Lent: A privileged moment to celebrate mercy

February 22, 2016
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

This issue, we continue our journey toward Easter by reflecting on Lent's daily readings in the spirit of the Year of Mercy. Lent, Pope Francis says, is "a privileged moment to celebrate and experience God's mercy."

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Lay people can enact God's kingdom

February 23: Tuesday of Second Week of Lent

Isaiah 1.10, 16-20, 27-28, 31 | Psalm 50 | Matthew 23.1-12

'Seek justice; rescue the oppressed; defend the orphan; plead for the widow.'

Isaiah 1.17

In his 1988 apostolic exhortation on the role of the laity, St. John Paul II laid out a beautiful vision of the meaning of Baptism:

"The eyes of faith behold a wonderful scene: that of a countless number of lay people, both women and men, busy at work in their daily life and activity, oftentimes far from view and quite unacclaimed by the world, unknown to the world's great personages but nonetheless looked upon in love by the Father, untiring labourers who work in the Lord's vineyard.

"Confident and steadfast through the power of God's grace, these are the humble yet great builders of the kingdom of God in history" (Christifideles Laici, 17).

The words of Isaiah spell out concrete ways we can live out Pope John Paul's vision. These words do not contain a hidden political agenda as some fear whenever they hear the word "justice." They are the word of God describing how to show signs of God's kingdom in the here and now.

The pope was right. Countless numbers of lay people are quietly enacting that vision in their daily lives. It is a beautiful sight, one which only the eyes of faith can see.

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The servant leads a hidden life

February 24: Wednesday of Second Week of Lent

Jeremiah 18.18-20 | Psalm 31 | Matthew 20.17-28

'Whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant.'

Matthew 20.26

Just so you know, no prize is given for being a servant. No panel watches over the Church making judgments about who is the most humble servant so they can make him or her "great among you."

The servant toils in obscurity and remains obscure. The servant is grateful for the opportunity to serve and is not angered when no one even says "thank you" for those endless hours of service.

Don't desire the slightest gratitude. Just serve. Do good deeds for others and make sure no one knows you did them.

That may sound simple, but it is a hard road. At some point, you will want a little reward, even if it is only a word of thanks. Instead, we should express gratitude to others and expect nothing for ourselves.

The most humble servant will toil cheerfully in obscurity, die and then rest eternally on the bosom of the Lord. Back on earth, no one will know. No canonization process will be launched; the servant will be forgotten. However, their gift to the world and to God will live on.

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Lazarus wants only scraps from my table

February 25: Thursday of Second Week of Lent

Jeremiah 17.5-10 | Psalm 1 | Luke 16.19-31

'At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table.'

Luke 16.20-21

This one line from Luke's Gospel can bear a lot of meditation. Forget for now the rest of the story - the part about the rich man dying and being tormented in Hades while Lazarus is in heaven next to Abraham.

Think simply about the poor man lying at the gate, the poor man covered with sores, the poor man who is hungry and will be satisfied even if he is given mere scraps.

This Lazarus is close to me, not in some faraway country. He is a person I know, perhaps one who has continually brought disappointment to my life. Yet, he is invisible. I cannot see him because of my own blindness. I am too caught up in both the work and the feasts of my own life.

He wants little of me, only the scraps. Maybe he wants food; maybe he wants time. Maybe he wants a phone call.

Will I see Lazarus? Will I respond? My eternal salvation depends on it.

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Climb from the pit of idolizing the individual

February 26: Friday of Second Week of Lent

Genesis 37.3-4, 12-13, 17-28 | Psalm 105 | Matthew 21.33-43, 45-46

'When Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe . . . and they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.'

Genesis 37.23-24

Western society has been stripped of its marvellous robe - the robe of faith - and thrown into an empty, waterless pit. Unlike Joseph, we do not even know we stand in a pit.

We think that, with our prosperity and our bounteous knowledge, we stand on the mountaintop of world history.

However, until you recognize that you are in a pit of emptiness, no desire to climb out will arise within you. Without the water of faith, one cannot see one's true situation. One cannot even see that the world has gone crazy with its exaltation of the individual. Euthanasia, same-sex marriage, transgendering, abortion and the ecological crisis all reflect an idolatry of the individual and a forgetfulness of God's gift of creation.

Joseph's brothers have thrown him into the pit. How do we restore him to his proper place? How do we restore human dignity and the common good?

Pray to drink the water of salvation. Pray for faith, hope and love to abound. Turn back to God and live.

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Dissolute living leads to feeding the pigs

February 27: Saturday of Second Week of Lent

Micah 7.14-15, 18-20 | Psalm 103 | Luke 15.1-3, 11-32

'Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.'

Luke 15.12

He really is quite impertinent, this fellow we call the prodigal son, isn't he? The challenge is to see how much we are like him.

In one respect, it is easy. We are Christians, but most of us are fabulously wealthy relative to people throughout history and in our world today. Despite our wealth, "give me" ranks high on our list of words to think, if not say.

Our "give me" society is headed in the same direction as the prodigal son. After squandering our resources in "dissolute living," we are bound for the ignominious work of feeding the pigs. A society built on consumerism will face a day of reckoning.

Yet, the parable is also, even primarily, one about the mercy of God. As irresponsible and dissolute as was the son, the father's heart was always open and ready to forgive.

Actions have consequences, but God is eager to forgive. If we have screwed up, however badly, God will still greet us with open arms if we come back to him.

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Joyfully we long to walk in flowing streams

February 29: Monday of Third Week of Lent

2 Kings 5.1-15 | Psalm 42 | Luke 4.24-30

'As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God.'

Psalm 42.1

Despite its beautiful metaphor, this psalm is classified as one of mourning and lament. The psalmist is at the source of the Jordan at Mount Hermon, far from Jerusalem. He misses being with the throng as they process into the house of God.

The longing of the Christian - redeemed by Christ's death and resurrection and filled with the Holy Spirit - is for the definitive fulfillment of the kingdom, for the eternal glory with God that is to come.

Our expectancy is one of waiting in hope "that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God" (Romans 8.21). God will be glorified, and we will be glorified in him.

Lent can deepen our joyful expectancy for the flowing streams of God's love and glory. We are not in mourning. Victory has been won; we await the everlasting banquet which celebrates that victory.

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An enormous debt and an abundance of mercy

March 1: Tuesday of Third Week of Lent

Daniel 3.25, 34-43 | Psalm 25 | Matthew 18.21-35

'Not seven times, but 77 times.'

Matthew 18.22

God's mercy is so abundant that it is totally beyond measure. In the parable in today's Gospel, a slave who owes his king 10,000 talents - an amount roughly equivalent to a billion dollars - is asked to pay up.

When the slave falls on his knees and asks the king to be patient because he will pay everything, the king says, "OK" and forgives the debt.

Good luck! The slave will never pay that debt, and both he and the king know it.

However, Jesus tells the parable to impress on the disciples both the extent of our enormous debt to the Father and the abundance of the Father's mercy.

People complain the Church has too many rules. That complaint betrays an ignorance of the depth of our indebtedness to God. He has given us everything, and we have the gall to believe we deserve those blessings.

Rather, we should be struck with awe at the unfathomable ocean of God's mercy. How can God be so forgiving toward such ignorant and ungrateful slaves?

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Flaunting God's law leads to destruction

March 2: Wednesday of Third Week of Lent

Deuteronomy 4.1, 5-9 | Psalm 147 | Matthew 5.17-19

'What other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call him?'

Deuteronomy 4.7

Our day of reckoning is coming. God is merciful, but also truthful. He has given his Law, not as a suggestion of how to behave, but as commands that will lead to life. Ignore God's law, and you are on the path to death.

Canada flaunts God's laws and has been doing so for decades. You want to kill an unborn baby? Go for it; it's your right. Want to marry someone of the same sex? Sure, who is the government or the Church to say it is not true love? Suffering too much and want to kill yourself? We'll send a doctor over to help.

God has been near to us for so long. Samuel de Champlain sought to establish Canada as a Catholic nation, one where faith, hope and love abound.

If we call on God now, he will respond with mercy. If we act as though there is no God, our actions will have their natural repercussions.

God's law exists for our benefit, not his. Strive to obey it, and there will be unity and peace. Turn your back on it, and death and destruction will surely follow.

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The peril of walking in one's own counsel

March 3: Thursday of Third Week in Lent

Jeremiah 7.23-28 | Psalm 95 | Luke 11.14-23

'In the stubbornness of their evil will, they walked in their own counsels.'

Jeremiah 7.24

The Babylonian exile was not a pretty affair. It was far worse than anything we have ever seen in Canada.

First, in 598 BC, Jerusalem was under siege for three months with all that implies - the starvation and deaths of many people. During the siege, the evil king Jehoiakim was killed and replaced with the puppet king Jehoiachin.

The city was pillaged, and all the treasures of the Temple and the king's house were hauled off to Babylon. So too was Jehoiachin and 10,000 others - the warriors, the leaders and the artisans. No one remained, except the poorest people.

Another puppet, Zedekiah, was made king. When Zedekiah rebelled, the Babylonians laid siege again, this time destroying the whole city, including the Temple. Zedekiah was forced to watch his sons being murdered. Then, he was blinded and dragged in chains to Babylon, along with many others. Judah was left in ruins.

The stubborn people and their evil leaders had long ignored the God who had brought them out of slavery in Egypt. Once they "walked in their own counsels," they were bound for a perilous future.

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God offers us the finest wheat

March 4: Friday of Third Week of Lent

Hosea 14.1-9 | Psalm 81 | Mark 12.28-34

'O that my people would listen to me. . . . I would feed you with the finest of the wheat, and with honey from the rock I would satisfy you.'

Psalm 81.13, 16

God is not vengeful. He wants to give his people all that is fine and wonderful in creation - the best wines, the choicest foods, the most bountiful harvest.

God yearns for us to listen to and obey him. We are not made to be perfect, but we are made to follow God's ways.

In the Gospel today, a scribe tells Jesus, "To love one's neighbour as oneself - this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices" (Mark 12.33).

God is less concerned with our efforts to be "religious" and more concerned with our actions that display love.

God is love. Love builds up; hate tears down what love has built. Indifference turns its back on the call and the opportunity to build more.

When we build with love, we will be fed with the finest of wheat and honey from the rock. God has ordered creation so that love will reap bountiful rewards.

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Sinner who sought mercy went home justified

March 5: Saturday of Third Week of Lent

Hosea 5.15-6.6 | Psalm 51 | Luke 18.9-14

'All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.'

Luke 18.14

The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the Temple made a deep impression upon me as a child. Not that I have been able to live up to its call to be humble.

However, its vivid simplicity goes to the core of what it means to be a disciple of Christ. My guess is that this little parable was a turning point in history. No serious Christian, having heard it, could proclaim their superiority over others without having qualms of conscience.

This is not to say that the domination of one person over another, one nation over others, is a thing of the past. Obviously, that is not the case.

Now, at least there is a divine retort to the bully: "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted." The tax collector who beat his breast and, with sincerity, prayed, "God be merciful to me, a sinner" was the one who went home justified.

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John put paschal mystery at centre of Gospel

March 7: Monday of Fourth Week of Lent

Isaiah 65.17-21 | Psalm 30 | John 4.43-54

‘I am about to create a new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.’

Isaiah 65.17

Today, the Liturgy of the Word centres on St. John's Gospel, a focus that will continue every weekday until Pentecost.

Why John? The simple answer is that John's is the most mature of the Gospels. It is the place where, even more than the three synoptic Gospels, the paschal mystery of love holds centre stage. It is the Gospel where the glory of God is most evident, where the Holy Spirit holds an increasingly prominent position.

John's Gospel is where the new heavens and new earth to which Isaiah refers become most palpable.

Right from the Gospel's prologue (1.1-18) and its account of John the Baptist, one gets the message that Jesus is more than human, that he is one with the Father.

Thomas Brodie writes, "To inquire about John's theology is like asking about the meaning of a symphony. The meaning, Beethoven would say, is not in talking about it but in listening to it. In the case of the Gospel, the meaning lies in living it."

Over the next several weeks, Catholics will have an opportunity to listen to and to live John's Gospel.