Blessed and Broken

Ash Wednesday 2017

This morning, still hoping to cobble together a new thought about the forty days ahead from my books and journals and half-written, reformulated iterations of Lenten wisdom, it occurred to me that I am attempting, inelegantly, to freshen up what has already been so perfectly delivered.

There are only a few days in the liturgical year when the readings never change. Ash Wednesday is one of them. Year after year the Prophet Joel tells us to rend our hearts and return to the Lord [Joel 2:12-18]. St. Paul exhorts the Corinthian community (and all contemporary Christians) to reconcile with God and not take our redemption through Christ in vain, [2 Corinthians 5:20-6:2] and Jesus instructs his followers on the right way to give alms, the purpose of prayer and fasting, and the Father’s awareness of it all.  [Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18]. (more…)

Return to Me with all your heart

4th Sunday of Lent (C)

You may see some flowers[1] in your church this weekend. Enjoy them while you can, because they’ll be gone again next week. The fourth Sunday of Lent, known as Laetare Sunday, is a breather, so to speak, from the rigors of our Lenten fast. Laetare [ley-tahr-ee] is Latin for “Rejoice;” it’s a day of celebration. Hurrah, we’re halfway to Easter! The end, or to be more accurate, the beginning, is in sight!

If you were unaware of the liturgical significance of Laetare Sunday, the sight of fresh flowers on the altar after so many weeks of absence (or their replacement with overturned empty vessels) might feel a little bit like the stunt Old Man Winter often pulls on us Northerners, you know, slipping in a few warm, sunny days so all the people of the world (it seems) can step outside of their stale and germy houses to breathe some air that won’t freeze their faces off, only to resume business as usual the very next day with a record-breaking blizzard or arctic freeze. But in reality, bringing fresh flowers into the desert of our sanctuaries—like an early winter thaw—serves as an aperitif; a reminder of the ultimate Feast we will celebrate with the entire world on Easter.

Speaking of the world, it’s no coincidence that the theme of this weekend’s readings is the joy of Forgiveness and Reconciliation.

Forgiveness is hard work. Reconciliation is hard work. Heck, tolerance is hard work. Pride, legitimate differences, misunderstandings, selfishness, ancient grudges, deep hurts and resentment get in the way of making peace. It seems a particularly daunting task nowadays just to agree to find the common ground required for conciliatory talks to start. No one is listening; everyone is shouting.

Returning to God with all our hearts is hard work, too. Alice Camille writes, “The need to forgive so many wrongs in the world “as is” often reaches into the most private sanctuary of all: the relationship between us and our God.”[2] Relinquishing our self-power, recognizing our wrongs and vowing to do better, comprehending our true identity, our interconnectedness with all people and all of creation and our implicit responsibility to care for it all; it’s hard, hard work for human beings.

But Jesus teaches us that, like the son whose father never lost hope in his return [Lk 15:11-32], God is always ready, always waiting for our homecoming.

While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. [Lk 15:20b]

I so love to meditate on the image of our creator running to us, embracing us and kissing our faces. (For the record I generally do not anthropomorphize God, in that God is pure spirit, but I find comfort in this image. You may agree.)

The experience of resting in Wholeness is the joy of reconciliation. Whether our reunion is between humans, the earth and its creatures, or with our Creator, re-joining broken pieces is not something we should leave unfinished. But we resist.

Why should we care about reconciliation when it requires so much of us? Because being able to forgive one another, to reconcile ourselves with all of humanity and all of God’s creation is and will always be the greatest accomplishment our species is capable of doing.  You want to see a miracle? We have the power to bring about the reconciliation of the world!

Today is a day to rejoice and continue to work for reconciliation. We began Lent with these words, “Return to Me with all your heart,” [Joel 2:12]. Our faith exhorts us to forgive and ask forgiveness of our brother, our sister, our neighbor, our community, the world, and make amends; start fresh. We are to return to the earth; take off our shoes—it is Holy Ground—reduce our footprint, and steward, rather than exploit creation. Envision wholeness, and restore life to our empty, broken vessels. Return to the Lord, learn what is good, and be strengthened so that tomorrow we can to do it again.

Laetare!

[1] GIRM, 305.

[2] Alice Camille, Paul Boudreau, The Forgiveness Book. ACTA Publications, Skokie, IL, 2008. 16.

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.

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

[2] Merton, New Seeds. p 17