Travel light during Lent

Ash Wednesday

The season of Lent is a journey with a profound destination; it is an adventure through which we can be forever changed. Some travelers go solo and many travel in groups, but only one item is required for passage: the sincere desire and willingness to be transformed.

Think of Lent as a special time to assess the direction of your prayer life. Is it leading you to a deeper realization of who Jesus is? Is it helping you to live in right relationship with others, with all of creation? As Christians, we naturally want to accompany Jesus and become more secure in our belief; we might also find we share many traits with Jesus’ companions. Do we, like they, still not understand? Can we understand?

Look, all spiritual journeys are accompanied by two guides: faith and doubt. Our desire to believe compels us to seek, but the need to comprehend challenges those yearnings. We want to understand, but our tendency to make sense frequently interferes with our ability to experience God’s nearness. Like the father of the boy possessed we cry out to Jesus “I do believe; help my unbelief!” [Mark 9:24].

Travel light. Eliminate distractions. Begin and end each day with a prayer “Lord, is this the path you want me to walk?” and take it from there. Pay close attention. God’s response requires attentive listening. Disciplined, focused, charitable, and prayerful stops along the way will guide your spiritual renewal, to fresh experiences of faith which lead to transformation.

The readings for today can be found here.

Ruined for life.

5th Sunday of Lent (B)

If you want to see Jesus, look for people who commit themselves to serving the poor.

You can see Jesus in the young adults who commit to one or more years with faith-based organizations such as the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. You will see Jesus in the many men and women who discern a vocation as lay missioners—a choice which leads them far from home and family—in order to improve the lives of the disadvantaged and to create a more peaceful and just world. Maryknoll Lay Missioners is one such organization through which lay persons can live out this calling. You will recognize Jesus in those who even after their time of service has passed make career and life choices that continue to reflect those Gospel values of service, justice, and living in right relationship not only with other humans, but with all of God’s creation.

From the time we are children the world tells us we own our lives, and we go to great lengths to save them. As adults we toil away, lining our nests and filling our storehouses. And when someone from our own family or neighborhood chooses a life of service and simplicity, we find it odd, incomprehensible, even. Our admiration of their “goodness” might be mixed with fear for their safety and, let’s be honest, some suspicion that they are postponing getting a “real job.” It challenges our own beliefs about life and makes us uncomfortable. But isn’t this self-giving, this willingness to lay down one’s life, to let go, and to be the servant precisely what Jesus meant when he said “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”? [John 12:25]

Former Jesuit volunteers will say they are “ruined for life,” meaning there is no return to life as they once knew it. Their eyes have been opened. And once opened, they remain open. They cannot ignore the needs of the world. They have died to themselves, but what comes forth is far greater. “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground…” [John 12:24a]

In the nearly five decades since Fr. Jack Morris, SJ started the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, more than “12,000 Jesuit volunteers have served tens of thousands of individuals and families at hundreds of sites around the world” including 38 locations here in the United States. I only wish the number was greater. Is it a luxury for a recent college graduate to be able to volunteer one or two years rather than seek employment? Yes, unfortunately it is. Most students have loans to pay off and don’t have the freedom for full-time volunteerism before entering the workforce. While it is not unheard of for someone to leave a lucrative career for a life of service, it is generally difficult to reverse the career track once it has been started. Still, some adults look for ways to serve in their retirement. I recently heard about a couple who, after the marriage of their youngest child, sold everything they owned and now live as lay missioners overseas. Wow.

Obviously, a sacrifice on this level is not for everyone, nor is it expected. Still, aren’t we are just like the Greeks who asked Phillip “Sir, we would like to see Jesus.” But do we understand that to “see” Jesus is to enter into the reality of his life? “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” [John 12:24] In taking on the role of servant in whatever capacity our lives permit, we might be lucky enough to experience the same disastrous outcome as the Jesuit volunteers.

Ruin yourself for life; perhaps someone will see Jesus in you.

Today’s readings can be found here. 

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For more on the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, visit http://www.jesuitvolunteers.org. And to learn about Maryknoll Lay Missioners, visit http://www.mklm.org.

Why choose the dark, when we know the light?

4th Sunday of Lent (B)

One of the tasks on my husband’s to-do list prior to moving into our new home was to install dimmer switches throughout the house. This was a relatively large project for a lovely old place like ours which was originally built with multiple gaslights in every room. At some point in the home’s history the gaslights and chandeliers were replaced with electric fixtures and wall switches. Dimmers are awesome. Being able to control the light saves electricity and allows us to create a warm ambiance depending on the chosen level of brightness. (Also, I am told that people of a certain age believe they look a lot better when the lights are low.) But that’s not all, a dimmer does double duty by obscuring flaws such as chipped paint and cracked plaster—at least in the nighttime. Sadly, the gig is up by morning when the sun shines through the windows offering congratulations on our good taste in furnishings, and nagging reminding us of our neglect by announcing the location of every needed repair.

This light (pun intended) example is not very different from the way many of us live our lives, is it? Don’t we use a dimmer of sorts in our day-to-day dealings, living in the light when we are in right relationship, living in the shadows when we are not? We are skilled in deflecting responsibility and rather than change our ways we convince ourselves that a choice we continue to make is harmless, when in fact our actions create damaging ripples we aren’t aware of. Or we tolerate ideologies that we know are wrong and immoral, but the personal sacrifice that accompanies taking a stand is what really makes us uncomfortable. Even in the face of global consequences many of us refuse to take action because we “didn’t do it.” Not my trash. Not my fault. Not my problem. We furnish our darkness with denial.

“And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed. But whoever lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” [John 3:19-21]

The question is, why do we choose the dark, when we know the light? Our lives can be transformed; it can happen in an instant if we are willing to allow the light in. Still the darkness beckons our return. Sad.

How about creating a to-do list that includes a new lighting plan for life? As an evangelizing people, we might ask ourselves, “If everything in my life (in my family, in our society, in this organization) was forever cast in the light of Jesus, what would it look like?” What kinds of changes would you need to make to remain in the light?

Today’s readings can be found here. 

No deal. You can’t buy that.

3rd Sunday of Lent (B)

What was being sold in the Jerusalem Temple that put Jesus over the edge?gold_bag

The Gospel of John 2:13-25 specifically mentions oxen, sheep, and doves. But, this was not like a farmer’s market populated by vendors, or a quick stop on the way home from Temple. The goods and the market had a specific purpose; this was a place where animals could be purchased for religious sacrifice. The gospel also mentions money changers. A simple interpretation suggests the system of purchasing animals for sacrifice had become too materialistic and the money changers may have been taking advantage of buyers. Clearly this would be an unjust situation, but was Jesus’ rage brought on by commercialization and price gouging? Let’s go deeper.

Recall the reason Jesus was in Jerusalem. It was  because “the Passover of the Jews was near.” Every year great numbers of Jewish people made the long and arduous journey for the feast. Imagine making this trip, not only with your children and your elderly parents, but with your sacrificial animals in tow. For many it was unrealistic. Therefore they intended to purchase those animals upon their arrival. And what better place to find the finest, most perfect and unblemished animals than in the temple area where  people understood such things? Makes perfect sense.  But not to Jesus. What was it about this situation that enraged him so?

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” [John 2:15]

Hundreds of years before Jesus, the Prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah denounced the cult of animal sacrifice as abhorrent to God, proclaiming what God desired was justice for the oppressed, the poor, and the marginalized, not the slaughter of innocent animals as an act of worship. And yet the practice continued as a kind of transaction initiated by humans to gain favor with God. The Jerusalem Temple had become the locus of human-divine deal making.

Theologian John Shea writes “Jesus’ Father, however, is not a deal maker. (God) does not exchange favors for sacrifices. The Father is a free flow of spiritual life and love that cannot be bought, bartered, bargained, or bribed.”[1]

Jesus said, “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.” [John 2:16c] He literally turns the tables on the idea of making bargains with God, and says no deal. This is not how God works. God wants your fidelity, your commitment, and most of all, your love for God, for neighbor and for all of creation. As an evangelizing people our actions must respond to each of God’s desires, not because these are pleasing to God, which they are, but because our experience of God’s abundant love prompts us to do so.

Today’s readings can be found here.

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[1] John Shea. Eating with the Bridegroom.Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2005. pg 91

Stop the Violence!

2nd Sunday of Lent (B)

To say the story of Abraham and Isaac is difficult is a grave understatement. Abraham was a man whose longstanding personal relationship with Yahweh had developed over time through a series of tests and trials [see Genesis 12-22] and included a promise that he would father a great nation. Abraham had learned that Yahweh was trustworthy and kept promises; therefore he had no reason to doubt. But then he was asked to offer up his firstborn son to prove his worthiness. If a great nation was to come from this one man, his total commitment must be guaranteed. What better test  than to ask for what was most precious to him? Recall that in Abraham’s day human sacrifice was not uncommon. Also, recall that Abraham was prevented at the last minute from carrying out the sacrifice. He had passed the final test and became the father of the Hebrew nation.

Still, that happy ending does not change the fact the entire story line is unsettling and gruesome.  What kind of loving god would ask such a thing as a test of one’s faith? What if Abraham had objected? Maybe he did, but followed through nonetheless. We don’t know because the scripture does not tell us. Verses 3-8 which are omitted from today’s reading render an unemotional narrative of Abraham going through the motions: cutting the wood he would use, locating the place where the sacrifice would take place, arranging for there to be no witnesses, and carrying the fire and the knife that he would use to slaughter his son. Each step of the way the tension mounts, and Isaac’s innocent question about the animal they would sacrifice slowly reveals the horror of what is about to take place. The reader asks, “Is this really going to happen, is this what God wants?

Abraham’s anguish over what he thought he was being asked to do was not as important as his absolute knowledge that God is trustworthy. Surely he was confused and likely devastated by God’s request, but had personal knowledge of God’s love and faithfulness. This is the paradox of faith: the willingness to surrender what is most precious ultimately reveals the  bounty of what has been promised.

What does God expect from us? The the story is telling. At the very last minute Yahweh sends a messenger to stop Abraham, saying, “Do not lay your hand on that boy, do not do the least thing to him.” The message can be understood two ways. First, although we can’t fully understand God’s plan we need to trust that God truly has our best interests in mind. Our faith tells us this is true. Our commitment comes from our willingness to listen and  say “Yes, Lord” especially in times of extreme difficulty. Second, acts of violence are entirely in opposition to God’s plan for creation. God’s message is “Stop the violence!”  Rabbi Eitan Weiner-Kaplow of Shir Hadash Reconstructionist Synagogue explains: “In reading this story we recognize the critical lesson is that God does not want the death of human beings as a sign of faith and a sign of doing God’s will. Therefore the lesson for this time has got to be, we all have to come together to end war and stop the violence and stop the sacrifice and stop the killing.”

As an evangelizing people our witness to the Good News must reflect both of these points with a trusting commitment to God and an active commitment to peace.

ART: Section from Rembrandt’s The Angel Stopping Abraham from Sacrificing Isaac to God. 1635