderness towards each one of us. Each one of us must say: “I am an unfortunate man, but God loves me thus, so I must also love others in the same way.”” Our attention to the needs of the world begins when we open our hearts to the reality that God loves us so.

In those fleeting moments of grace when we can grasp the depth of God’s love, God rejoices with us. Have you felt it? I am reminded of the chest-crushing gratitude I experienced as a young mother for the privilege of raising my daughters. Perhaps you have caught glimpses of it in your day-to-day activities: you witness an unexpected act of great generosity on your way to work; or, you perceive another person’s sorrow and silently lift a portion of it onto yourself; or,  in your classroom you observe a friendship forming between one lonely student and another; or, you witness a crime, injustice or searing poverty and know you are called to do something about it. You suddenly see that people are good, singularly unique, interconnected, and precious.

In as many ways as there are stars in the universe, these and other instances of profound human love, of selfless giving, of giving oneself over to a stranger without thought, of gracious receiving, or in offering mercy over judgement, our value as God’s precious and beloved ones is revealed to us. We are treasured more than the greatest pearl, than all the riches of the world. In those seconds of clarity, it feels as if the divine spark hidden in our depths is charged by the flame of the Holy One who burns for us always. It is the Oh Wow of divine sight.

St. Paul wrote to the Philippians “The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” [Phil 4:5c-7]

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding compels us to acts of mercy. God’s precious creation should not live in fear, amidst violence and pollution. God’s precious creation should not inflict pain or seek to destroy others. A lack of love—an inability to love—signals a lack of self-knowledge. Knowledge of one’s belovedness is the condition for love.

God sings, “Do you realize how precious you are to me?”

New Growth from Old Wood

just shoot1st Sunday of Advent (C)

In a town I once called home there grew for 250 years a tree, an historic tree, the largest Pepperidge tree in the Northeastern United States, in fact. “Old Peppy,” as it was called, was, for reasons not appreciated by me (and many other residents) girdled and cut down earlier this year.

Have you witnessed a tender shoot pushing its way through the gnarled bark of a tree stump? Or have you seen a sapling emerge from the ground where a great tree once stood? What an unlikely but meaningful sign of resilience it would be to see new shoots emerging from the soil beneath the enormous canopy Old Peppy once provided.

Root systems left untreated after a tree is cut down continue their subterranean existence, secretly absorbing water and nutrients as they await the right conditions to send up vigorous new growth. Nature’s exuberance for life is not always received with enthusiasm. If shoots emerged from the former site of a tree that you intentionally cut down, this restorative miracle of nature might not give you the same thrill as it does me. Still, it is difficult not to be impressed when new life emerges from what was thought to be dead, particularly from something of great or profound significance.

The biblical reference to a shoot being raised from a lifeless stump follows the “book of consolation” contained in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah [Jer 30-31]. This passage [Jer 33:14-16], is read on the first Sunday of Advent, Year C, and represents the promise of a righteous and just leader who will restore and reunite the house of Judah and Israel.

Christians hear in this reading the promise of Jesus, the Messiah. The just shoot grows, and the world is changed forever. God keeps God’s promises. Oh, come, oh come, Emmanuel! With Christmas, we celebrate not only the birth of Jesus but the restoration and reunification of the world which God-with-us has set in motion. We know Jesus has come, and this is cause for endless celebration.

Like a dormant root system awaiting the right conditions for growth, the season of Advent is a time for patience. It is an opportunity to work on our own spirituality—to allow the tender shoot to grow unhindered, to work its way through the hardened, splintered and frequently lifeless stump that we allow ourselves to become. Cut down by relentless negativity and fear, and deprived of living water, the restorative breath of the Holy Spirit and the light of Christ’s face, we forget to love, we forget how to really love. With Advent eyes, we watch, and we wait. We make room; we open up the hardened places and invite Jesus in. We open the door of our hearts to a loved one, a friend, a stranger, to the poor, the wealthy, the humble, the arrogant, to the enemy. With intentionality—in Advent and at all times—we strive to “increase and abound in love for one another and for all” [1 Thes 3:12], for from love pours care, nourishment, light—all things that allow tender young shoots to grow and flourish.

Every year I vow, “This year I will attend to Advent properly.” I decide to begin each day with the chosen Scripture for the season and a reflection of a favorite Saint, mystic, or spiritual writer. I set out my Advent wreath with fresh candles and the intention of lighting it each night. I attempt to go about my daily activities with a contemplative spirit. I make this promise to myself so that when Christmas day arrives I will have prepared a dwelling place in my heart, ready to receive Jesus as if for the first time, and the meaning of Christmas will be made new.

I start out with these good intentions, just as many do, I suspect, but more often than not, my plans for a reflective and prayerful Advent get usurped by the shopping and baking and decorating for Christmas day. Not that these are necessarily bad things; Advent is a time of anticipation, and part of its joy is in the preparation that surrounds the celebration of Christmas.

This year, however, with the image of the tender shoot in mind, my vow becomes less structured and more organic. In addition to daily prayer. I will cultivate the growth of a tender shoot within myself by seeking and opening my heart to the emerging Christ child in whatever form he should take. This begins with love.

The new life that Advent promises is growing within us; it has the power to break through hardened and gnarled hearts. For within a fragile shoot there exists what, if nurtured and allowed to flourish, can grow mightier than the ancient stump from which it emerged.