Sunday, March 09, 2014

Temptation and Redemption: Sunday—First week in Lent, Cycle A

Gen. 2:7–9, 3:1–7; Rom. 5:12–19; Matt. 4:1–11

Our grandson Nathyn is unusual in his eating habits. He loves just about all of the things most kids dislike at his age: broccoli, green beans, you name it. Most of all, he loves cherry tomatoes. When he was about three, my wife Gina took him shopping with her. He saw that she put cherry tomatoes in the cart. When they got home, he asked if he could have some. Nana—that’s what all the grandchildren call Gina—said that he needed to wait until dinner time. Well, she unpacked the items, putting the cherry tomatoes on the counter in the container. Thinking Nathyn was preoccupied with his toys in the living room, she went to do something in another room. When she came out, he was standing in the hall looking a little guilty. She started to ask him what he was up to and said, “Nathyn?”

He answered, “Nuffing!” He had seeds and reddish goo on his face and clothes, and the package of tomatoes was completely empty. I think that image perfectly parallels this story of the Fall in Genesis. Perhaps the “tree” in the garden was actually a tomato plant.

This week’s readings and psalm tie together and support each other so well and are such a fitting introduction to this Lenten season. First, we have the story of sin’s introduction into the world by the actions of the first man. Then Paul gives us a theological explanation of that calamity and how Jesus undoes it, and in our gospel reading we see how Jesus begins His act of reparation. And in the middle, we have the lament of the sinner who seeks reconciliation with God. Reconciliation is really what this 40-day season is about. In our ordinary daily lives, we tend to fall into a routine, and often that routine involves patterns that are unhealthy, indulgent, and selfish. Those tendencies go back to the very beginning.

In Genesis 2, God breathes life into the nostrils of the man whom He has made from the clay of the ground. The word for man, a DAM’ (or as we say, Adam), comes from the same root as the Hebrew word for the ground or earth surface, A da MAH. So Adam is literally an earthy man—one that comes from the surface of the Earth. God breathes the spirit—the life—into the man made from earth, and then sets him in a garden where he has purpose and freedom to do almost anything he likes. He has all he can eat, no natural predators, and God even makes him a companion, the woman, made out of all Adam’s best qualities: that’s what “bones of my bones and flesh of my flesh” means—woman is made of all the best things in Adam. 

But that’s not enough for our first parents. Adam and the woman want to be God, or at very least, just like God, and they take the only thing in the garden that God withholds from them. How often do we behave the same way: dissatisfied with our many blessings, grasping for more material good, or at very least wanting to make our own rules—our own morality—by remaking God in our own image rather than being content that He has made us in His image?

Paul gives us a glimmer of hope, pointing out that what Adam introduced in the world, Jesus undid and repaired—giving us the way back to life, if we choose it. Through the first man death entered the world; through Jesus, the New Adam, came grace and justification—and new life. The Church has always extended this parallel between Adam and Christ to Eve and the Blessed Mother. The early Church Fathers saw the Blessed Mother as the New Eve who, through her obedience, undoes the disobedience of Eve. 

In Matthew 4, we see the beginning of the reversal. Jesus willingly goes out into the desert: a place of bare subsistence, desolation, and hardship—an area that lacks the cultivation of a garden or a city.  Where the first Adam had all that he could ever need given to Him directly from the Father, the New Adam goes out to where there is nothing. Where our first parents seek more, Jesus goes out to where there is less. He forgoes the rights he has as God, dismisses Satan’s temptation to do for himself: to make bread out of stones, to prove his divinity, or to claim earthly power. That’s really what Satan does here in Matthew: tempts the Lord of the universe with the goods of the earth, the goods that He Himself created.

Jesus’ forty days and nights in the desert are the preparation He undergoes for His earthly ministry. His cross will demand more severity and hardship than the desert can dish out. He will suffer greater spiritual temptations than the mere physical temptations that Satan offers Him. Contrast this with our first parents, who grasp after physical things seeking that which belongs to God. That is a perfect symbol for how many of us live our lives. We seek our fulfillment in the things of the world to the loss of the inheritance we have in God, thinking somehow we will find everlasting fulfillment in the temporary things of this earth. That is just how broken we are because of the sin of our first parents. But even in the story of the Fall, God is already telling us His plan for our redemption: her seed shall bruise the serpent’s head. “Her seed,” of course, is Jesus Himself, and the woman is the Blessed Mother.

At the Easter Vigil, we sing in the Exultet, “Oh happy fault that earned so glorious a redeemer.” Even as Adam and Eve are cowering in their fig-leaf loincloths, probably still a mess with the forbidden fruit they took—like a three-year old who gets into the cherry tomatoes and thinks no one suspects—God is already preparing the remedy for the fall, and He sends us a Savior whom we do not deserve. But with the love of a Father, he does it anyway.

Today we begin our 40 days in the desert. The Church in its wisdom did not arbitrarily set the length of this season of Lent to 40 days but did so specifically to recall the time Jesus spent in the desert. This is a time to set aside the attachments we have to the goods of the earth—a time when we fast, offer prayer, and give alms so that we are better prepared for the spiritual temptations we will encounter throughout the rest of the year. But Lent is also our preparation for the most holy days of our liturgical year and for the remembrance of the Paschal sacrifice that ended the death that our first parents incurred for us. 

We prepare to take up our own cross and to follow the savior who has given everything for us and to us. Oh happy fault that earned for us so glorious and gracious a redeemer.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Rend Your Hearts—Ash Wednesday, Cycle A

Joel 2:12–18; 2 Cor. 5:20–6:2; Matt. 6:1–6, 16–18

Ashes are an ancient symbol of repentance. Throughout scripture we see references to sackcloth and ashes in connection to calls for repentance, and they continued to be symbols employed by penitents long after the New Testament period.

That penitential spirit is what ties our celebration today with this first reading, even though the use of sackcloth and ashes isn’t mentioned. Joel, or Yoel, was one of the minor prophets of Israel. The context tells us that he wrote in a time when the people of Israel had become sinful and cared more about pleasure and fine living than they did about their relationship with God. They had gotten lazy, self absorbed. Perhaps they neglected other basic observances such as care for the poor.

To me, it sounds a bit like our own culture, which should not surprise us. We’re fallen beings, after all, and we humans tend to repeat the same mistakes.

Joel calls the people back from their sinfulness, warning of God’s impending wrath and a day of judgment. He calls them not as individuals but as a community.

“Proclaim a fast, call an assembly”

The word for assembly in Hebrew is Qahal, and is translated in the Greek Old Testament as ekklesia—and that word is where we get our words in the New Testament for anything related to the Church. So Joel is calling the Church together to fast and weep and mourn for the communal sins of the nation. The repentance that Joel seeks is very much public and communal—a call to every citizen, even the bride and bridegroom who would normally be still celebrating their nuptials.

But even though Joel calls for public penance, he is not asking merely for ritual acts. He calls for true sorrow: “Rend your hearts, not your garments!” You see, in addition to temple sacrifices for sin, people would often engage in other theatrics to show just how serious they were about their repentance and they’d rend their garments—that is, tear them from top to bottom. That’s pretty dramatic, and I doubt any but the wealthy could afford to do it. Joel doesn’t want that nonsense. He wants true heartfelt repentance, and nothing more will do for a God who searches hearts and thoughts.

The responsorial psalm for this evening actually leaves out an important passage that clergy and religious often pray with Psalm 51, something very apropos for today: “For in sacrifice you take no delight, burnt offering from me you would refuse, my sacrifice, a contrite spirit. A humbled, contrite heart you will not spurn.”

In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is really addressing the same issue: ostentatious displays of righteousness: the public giving of alms for the purpose of gaining esteem in the eyes of others; making the worst of ones appearance when fasting so everyone knows just how much you’re suffering, and otherwise putting on a show.

When we take these ashes on our foreheads, we are not simply identifying culturally with the Church or putting on a show. We have an opportunity to enter into this season in a true spirit of repentance with the entire ekklesia—the whole Church. We do so together as a communion because all sin is communal. We have a messed up world out there, if the situation in the Crimea and Syria isn’t clear enough examples, not to mention the fact that we have human trafficking going on in our own back yard. Sin hurts all of us. And that is why we as a Church do penance and reparation together—to repair the damage that sin does to our world and to help Jesus complete the work that was done in Him through his sacrificial offering of love in which we’ll partake shortly. Take advantage of Lent this year and offer a contrite spirit and humbled, contrite heart to the savior who died for you.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

God-Shaped Hole in Us: Sunday: Eighth week in Ordinary Time—Cycle A

Isaiah 49: 14–15; 1 Cor. 4:1–5; Matt. 6:24–34

When my daughter was young, I developed a very acute sense of awareness of the sounds in our house. Prior to that, I never had a problem falling or staying asleep. But since I’ve become a father, I am ever attuned to what happens in and around my household or even a block away. That hasn’t changed since she has moved out of the house. I doubt my experience is very different from other parents. Our priorities change. We become less focused on ourselves and more focused on the well being of others. Sometimes our love for our families and neighbors costs us and effects our health and overall sense of well being.

For you young people who stay out really late or ignore the frantic calls and text messages to your cell phones, keeping your parents awake with concern, there’s no need for you to feel any remorse when you contemplate how they sacrifice their health and well being on your behalf. It’s all part of the joy of parenthood.

Now I’m framing the reflection this way not to lay a guilt trip on our young people. That’s just a happy accident of choosing this topic tonight.

But I want to emphasize what our first reading and gospel stress. We need to depend on our Father for what we need. We need to shake off what the world tries to sell us and to entrust our care to God. We need to put our trust in Him and not the passing things of this world.

Isaiah 49 recounts Israel’s lament that it has been abandoned by God, and I have no doubt that they felt that way! Isaiah’s prophecies were written over a long period of time. This particular passage from our readings today comes from the time of the Babylonian Captivity, when Israel would have been mourning the loss of the temple and exile from their home. But also in this part of Isaiah are the many allusions to the suffering servant and to the coming messiah. Jesus himself alludes to many of these passages, and the commentary in the Revised Standard Version of the bible mentions that some scholars go as far as to call Isaiah an evangelist—like Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

So as Israel laments, Isaiah tells them, “God has not forgotten you. Your savior is coming. Your salvation is near.” God knows them and what they need better than they do, but we humans are frail, and we don’t suffer well when we don’t understand the meaning of suffering. We must remember that God’s time is not our time. He doesn’t reply as soon as we cry out because sometimes the only way we can learn is by our experience. Jesus did not promise us wine and roses (or Mtn. Dew and Heath bars for the young people in our audience). He didn’t promise that we’d sail through life, but he promised us the cross, here, as we travel through this temporary life. Our reward can either be short lived here or eternal there.

The responsorial antiphon today is a simple plea to self: “Rest in God alone, my soul.” It’s a reminder for us to place ourselves in God’s care rather than to rely on our own strength. That is challenging for all of us and almost impossible for some in their difficult circumstances. You might have heard one person try to console another by saying,  “God never gives us more than we can handle”—that trite pietism that we often reach for when we don’t know what to say. That is simply not true for two reasons. First of all, God does not give evil to us in our lives. He will allow it because it’s the result of sin in our world. Second, God is not doling out shares of misery based on the amount of abuse that we’re all willing to take. That portrays God as a cruel task master who takes part in and drives our misery, as a thug. He will allow those few saints in our midst to shoulder burdens that most of us could not bear.

God does not give us misery, but he will allow us to experience the full weight of misery that our fallen human nature has incurred. He doesn’t do it to punish us but to allow us to accept and realize the concept of sin and to choose another way, the Way he provided in His Son, who also suffered unimaginably in our place. God allows it so that we may come to put ourselves wholly in His care and rely solely on His strength.

We have misery and death because our first parents, Adam and Eve, chose their wills over God’s. They wanted the knowledge of good and evil. Satan, in the form of the serpent, encouraged them to take it—to take what God had forbidden. And God allowed them to suffer the consequence, which was the loss of God’s grace and presence in us.

That God-shaped whole in us is the result of our parents’ original sin, their desire to be in control, their desire to be God. That God-shaped hole makes us restless, and we can respond in many ways. Some of us try to fill it with temporary happiness: we can possess lots of things, we can party like it’s 1999—or whatever that latest projected doomsday is. We can seek power and control over others. But if we put our trust in the things of this world, we will always be empty, always have that desire, and always have that God-shaped hole.

I’m going to lean on a doctor of our Church, who is so frequently quoted and so often misunderstood, St. Augustine. In his Confessions, the very first autobiography in western literature, he wrote in the opening paragraph, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (1.1). As long as we rely on our own strength, our own will, our own desire and intent… our own passion and personal inspiration… that God-shaped hole will remain and we will be ever restless.

Jesus had both human and Divine will. He had the option of choosing with His human will, yet He submitted his human will to His Divine will in the sacrifice we will commemorate in a few minutes. Through it, He brought about our salvation. Unless we submit our will to God, we can only do short-lived temporary things, and they will never fill that God-shaped hole. The Psalm that clergy and religious recite in our Liturgy of the Hours reminds me of the source of my discontent and its resolution:

Why are you cast down, my soul?
Why groan within me?
Hope in God: I will praise Him still,
My savior and my God.