Lent Reflections 2017

March 5: Philip E. Thompson - March 12: Marie A. Conn - March 19: Dolores Christee - March 26: David VonSchlichten - April 2: Frank Berna - April 9: SimonMary Aihiokhai - April 16: Jill Raitt

Learning to See Again (First Sunday of Lent)

Lent is a time of grace, costly grace, yes, yet evangelical grace. We cannot long think of God’s love and grace without becoming aware of how far we are from it. So Lent is a time for repentance, turning from the things that would tempt us to turn from the true God who alone has life and immortality (I Tim 6.16). Lent is a time for conversion. What does this look like? I’ve not seen it put much more vividly than in Alice Walker’s novel, The Color Purple.

The main character, Celie, a fourteen year-old African American girl of the earlier twentieth century South, endures a very hard life. She copes by writing letters to God. “Dear God, he beat me today . . . .” she writes about her step-father. Soon, her step-father gives young Celie to another cruel man to be his wife. He tells the man, “She’s ugly. . . . she’s not smart either . . . But she’s no stranger to hard work.” Celie calls him “Mr.” “Mr.” beats her. And Celie copes by writing letters to God.

In time, Shug Avery enters the story. Shug is a preacher’s daughter, beautiful, but fallen. No one has much to do with her except Celie. They’re both treated more like things than people, and they become friends. Celie shares things she could never share with anyone else before, even the letters to God.

Shug notices eventually that Celie has stopped writing letters to God, and she asks about it.  “What’s God done for me?” Celie confides that she had come to think of God as being a lot like her step-father and her husband and others who had abandoned and mistreated her. Why should she care about God? 

“You have to get man off your eyeball,” says Shug, “before you can see anything at all! Man corrupts everything. Man’s a lot of places – on your box of grits, in your head, on the radio, but as soon as you think man’s everywhere, you start to think that man is God. But man ain’t. God’s not like man at all. Man doesn’t care what you do or don’t see as long as you see man. God wants you to be able to see the color purple in a field and admire God for it.”

“Man on the eyeball” is the best way I’ve ever heard to sum up the predicament of human existence since our primal parents made the mistake of listening to a serpent. Adam and Eve were to tend the garden, and could eat from every tree save one. Of all the trees, there’s a prohibition against eating from just one. What a small thing it would seem, what easy conditions for a life of eternal blessedness and fellowship with the LORD. But the serpent, craftiest of all creatures, turns Adam and Eve away from trusting the faithful words of God. And they got “man on the eyeball.” “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew . . . and they knew.” In that one, small act of eating, their vision turned from God to themselves as the judge of what is right and wrong, and they got man on the eyeball – and the human race has had vision problems ever since.

“Man on the eyeball” was what Jesus’ testing in the wilderness was about. Satan was trying to get Jesus to shift His focus. Satan really is limited in creativity –and he has really only one weapon by which he does it. He wants us to have “man on the eyeball.”

But Jesus, saw clearly. Jesus is the truly faithful one, the one who could see things as they really are. That’s what Lent is about, seeing as God sees. Celie admits it’s hard work. “Man’s been there so long, he don’t want to budge!” she exclaims. So we take up disciplines – prayer, fasting, acts of mercy, meditation on the Word – tools by which the Spirit works in our lives, the lenses by which we move man off the eyeball so God might control our vision.
Philip Thompson, Sioux Falls Seminary, pthompson@sfseminary.edu

From Winter to Spring (Second Sunday of Lent)

Lent is a sensual season. It is a season that urges us to experience spiritually the renewal we will soon be experiencing in nature. Lent always begins in winter and leads us into spring. As our bodily senses rejoice again in warmth and growth, so our spiritual senses emerge from our wintry complacency and strive for rebirth.

Lenten readings bring us back to the desert, to the Mosaic covenant and its insistence that fidelity to that covenant demanded true worship of Yahweh, a worship which in turn demanded work for justice. We can learn the implications of this covenant most clearly by looking at the covenant renewal ceremony in Joshua 24. The ceremony takes place at Shechem, the site of Jacob’s altar. Joshua challenges the Israelites to choose between the pagan gods and Yahweh. He reviews the mighty acts of Yahweh on behalf of the people and closes with his declaration, “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

So what is the religion Joshua offers? It is a religion concerned with ethics, not fertility in the form of crops, animals, children, power, or money. Effort must be put into the ethics of social concern. In other words, the biblical value system is quite simple: people are more important than money or power. Religious duties are concerned with securing the neighbor, and that on a covenant-loyalty level. So the religion is a call out of polytheism into a religion for ethical purposes.

By the fourth and fifth centuries, during what has become known as the great period of the catechumenate, Lent was a period of instruction for new converts, a practice which echoed Joshua’s speech at Shechem. Cyril of Jerusalem’s Catechetical Lectures, delivered during the forty days of Lent, exemplify a primarily doctrinal catechesis, expounding on each phrase of the Nicene Creed. Baptism was administered on Easter, and the Mystagogical Catecheses, which were delivered during the week following Easter, explained the liturgical meaning of baptism, chrism, and Eucharist.

Today’s RCIA program reclaims this ancient tradition. The final steps toward baptism are taken during Lent, in the presence of the gathered community. The third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent are the settings for the three scrutinies, rituals aimed at self-searching and repentance, and meant to heal defects in the elect and to strengthen the good. At the Easter Vigil, the elect are baptized and receive communion for the first time as full and complete members of the community. Thus, new members of the Christian community can say, with Joshua, “as for me, I will follow the Lord.”

So Lent is indeed a sensual season. We begin our journey still immersed in winter and walk on to spring and Holy Week. Lent has riches to offer aplenty, if we approach it with sincere hearts, a desire for renewal, and a grasp of the true meaning of this yearly opportunity for reflection and rebirth.
Marie A. Conn, Chestnut Hill College, mconn@chc.edu

"Let all who thirst . . ." (Third Sunday of Lent)

“Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink.” The readings for the third week of Lent use water as their main metaphor. The grumbling group in the desert presses Moses to relieve their thirst. Jesus, parched, pauses at a village well. An angry woman draws her meager portion in the noonday sun. In an arid land particularly, fresh water is precious: a spring, a well, a surging river makes human life possible. We know that in third-world countries, even today, potable water is a serious moral concern. Even in America clean water sources are threatened.  Human beings need water to drink, to bathe, to survive. If I forget to water them, even my house plants droop and die.

The woman at the well is shunned by the village residents, likely because of her serial sexual activity.  “You are right,” says Jesus, “you have no husband. And the man you are living with....”  No wonder she visits the well in the heat of the day, when no reproachful eyes condemn her.  Jealously she holds close her clay vessel.  It is her survival kit.

Jesus asks for a drink. She does not oblige. She has the upper hand, as Jesus has no bucket to draw water himself. Jesus is not deterred. Rather he changes the subject and reverses their positions.  “I will give you living water.  I accept you as you are, ignore your rebuff, and offer you more than a drink.” The double entendre suggests baptism, of course, the sacrament of life, of forgiveness, of plenty. This conversation is shocking for the times. Jews and Samaritans, unrelated men and women--these groups did not intersect.  Nevertheless, this encounter changes the woman forever.  She no longer avoids her judgmental neighbors, but rushes to share the good news of salvation.  She becomes not only a member of the community but the leader, the disciplewho points them to Jesus.  Can you imagine how secure she must feel not only to confront her detractors but to relate this unbelievable story of her encounter?  Did you notice, she leaves her precious water jar at the well.  She doesn’t need it anymore.

We, too, clutch protective “jars,” full of our sins, hurts, fears. We, like the woman, believe we need them to survive. It is difficult to let them go. But what if we realize deeply that God loves us exactly as we are? To accept this reality, this gift, frees us not only to openness with others but to point them also to the embrace of God’s love. God’s unconditional love washes over us, allowing us to abandon our security blankets, hollow jars that separate us from interdependence and from our Baptismal mission of pouring God’s love over others.

Think about the refreshment we feel on a hot summer’s day with a cold drink, or perhaps more apt, a plunging dive into a frigid pool. One is tempted only to toe the water−it might be too cold and shocking.  Yet when we jump in all the way, much as Peter wanted to do in John’s last supper narrative, “Not just my feet, Lord, but my hands and head as well.” (Jn. 13), we feel refreshed and whole. We are free and buoyant.

In Lent we remember our sins, the dark places of shame and regret that we hold onto for fear that without them we are naked and impotent.  But Christ offers us, too, the living water of acceptance and cleansing. We, too, can discard our water jars.
Dee Christie, CTSA Executive Director (retired) , dlchristie@aol.com

"God, Seeing, and Leadership" (Fourth Sunday of Lenht - 1 Samuel 16:1-13:)

One of the perennial challenges for us humans is seeing. Our physical eyes often struggle. We usually need corrective lenses, and we have lousy eyesight in the dark. Even more challenging and more dangerous is our difficulty with seeing truth.

I had an acquaintance who used to simply point to the Bible and say, in essence, “Here’s the truth. It’s all right here. We just need to study his Word.” I appreciated that perspective, but seeing clearly is not that simple. Of course the Bible teaches that Christ is the truth. It is Christ who opens our eyes, but even so, it is still challenging to perceive that truth in the green pastures and dark valleys of our lives.
After all, if the truth is easy to see, then why is there so much disagreement within the Church? Gather three Christians, and you’ll have four opinions. Because of ignorance or willful defiance or honest mistakes, we Christians, even when we our trying our hardest to keep our eyes on Christ, end up being theologically and ethically myopic or even blind. Indeed, the Bible itself makes the point over and over that seeing clearly is often brutally challenging.

Consider, for instance, 1 Samuel 16:1-13, which addresses seeing and leadership. Samuel originally thinks Eliab is to be the next king because of his impressive appearance, but God indicates that God sees differently from how people see because God looks into the heart. Eventually, God selects David. Granted, David is also impressive to look at. It’s not that David is the ugly duckling with the beautiful heart. He is handsome, but what matters is that he has the right character.

Similarly, many people look appealing. This person is a persuasive speaker. That person is good looking and has lots of charisma. So-and-so is adept at talking tough and thus making us feel safe. What matters, though, is the person’s character and how well it aligns with God, especially with the love that God shows us and calls for us to show others. Love, after all, is at the heart of the two greatest commandments and the new commandment of John 13. It is easy for us in the Church to yank some verse out of context and wave it around as proof that we should follow this or that charismatic, attractive, tough-talking person even though such a person does not embody the central theme of the Bible: God’s love for us, and the love we are to have for God and one another. When we understand the Bible as a whole, we understand the centrality of love.

One of our callings during Lent is to relearn what we easily unlearn: that God is primarily about love, which includes loving service to others. The true leader is the one who does that. Seeing clearly means seeing that love and how to share it with others. True seeing means that, when someone is need—anyone—we are called to do something to help. We cannot turn a blind eye to someone’s suffering simply because helping that person makes us uncomfortable or is difficult.

What leaders reflect this love? How do you reflect that love? Are your eyes focused on the divine love and on radiating that love to a benighted, stumbling world?
David VonSchlichten, SetonHill University, vonschlichten@setonhill.edu

"Untie him..." (Fifth Sunday of Lent)

“Untie him and let him go free!”  This command of Jesus to the bystanders, fully amazed as Lazarus came out of the tomb, have echoed deep within for a number of years.  They speak to me again this year as I reflect on the Fifth Sunday of Lent.

For some years these words became part of my prayer around experiences of death.  When death shrouded young people, the prayer had a tragic ring. Young people dying of drug abuse, depression, or tragedy evoked a prayer in me that they would now find peace.  As older people lay suffering and waiting for the call to “come home” the words formed a prayer of petition grounded in hope.

Yet, Jesus addressed the bystanders.  While perhaps noble to think of eternity’s freedom, Jesus gave his command in the present moment.  On the Third and Fourth Sundays of this springtime of grace, I have been struck with the freedom that Jesus offers.

I believe it was Michael Simone, SJ, who authored “The Word” in America for the story of the Samaritan Woman.  My previous reflections on the text drew me to focus on Jesus and the many boundaries he crosses.  A Jew speaks to a Samaritan; a rabbi speaks to a woman; Jesus seeks to share life-giving water; and the teacher will not be put off by the woman’s reputation.  The article on America redirected my thoughts.  My focus became the woman.  The cultural reality suggests the possibility that she had been sold by her father to one man, who later sold her to another, and so on.  For the first time I realized the text makes no mention of sin, repentance, or forgiveness.  We have a rather bold and courageous woman who refuses to be defined by the cruel reality that life dealt her.  Jesus’ acceptance of her story – “he told me everything I’ve ever done!” – allows her courageous freedom to break forth.

The Fourth Sunday’s blind man navigates religious and cultural expectations in a similar way.  While the disciples, and the Pharisees, attempt to define the situation in terms of sin – the blindness a punishment; the Sabbath healing an indication that Jesus is not from God – the blind man stays open to Jesus coming to see more and more.  The blind man stands free of narrow categories that tend to limit divine action.  He is free for God!

“Untie him and let him go free” comes as a consequence of Martha’s request to Jesus.  For several years I have been struck by the freedom of her prayer.  “Lord, if you had been here my brother would never have died.  Yet, even now, I am sure whatever you ask of God, God will give you.”  The whatever expresses for me Martha’s courage, boldness of faith, and genuine openness to Jesus.  She indicates perhaps a disappointment, dare one say a mild rebuke, suggesting that Jesus could have prevented Lazarus from dying.  But, her whatever also suggests that Martha has moved beyond her own agenda in her request to Jesus.  She is free for God’s will.

So many things hold us bound – addictions, physical limitations, cultural stereotypes and other people’s expectations.  So many things hold us bound  - the sins of others and our own sin.  So many things hold us bound – our fears, anger, disappointments, hurts…  

I find powerful models in the Samaritan woman, the blind man, and Martha.  I need not define myself by the circumstances of life.  Knowing that the Holy One knows “everything I’ve ever done,” I can accept my own story and define myself from the springs of life that well up within.  The blind man invites me to keep my eyes open to the marvelous workings of God in people and places unexpected.  And, Martha teaches me to echo Jesus’ prayer, “not my will, but may your will be done.”  Untied from other people’s narrow expectations and the limited perspective of my own little world, I am free.
Francis Berna, La Salle University, berna@lasalle.edu

A Journey of Unity and Restoration in God (Palm Sunday, Passion according to Matthew)

A few years ago, while participating in a colloquium organized by the Jesuits of East Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, I met Haregewoin Cherinet, a female theologian of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, who wrote a book titled Women and Donkeys in Ethiopia. Gender and Christian Perspective. In it she traced the mention of donkeys throughout the entire scriptures and how its role in the salvific history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus from infancy through death is recorded. Prompted by the use of donkey as euphemism for the subservient role of women in the Ethiopian culture, she aimed to show how women are indispensable partners in the salvific plan of God for all of creation. Interestingly, on the other hand, in most cultures, the horse connotes a sense of valor; one that is most often ascribed to men. Paintings and stories abound depicting a knight riding gallantly on the back of a horse with pride.

In today’s first reading leading to the procession with palm branches, Jesus asks his disciples to go and fetch him both a young male horse and a donkey that he intends to ride on his way into Jerusalem. Quite a strange image comes to mind when one reflects on the story. Was Jesus using them interchangeably or simultaneously?  I leave my curiosity for another day. For now, let me reflect on the theological insights I have deduced from the story. Phyllis Trible, a feminist biblical scholar, has called attention to the patriarchal consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve. In human history, patriarchy has always been defended by an appeal to religion, culture, reason, and science. It is a sin that has held all humans captives, both the victims and beneficiaries.

At the heart of the ministry of Jesus is his mission to restore all things to God. Jesus’ conscious choice to ride on a donkey and a horse symbolically reflects a reordering of human relations where the evils of patriarchy are rejected and the complimentary dignity of maleness and femaleness is affirmed. The male horse and female donkey are equal participants in the salvific journey. They become the bearers of the glory of Jesus Christ to the world. Reading the text closely, one also notices that the journey of salvation symbolically embarked upon by Jesus involves ecological elements as well. All of creation participates in the restorative journey of salvation in Christ.

In today’s world, where narratives of hate, racism, classism, tribalism, nationalism, sexism, consumerism, greed, endless and senseless wars, religious and theological claims are embraced and used to exclude people as well as destroy the beauty of creation, the gathering of all creation and participation in the journey of salvation with Jesus serve as a prophetic witness for us all to emulate. As we begin this sacred week that culminates in the anamnetic participation in the paschal celebration, let us consciously become God’s agents that bring forth a new vision for our world.
SimonMary Aihiokhai, University of Portland, aihiokhais@yahoo.co.uk

“I Am the Resurrection and the Life”

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday of Lent is the story of the raising of Lazarus (John 11:1-45). It contains a challenge I can no longer dodge: “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?” As I read this passage during prayer early that Sunday morning, Jesus demanded an answer from me.  It could not be Martha’s response; it had to be my answer.

I have sometimes remarked that the hardest part of the faith for me to believe is that I will live after my death. Then I would put it back in its box, retie the ribbon, and up it went into the attic of my concern. Not this time. It wasn’t something I could conjecture about or delay, not with Jesus standing in front of me asking kindly but firmly, DO YOU BELIEVE THIS?

   I couldn’t answer. Feeling a bit like the rich young man, I went off into a meditation on faith, what it is, what it encompasses. How strange that I could believe in the incarnation, the biblical narrative of Jesus’ life, passion, death and resurrection, but hesitate that his rising includes mine as well.

     Where does one go when one’s faith is challenged? I went into my head, but that’s the least helpful place to go since reasoning can lay some sort of foundation but it can’t leap out of itself and into belief.

       Faith, hope, charity, the three-fold gift of the Triune God. In this life they are inseparable. They are given at baptism. They grow as we grow, by being exercised in prayer, sacraments, and in the daily exchanges of life in our faith communities and in the work we do for others in our classrooms, among our neighbors, in visits to a hospital or Catholic Worker House.

       Faith can’t be picky. One believes God, God’s Word, God’s Love and the revelation of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So my answer has to be, “Yes, Lord. I believe that you are the resurrection and the life and that even if I die, I will live, and because I believe in you, I will never die.”

       Suddenly, a life-time of theological study is reduced to the simple prayer, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief.” The gift is given whole, not piecemeal. But as with anything living, it grows secretly together with hope and love. But it needs to be asked for, humbly, trustingly, as a child asks a parent for a hug or a glass of water.

       Can it be that trust is the mother of faith? Martha’s answer is her whole response and mine: “I believe that Lazarus, that Mary, that Martha, that I will live even though we die because I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.”
Jill Raitt, University of Missouri, raittj@missouri.edu