Lent: A privileged moment to celebrate mercy

March 7, 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."

Purple Line

Healing calls man to assume responsibility

March 8: Tuesday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Ezekiel 47.1-9, 12 | Psalm 46 | John 5.1-16

‘Stand up, take up your mat and walk.’

John 5.8

This is a story about a miracle, a healing or, as St. John would call it, a sign. It is about a man who is always last in the race to the massive pool when its waters begin to be stirred. He has no one to help him in that race.

So the story also becomes one about the mercy of God, of Jesus who heals him of his 38-year-long illness.

It is also a story about a man who, having been healed, is no longer helpless. Instead of bemoaning the fact that no one will help him, he now must assume responsibility for himself and walk in the new creation. It is time for him to “Stand up, take up your mat and walk.”

Yet, as soon as he does as Jesus commands, he is in trouble. It is the Sabbath, and he is carrying his mat. The authorities are not pleased with him violating the law.

Where am I in this story? Am I the one who brings mercy to the disabled person? Am I the one who needs to take greater responsibility for my own life? Am I the one preventing others from assuming responsibility?

Purple Line

Even the Father ‘works’ on the Sabbath

March 9: Wednesday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Isaiah 49.8-15 | Psalm 145 | John 5.16-30

‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’

John 5.17

Jesus rebuffs the “the Jews” for persecuting the man who had been made well and carried his mat on the Sabbath. More than that, however, he begins to discuss the nature of God. The mat-carrier is working, but so are the Father in heaven and his Son on earth.

No one at that time had any way of understanding what Jesus was saying. How dare he refer to God as his Father! How dare he say that he can give life to anyone he chooses! How dare he say that he has “life in himself”!

A new creation is being born, and nothing in the Jewish Scriptures would give an inkling of what is happening.

For us, however, as Jesus begins to talk about doing the Father’s will, that he can do “nothing” on his own, our hearts should tingle. If Jesus only does what he sees the Father doing, who are we to set off on our own? Shouldn’t we yearn to share in the life of Jesus? Shouldn’t we also seek to do nothing but what we see the Son doing?

Whose will do I follow – God’s will or my own?

Purple Line

Only road to glory passes through the cross

March 10: Thursday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Exodus 32.7-14 | Psalm 106 | John 5.18, 31-47

‘How can you believe when you accept glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the one who alone is God?’

John 5.44

This is the most stinging indictment Jesus could deliver.

Here, Jesus addresses the Jewish leaders. Their problem is not that they are hypocrites or that they adhere to the Mosaic Law and fail to recognize Jesus. Their failure is their willingness to receive glory from one another.

“What is so bad about that?” one might ask. “Everyone needs a little praise now and then.”

For Jesus, however, the only glory is the glory of the cross. To seek the glory that comes from God is to seek the cross. This is not masochism, but it is the willingness, even the desire, to accept the lowest place, to be hidden from public view. It is the willingness to give up one’s life for his or her friends (Jn 15.13).

If you accept worldly glory, you cannot believe, Jesus says. The only route to faith is to seek the glory that comes from God. Through accepting the cross, one will be given a share in the eternal life of the Trinity.

Middle ground does not exist: Either one accepts the cross or one stands outside the eternal life that God offers to those who believe.

Purple Line

The righteous one is viewed as an oddball

March 11: Friday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Wisdom 2.1, 12-22 | Psalm 34 | John 7.1-2. 10, 25-30

‘The very sight of the righteous man is a burden to us, because his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange.’

Wisdom 2.15

St. Paul told the Corinthians that believers are “fools for Christ” (1 Cor 4.10). However, what appears foolish in the world shames that which is wise; what is weak shames the strong (1.27).

Corinthian Christians had a hard time with such advice. They wanted to appear wise in the ways of the world and believed that even their spiritual gifts provided a means for one-upmanship.

Today’s reading from the Book of Wisdom is one of the few places in the Old Testament where righteousness is presented as being odd, even despised, by mainstream society.

Of course, the reading does not mean that every oddball is a saint. But it does imply that the closer one draws to God, the more one’s values and actions will seem strange to those whose main goal is to get ahead in society.

Think of St. Francis of Assisi who drove his capitalist father crazy with his consistent adherence to the Gospel call to poverty. Think also of what it might mean today when the division between rich and poor grows ever wider.

Purple Line

Religious ‘experts’ can be weak witnesses

March 12: Saturday of the Fourth Week in Lent

Jeremiah 11.18-20 | Psalm 7 | John 7.40-53

‘The Pharisees replied, “This crowd, which does not know the Law, they are accursed.”’

John 7.49

St. John is here writing a polemic, and it is not at all clear whether the Jewish leaders were as fanatically defensive as portrayed in today’s Gospel.

Yet, the story should lead us to question the faith of the know-it-all . . . and encourage us to avoid that pitfall.

Faith is not primarily a matter of religious expertise; saints, such as St. Bernadette Soubirous, were sometimes remarkably ignorant of basic Catholic doctrines. It was their humble faith that won them the prize of eternal life and overshadowed the so-called wisdom of the proud.

We should strive to know our faith as well as to live it humbly. In today’s aggressively secular society, Christians who are well versed in Church teaching are needed to respond to the many anti-Catholic attacks.

However, we should never underestimate the influence of the humble person who lives their faith quietly and prayerfully. Humble faith is the true power of the Church.

Purple Line

Jesus offers a lesson in human dignity

March 14: Monday of the Fifth Week in Lent

Daniel 13.1-9, 15-17. 19-30, 33-64 | Psalm 23 | John 8.1-11

‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’

John 8.7

What makes adultery such a horrendous sin? One thing evil about adultery is that people are treated as objects. The two participants treat each other as objects for their own sexual pleasure; the spouses of the participants are also treated as objects to be discarded through an act of infidelity.

Here is the irony of the men who brought the woman – but not the adulterous man – before Jesus for judgment. They are laying a trap for Jesus. If he says not to stone her, he will violate the Mosaic Law. If says go ahead and kill her, then his reputation as a prophet of mercy is destroyed.

The woman is treated as a pawn by her self-righteous accusers in their game with Jesus. They have – we all have – many sins, but their sin here is to treat this woman as a thing and not a person.

Jesus turns the tables. His pointed one-liner sends the accusers packing. Then, he turns to the woman, who has not even asked for forgiveness, and gives it to her anyway. She is raised up; her dignity is affirmed.

Her dignity will be even greater if she adheres to Jesus’ parting words: “From now on, do not sin again.”

Purple Line

Jesus reveals the depth of his poverty

March 15: Tuesday of the Fifth Week in Lent

Numbers 21.4-9 | Psalm 102 | John 8.21-30

‘I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me.”

John 8.28

Jesus lives in total poverty. We tend to see poverty in terms of the absence of material wealth. Jesus goes much deeper than that. The term we may give is “spiritual poverty,” but even that might underplay his self-renunciation.

Jesus’ poverty is one of total reliance upon the Father. He is totally obedient to the Father’s will. According to John’s Gospel, he has no initiative of his own.

This poverty of the will shows us a tiny piece of God’s nature. The all-powerful, all-knowing God reveals himself to us as totally without power and as lacking in knowledge. His “freedom” comes through absolute obedience.

This is so different from how we want to live. We put utmost importance on security and autonomy. We do not want to be dependent.

Yet, sharing in God’s eternal life means eliminating one’s egoism. Do nothing on your own initiative; be completely one with the will of God.

Purple Line

Discipline of Lent can set us free

March 16: Wednesday of the Fifth Week in Lent

Daniel 3.13-20, 24, 49-50, 91-95 | Daniel 3 | John 8.31-42

‘Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.’

John 8.34

We want to be free and many of us think that by ignoring the rules of God and nature, we can shed the shackles of oppression. The problem is that sin leads us not into freedom, but into slavery. The sinner is chained by his or her own desires, and is often dragged into a pit of addiction.

St. Paul expressed our situation vividly: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. . . . I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7.14-15).

Pathetic, isn’t it? You think that you have found the way to freedom, and you end up bound by a web of your own making. This is why we have the discipline of Lent – to set us free.

The road to freedom is straight. Obey the one who is the way, the truth and the life. The truth will set you free.

Purple Line

Jesus makes us fruitful in a different way

March 17: Thursday of the Fifth Week in Lent

Genesis 17.3-9 | Psalm 105 | John 8.51-59

‘I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.’

Genesis 17.6

‘I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.’

Genesis 17.6

It sounds like a good deal. God said to Abraham: “Walk before me and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you.”

Not everyone gets such an offer. Still, Abraham was uprooted to move to a new land, and his nephew’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt. It wasn’t always easy.

Abraham, however, had faith, and because of that faith, God made him fruitful.

A few weeks after Easter, the Gospel will speak of fruitfulness. Abraham’s fruitfulness was in the natural order – nations and kings, that sort of thing. The fruit of which Jesus will speak will be spiritual fruit, fruit that endures.

Abraham got a good deal. But the offer Jesus hands us is of a totally different magnitude. Nations and kings are nothing compared with the eternal joy into which Jesus leads us.

Purple Line

Trinity reveals our goal – unity in the Spirit

March 18: Friday of the Fifth Week in Lent

Jeremiah 20.7, 10-13 | Psalm 18 | John 10.31-42

‘The Father is in me, and I am in the Father.’

John 10.38

St. John wanted to clarify one thing – the Father did not abandon Jesus. Well, he also pointed out another thing – the God who is one is also three. The Father is always giving himself to the Son, and the Son is always giving himself to the Father. Out of that eternal giving proceeds the Holy Spirit.

The word “giving” is ambiguous here. The Father begets the Son while the Son gives himself in total obedience to the Father.

The full meaning of this is beyond our understanding. Yet, we will find that, in faith, we are in the Spirit and the Spirit is in us. That is, the Spirit is in me and in you and in all of us together, uniting us in one body.

That body is called the Church. One cannot renounce the Church without also renouncing the Spirit. Above all, the Spirit brings unity. When division replaces unity, the Spirit has been driven away.

Purple Line

Canada needs help from St. Joseph

March 19: Solemnity of St. Joseph

2 Samuel 7.4-5, 12-14, 16 | Psalm 89 | Romans 4.13, 16-18, 22 | Matthew 1.16, 18-21, 24

‘When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him.’

Matthew 1.24

Canada is blessed to have St. Joseph as its patron. Little is known of Joseph except that he was a descendant of David, husband of Mary, a tradesman and a man of deep faith.

He also accepted what he heard in his dreams as messages from God. Given that God had been silent among his people for 500 years, it took no small amount of faith for Joseph to accept that message.

Faith is in increasingly short supply in Canada, and our nation suffers because of that shortage. You cannot build a nation that is peaceful and just without faith.

If faith is lacking, there is no reason to sacrifice for the good of other people except that those others give you pleasure. Pleasure is fleeting and focused on self; any secular humanism will eventually degenerate into chaos.

St. Joseph, please help Canada to look beyond the self and dedicate itself to the God who is love.

Purple Line

Smell of wondrous perfume fills the entire house

March 21: Monday in Holy Week

Isaiah 42.1-7 | Psalm 27 | John 12.1-11

‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’

John 12.3

A few verses earlier in St. John’s Gospel, Martha had complained of the stench that would come from Lazarus’ grave if the stone were rolled back. Now, her sister Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a pound of costly perfume, and the wondrous smell of nard fills the entire house.

This can only be the odour of the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit. Death is to be defeated; the stench is replaced with the extravagant smell of new life. The house is, of course, the Church – the temple of the resurrection.

The betrayer, however, has no nose for the resurrection. From one perspective, his complaint is reasonable; to spend 300 days’ wages on perfume is an incredible waste of money when people live in poverty.

Here, the raising of Lazarus is being celebrated, and Jesus’ resurrection is anticipated. All of creation is being renewed; great riches are being put on, around and under Jesus’ feet.

The Father’s gift of his Son to humanity is the wildest extravagance. Our sharing in the resurrection is wilder still.