Dear Friends, Ash Wednesday Week
Our spring rains began early, washing the world all the way to the monastery. It was only a week since I was here before, now returning for Ash Wednesday week. Therefore nothing has changed much, except that Br. Ambrose has returned from a happy vacation with family in Vietnam. The special aspects of this week were distribution of ashes, bread with water for Ash Wednesday dinner, and choosing by each monk a book for Lenten reading. At Vigils the response was “Come let us worship Christ the Lord who for our sake endured temptation and suffering.” Our hymn for Lauds ended interestingly, “All around us we have known you [God], all creation lives to hold you. In our living and our dying we are bringing you to birth.” Our dear Br. Tobias who stayed with us for a long while, died at New Melleray this week, with our Br. Thomas caring for him until the end. Perhaps the best way to share the flavor of this week is with my homily Tuesday as an introduction to Ash Wednesday, and the one for the first Sunday of Lent.
Homily for the Day before Ash Wednesday
Today is the final day of ordinary time before the important observance of Ash Wednesday -- “The Day of universal fasting and abstinence for the Church of Jesus Christ.” Holy Mother Church has structured the Church year so that the 34 weeks of Ordinary Time are divided in two parts -- each segment ending when the day after day of ordinary time wears us down into ordinariness, making us vulnerable to the innocuous rhythms of secular society. We reach the point where we don’t care any more that in our rich country people still go hungry; that we make war normal; that we have a love affair with guns; that we eat junk food prepared by people earning a wage insufficient for them to live; and that we deport strangers rather than welcoming them.
So twice a year we are sent back to “boot camp,” or to “training school” as it were, into a period of re-immersion into the basic Christian rhythm that defines our life with meaning -- the rhythm of promise, gift, and response. The first triad is called Advent/Christmas/ Epiphany; the second is called Lent/Easter/Pentecost. So tomorrow begins our first day at boot camp.
During the first half of the Lenten 40 days the scripture readings will keep reiterating that we are to “become perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect.” For three weeks we will be hammered with do, do, do -- climaxed by hearing from Jesus the final words that even if we WERE able to do everything right, we would still be unprofitable servants, having done only what is required of us. Then why on earth should we even try? The reason is this -- to convince us once again that we can’t be perfect, that there is no way in which we can get things right! Thus these teachings of Jesus are to convince us that left to ourselves we are failures. “Compunction” is the word that theologians use to describe what Ash Wednesday begins and what the next three weeks will do over and over -- it means to “puncture.” We are blow horns, balloons filled with a lot of hot air, puffed up wind bags -- arrogantly making hot and cold running comments about everything, as if the world couldn’t survive without our ongoing opinions. As Elvis Presley used to sing: “You’re nothin’ but a hound dog.” Our only hope, then, is to be punctured and deflated, brought to our knees. For doing this, today’s gospel is like the last straw -- telling us that while the disciples were literally following Jesus, what did they do? They squabbled about which one of them was the greatest!! Oh my! What hope is there for any of us?
Thus Alcoholics Anonymous is appropriate for all of us, which begins with the acknowledgement that we are helpless without a Higher Power. It is highly appropriate, then, that the ashes with which we will be dirtied tomorrow will be from the very palms with which we honored Jesus last Palm Sunday -- before we betrayed him. The priest can choose between two statements in administering these ashes. In one, the key word is Repent -- condemning us for what we do. The other is Dust -- declaring the fragility of who we are.
By the time we reach the middle of Lent, then, we will be readied to confess that without God we can do nothing -- readied to obey today’s psalm which proposes that we “Throw our cares on the Lord.” When we reach this third week of Lent, suddenly our scripture readings radically change -- as we are plunged into the gospel of John. No longer are we hammered by Jesus the teacher, but invited to accept Christ the savior -- the One who can heal us. And in surrendering to Him, we can again proclaim in joy with St. Paul: “It is not I but Christ who lives within me.” Then in foretaste, the resurrection begins again to occur within us, preparing us to receive the Holy Spirit as our Pentecostal gift.
My friends, what a marvelous rehearsal of the Good News awaits us -- as tomorrow we reenter the 40 days of Lenten renewal.
Homily for the First Sunday of Lent
I. Today is the first Sunday of Lent, and our first reading from Genesis provides the story of stories portraying the human condition that Lent is intent on making us face.
A. The world was created as a garden in which humans are to find joy in gardening it into a Paradise.
B. We were given the gift of freedom in order to do this, and thus the ability to sin as well.
C. And what is sin? -- The snake in the story makes this clear.
1. “If you eat the forbidden fruit,” he says, “you will become like God.”
D. We can’t wait -- and in craving to be like a god, we become less than human.
II. Today’s Responsorial Psalm shouts the result: “Have mercy on us, O God; create a new heart and steadfast spirit within us.”
A. But we are not likely to cast our lives on the mercy of God until we are confronted, as Paul says in today reading, by the tragic consequences of acting like Adam and Eve.
B. And today’s gospel confronts us head on as to how serious these temptations are, for even Jesus himself is plunged into them -- not for an hour, not for two hours -- but for 40 days and 40 nights.
C. And this isn’t the end of it, for scripture says that after the 40 days Satan does not give up, but intends to return and tempt Jesus again and again.
III. The three temptations that confront Jesus are variations of that which Adam and Eve and we too encounter daily -- I call them the three P’s--
A. The first is temptation is Power -- “Command these stones to become bread.”
1. Never trust anyone who has power of any kind without accountability.
B. The second temptation is Prestige -- “Jesus,” says Satan, “do a swan dive from the top of the temple, and I’ll see that NBC TV is there so that you can be the feature on the 10 o’clock news.
1. All of us crave 15 minutes of fame, if only to be the obnoxious life of at least one party.
C. The third is Possessions -- “Jesus, look out on the kingdoms of the world and you can have them all.” Oh my!
1. Our garages and basements and attics are filled to overflowing with possessions we don’t need -- and yet we keep acquiring more.
D. Every commercial on TV is trying to tempt us into acquiring power, prestige, and/or possessions -- and often they succeed.
IV. When I was a child, every evening my mother would tuck me into bed and read me a story about Edward, the perfect kid who never did anything wrong.
A. My mother wanted me to be just like him; but instead I despised that kid.
B. Who wants even to be close to someone who goes around being perfect?
C. And so I have wondered about that passage in the book of Hebrews that says the Jesus was like us in every way, EXCEPT SIN.
D. That’s ironic, because apparently the author wanted him to be Super Man -- overflowing with power, prestige and possessions.
E. But that is not what I want -- I want Jesus TRULY to be like me, a real companion -- one who made some mistakes too, messed up a couple of time, who succumbed to a few temptations -- like me in every way INCLUDING sin.
F. That’s my kind of Jesus, for otherwise he would not really have been human.
V. And judged by his own teachings, Jesus didn’t always measure up -- for while Jesus insisted that we are to love our enemies, Jesus became furious with the scribes and Pharisees-- ridiculing them publicly, calling them “whitewashed sepulchers,” shouting that they were a “Generation of vipers.”
A. Never once did he show them any forgiveness.
VI. Or recall the time when Jesus returned to Nazarethhis childhood home -- where his teachings dazzled the people, until he lost his cool -- deliberately infuriating them so greatly that they tried to throw him over a cliff to his death.
A. Recall too that when the disciples wanted to know how to pray, Jesus told them how HE prayed, including the words, “forgive us OUR trespasses.”
VII. Years ago a friend and I would go to hear a new piano player that came to town.
A. As an encore, we’d ask him to play, “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”
B. When he finished, my friend and I would ask ourselves -- “Does he know?”
1. That is, has he really lived the music for himself-- has he been there?
C. Jesus HAS been there; he HAS done that, he REALLY knows what it is like.
VIII. Thus it is at this point that the most important of questions rises:
A. Who is this man Jesus? -- if he is only human, then he is the portrait of the most pathetic suffering crucified human being ever to have lived -- making clear that life has no meaning!
B. But if it is true, as Jesus himself said, that “you who have seen me have seen the Father,” then what Jesus reveals is a God who takes on himself all the sins and suffering of the world.
C. Not like a coat to be taken on or off, but God suffers our sinning inside himself, experiencing as his own the guilt for what we have done.
1. He cried over Jerusalem; he cried for his friend Lazarus; and he weeps over the suffering of every human being.
2. On the cross he even took on himself our experience of God- forsakenness -- screaming out: “Why!”
D. Yes, our God is the SUFFERING SERVANT -- himself hurt, betrayed, abused, misunderstood -- even agonizing over having failed when we fail.
E. What an INCREDIBLE God -- taking our place -- with us and for us.
IX. Years ago I drew a picture that this week I came to understood was my attempt to portray what today I have been trying to put in words.
A. I haven’t shown it to anyone, but I want now as an ending of this homily to show it to you -- it is entitled, “Behold your God.”
Friends, may your Lent be a blessed time.