Lent Reflections 2018

February 18: Francis Berna - Feruary 25: David VonSchlichten - March 4: Philip Thompson - March 11: SimonMary Aihiokhai - March 18: Dan Finucane - March 25: Jill Raitt.


Palm Sunday

"Why Palms?”

Why Palms? Among the many rich symbols that Christians use sacramentally is the palm frond. Why? What made it appropriate for Jews to gather and to wave and strew in front of the donkey on which Jesus sat as he entered Jerusalem a week before the celebration of Passover? What makes it apt for blessing on Palm Sunday and display in homes thereafter?

Carvings of the graceful palm were part of the decorations in Solomon’s temple (I Kings 6:29) and appeared as well in the plan of Ezekiel's Temple (Ezek. xl.) The palm is an ancient sign of victory used in Greece as an attribute of the Nike, the Goddess of Victory. It passed to ancient Rome and even today. For instance, the Latin phrase, Palmam qui meruit ferat, "Let the one bear the palm who has deserved it” is the motto of the University of Southern California. Strewing branches and flowers along the path to welcome a hero or royalty or today, a newly wedded couple, is also an ancient custom.

The struggle and victory over death of Christian martyrs is represented by the palm: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands” Revelations 7:9).

The manner in which Jesus entered Jerusalem fulfilled the prophecy of Zecariah (9:9), “See, your king comes to you, righteous and victorious, lowly and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” So although the people shouted their joy at his coming, their hope that he would free them from the yoke of the Roman Empire was foremost in their minds. Their celebration looked for the son of David to lead them to freedom in a restored kingdom. But the Sadducees and especially the Chief Priest and the members of the Sanhedrin were alarmed and more determined than ever to do away with this man who was so dangerous to their relation with Rome upon which they and the people depended to maintain a fragile peace.

So the joy and hope of the Palm Sunday crowds shouting Hosannah to the Son of David would, within the week, turn to grief and the mocking of the crucified man from Nazareth of Galilee. Jesus knew that, and had even spoken of it just the night before in Bethany, in the home of his friends, Lazareth, Martha, and Mary. When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with “costly perfumed oil made from genuine aromatic nard,” (John 12:3) Jesus foretold that the anointing was for the day of his burial.

Palm Sunday begins with “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, [even] the king of Israel.” John 12: 13. It ends with the reading of the Passion according to Mark and the horrifying, shameful death of Jesus on the cross, the most cruel means of execution in the Roman Empire. It ends with the rolling of the stone to close the tomb where the body of Jesus lies. We have begun Holy Week.
Jill Raitt, raittj@missouri.edu
University of Missouri-Columbia


Fifth week of Lent (Jn 12:20-33)

"What Did They Hear?”

John’s Gospel recounts poignantly that Jesus will be glorified once he has been lifted up – once he has suffered. Knowing this troubled Jesus. A voice from heaven said he would be glorified. But he was troubled by the voice. He was troubled for his disciples’ sakes. “This voice has been given for you, not for me.” What did they hear? Some who heard it thought it was thunder. Some thought it was an angel. But the voice, Jesus says, is for us.

Jeremiah knew that a new covenant would come. The law would be put inside us; all of us, the least to the greatest. Those who hear angels and those who hear thunder can hear the voice when they hear that they are forgiven. God forgives – God will not even remember our sins. We remember them. Should we? Should we dwell on the sins? God won’t hear of it. Jesus became the source of salvation for those who obey him (Heb 5:9). (It is worth recalling obey comes from the Latin, oboedire, to hear.)

Where are we going to hear the Voice?

It is no secret that we live in a cacophony. Jesus speaks for us when he says, “Now my soul is troubled.” Just sorting out the voices is deeply troubling.

For some time I have been retelling a story from one of my mentors. After finishing his doctorate in Rome, Ed spent a year doing post-doc work in a mental hospital where criminal offenders were incarcerated. (He told me the actual place was used as the set for making the movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”) With the staff psychiatrist, Ed sat in on group sessions. Those in the group talked about what they had done and tried to sort through why they had done it. Ed described a conversation with the physician after one session. “Some of these fellows hear voices. The founder of my religious order heard voices. How do we know, when someone hears voices, whether to lock them up or to call them a saint?”

The psychiatrist responded, “It depends what the voices tell them.” “If they hear that they should hurt or kill someone, and they obey the voice, we lock them up. If they are told to sell everything they have and give the money to the poor, and they do that, we call them a saint.” So what should we do in the middle of the cacophony? It depends what the voices tell us. It might be hard to hear. It might be hard to take. But we have written in our hearts the assurance that Someone who recognizes the Voice, and knows us, even more than we know ourselves — Someone recognizes us and enters inside of us. Our hearts are rebuilt to hear the covenant. We are not alone.

Jesus tell us that we will become something new; “believe in the light, so that you may become children of light.”

God does not save us from this hour. God saves us in this hour.
Dan Finucane, finucane@slu.edu
Saint Louis University


Fourth week of Lent (Jn 3:14-21)

"God's Mercy is a Person"

On November 20th, 2016, Pope Francis concluded the Jubilee Year of “Socially Excluded People” by gifting the Roman Catholic world, may I say, while being ecumenically conscious, the Christian world, with his apostolic letter, Misericordia et Misera. In it, he sheds light on the centrality of mercy as the face, source, and calling of the church and all followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, he speaks of mercy not in abstract terms or as mere propositional claims but as a concrete reality. He gives mercy a relational face, that of Jesus Christ. By making mercy concrete, incarnational, and relational, it becomes an unavoidable marker of the Christian life. Mercy is God’s own way of entering into our world, our societies, churches, institutions, and individual lives.

Pope Francis does something beautiful by intentionally showing the link between forgiveness and love as the innate components of mercy. In other words, mercy is possible because of the enduring love God has for creation. As one reads closely the readings of today’s liturgy, one sees this intricate link between forgiveness and love as expressed in the reading from 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23. The focus of the reading is not to sadistically recount how God punishes the Israelites for their infidelity; rather, it points to the breadth of God’s mercy that extends to God’s people and to the land. The land that is supposed to be the source of life for the people has experienced an ecological crisis because Israel, in its infidelity, has neglected the Sabbath rest. God’s mercy extends to all without exception. It has a cosmic effect.

The second reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians speaks to divine mercy. Paul draws from and makes concrete his vision of divine mercy as understood in the historical consciousness of Israel as he invites the culturally pluralistic church at Ephesus to embrace a more inclusive identity in Christ. Divine mercy, if it can be extended to the land, it also can be extended to those who are culturally different. Divine mercy cannot be privatized or given social capital in such a way that rigid borders are erected and conditions are given for who receives it and who does not. Paul’s sense of church is a place where all are welcome and all understand that ecclesial identity is itself a gift that comes from God.

Both the Gospel Acclamation and the Gospel reading for today are taken from the Johannine Gospel and speak concretely to whom and what divine mercy is like. God’s mercy is God made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. There is a praxis element to this gift of divine mercy in the world. God has become one with creation in order to infuse abundant life into creation.

I am particularly interested in the Responsorial psalm for today’s Eucharistic celebration. It speaks of the sad memories of Israelite captivity in Babylon. However sad such memories may come across, in them one finds glimmers of hope. They speak of the possibility for a new relationship to be enacted between Israel and God. Recognizing their infidelity to God, God’s refusal to give up on them even while they experienced the consequences of their infidelity, their hope in a God who never disappoints led them to renew their covenantal relationship with God. Israel promises to never again forget the expectations of the relationship it has with God.

Why the focus on mercy on this fourth Sunday of Lent? This is a time of serious reflection for the entire church as it journeys with and welcomes the catechumens who seek to enter into the community of believers in Christ. A two-fold reflection is occurring during this sacred time in the church, the church is invited to reflect on what it is and how it has attained its identity, while also inviting the catechumens to reflect on their intentions and the nature of the community they are seeking to join. Just as God’s mercy over Israel extends to the land, just as Paul’s vision for the church includes the Gentiles as well, the church of today ought to also be a church that includes everyone.

As we continue the Scrutinies of the catechumens and ourselves who are already members of the church, may I humbly invite us to ask ourselves some concrete questions, how inclusive is our vision of church? Does it only include those who embrace the same theological vision and language as we do? Why do our churches suffer from the same social sins as the societies they are located in? What new visions can we birth forth to make our churches fully inclusive? In our times, we are faced with the challenges of pointing fingers at those who disagree with us. We sometimes are quick to judge others and question their commitment to the Christian faith. The gospel reading reminds us of how God became part of creation because of God’s enduring love for creation. May I further this insight briefly; where do we find God fully present to us in our world today? I guess this might be an important question the catechumens may be asking themselves. Can God be found in persons, places, societies, institutions that we have judged to be sinful? I want to believe that the response is yes. There is wisdom in the ancient adage, “where there is sin, grace abounds the most” (Ubi peccata ibi gratias est). In the adulteress woman, that Pope Francis focuses his apostolic letter, Misericordia et Misera, on, Jesus saw the dignity of a woman whose voice and existential claims have been silenced by the social, political, cultural, and religious structures of patriarchy. Jesus meets her in her distress and in her so called ‘sinfulness.’ While encountering her there, Jesus journeys with her by first giving her back her voice and validating her existential claims. Can we say we are doing this as church today? What have been our ecclesial responses to the recommendations of Pope Francis on welcoming divorced and remarried Roman Catholics to the sacramental life of the church? How do the churches still view each other in light of the breadth of our doctrinal teachings? Where are the voices of women in the ministerial and sacramental life of our churches; particularly in churches that still have a restrictive theological vision baring women from ordained ministry? How serious do our theologies and ecclesial praxes reflect our commitment to diversity and inclusion and the demands of social justice?

May I conclude this short reflection by inviting us to embrace the gift of mercy. We have been given a gift that we can never deserve in our own rights. What we have received let us also share with the world freely. As we scrutinize the intentions of those who seek to become part of the church, let us who are already members of the church scrutinize our current intentions for remaining within this holy and sinful body. If God’s mercy is a person, it is always encountered via the faces of the ugly. To see the beautiful in the ugly calls for a new way of seeing, one that does not judge. Blessings to you all.
SimonMary Aihiokhai , aihiokhais@yahoo.co.uk
Universityof Portland

Third week of Lent

"True and Righteous Altogether"

W. Sibley Towner, one of my professors at Union Theological Seminary (Virginia), has penned a prayer that begins: O God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – for generations now,
Our ancestors in the faith have searched for your word in the Words of the Torah:
Some squinting in the dim light of flickering lamps in the Judean caves;
Some standing in the cold of stone monasteries before books chained to their desks;
Some peering through thick lenses as they rocked and read before their ghetto shops;
Some in furtive glances at the book hidden above the bunk at Auschwitz . . .
(W. Sibley Towner, Prayers That Sing and Stir the Heart, CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2018, p. 14)

Indeed, for centuries and millennia, God’s people have searched and learned, suffered much from, and suffered much for, argued with, and argued over the Law, the Torah. It revives and rejoices, enlightens and is to be desired, we are told by the Psalmist. Jesus said not the smallest bit would pass away from it until the fulfillment of all things.

While we prepare for the great disclosure of the fulfillment of all things in Jesus’ death and resurrection, we train ourselves to see what this fulfillment will be by our pondering of Torah. Lent is particularly a time for Torah, perhaps better understood as “guidance,” as “direction,” than much maligned “Law.” Lord, we need it. No less than ever, we need it.

In the west we make a fetish of freedom. In the U.S., on the political right and left alike, we seem to raise fetish to art form. We turn the precious gospel into what Bonhoeffer called “cheap grace.” The third Sunday in Lent ushers us into a period when we focus on our tendency to cheapen and degrade, even the cross, even the Temple.

The Torah was given to enslaved people newly freed. It is the shape of true freedom, freedom to love well and take proper delight in what has been given. It is the great declaration of God’s humanism, a vision of true human life, outside of which life is not fully human. It comes now to people enslaved by freedom, as a call to prayer, to struggle, to tears. A contemporary rabbi has said that at times her tears are her contribution to the text of Torah. May we be blessed so to struggle.

“Sib” Towner concludes his prayer:

O God, it is our turn now. Keep us faithful, we pray, to so great a heritage.
In the name of our Rabbi and Friend, Jesus of Nazareth.

Philip E. Thompson, pthompson@sfseminary.edu
Sioux Falls Seminary, Sioux Falls, SD


Second week of Lent (Mk:9:2-10)

"The Transfiguration-Crucifixion Juxtaposition"

            When we think of the term “mountaintop experience,” we tend to think of an intense encounter, usually of the divine, that reveals the truth to the individual undergoing that numinous moment. The Transfiguration is definitely such a moment in that it reveals God’s effulgent splendor and highlights Christ’s power and authority. Many of us wish we could have an experience like that in part because we think it would grant us certainty, clarity, about Christ.

            Such moments may offer us a glimpse of God’s radiant power, but they do not dispel questions and doubts. Peter, James, and John do not emerge from the Transfiguration with complete certitude about Christ. Mark’s gospel teaches that, for one to truly understand Jesus as Son of God, one must witness Jesus on another mount, surrounded by two other men. It is then that, for the first time in Mark, a non-possessed person declares that Jesus is the Son of God (15:39). Mountaintop experiences may provide illumination, but they also raise questions, and, in the case of Jesus, need to be understood in the dark glow of the cross-shadow.

            Indeed, Jesus does not remain on the mountaintop, and neither can we. Peter is probably well-intentioned when he suggests building three tents, but those shelters are not needed. Soon Jesus is leading Peter, James, and John down the mountain and back to the work that he has come to do. In fact, shortly after the Transfiguration, Jesus drives out a demon and then predicts his suffering and death for the second of three times in Mark’s gospel. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac, God is willing to offer the Son to die and rise for us. At the heart of it all is Christ in the midst of the pain and misery and darkness of the human experience.

            What good news for us all during these often bleak times. As we Americans struggle to find healing and renewal in response to one horrifying shooting after another, it is tempting for us to surrender helplessness. Yet God is present in the acts of heroism and in the angry voices of teenagers demanding change. God suffers with all the bereaved. And in various ways, including through us, God can effect a transfiguration toward a nation in which shootings are in the distant past, never forgotten but brought to an end.

            The Transfiguration juxtaposed with the crucifixion teaches us through the forty days and beyond that God shines glory upon us but saves us primarily through embracing death to transform it into life. Jesus Christ is God suffering with us and for us and then leading us beyond the suffering to empty-tomb joy. Because of Christ, we shall walk in the land of the living.

            Meditate this week on how the Transfigured One brings light to us when we are huddled in the dark. Let us think about how you and I can reflect that light for others huddled in their darkness, confident that God continues to fortify us through Scripture, Tradition, the Church, and the Sacraments, especially the Body and Blood.

           Christ is on the mountain. Christ is on the cross. Christ is with us.
                  And if Christ is for us, who can be against us?
David von Schlichten, vonschlichten@setonhill.edu
Seton Hill University


First week of Lent (Mk 1: 12-15)

“Through the Waters”

Philip Yancey’s chapter, “Temptation: Showdown in the Desert” (The Jesus I Never Knew) came to mind as a good starting point for this reflection.  He proposes that the real temptations challenged Jesus to act in ways in which God does not act – the power of miracle, mystery, and authority.  However, the reading from the First Letter of Peter took me in a different direction.

   Noah escaped in the ark through the water.  “You are now saved by a baptismal bath which corresponds to this exactly” (I Peter 3:21).  This verse reminded me in a powerful way that the season of Lent’s first purpose lies in preparation for Baptism.  The catechumens prepare to pass through the baptismal waters, and the whole church prepares to be renewed in the grace of baptismal commitment, “an irreproachable conscience.”

The New Jerome Biblical Commentary explains this conscience not as an individual manner of decision, but as “an objective disposition or attitude.”  This, I understand to be, a way of life.  As the catechumens are washed and sealed with the gift of the Spirit, the whole church stands in awe and wonder at the outpouring of God’s saving love.  The celebration of Baptism at the Easter Vigil, and the renewal of baptismal promises on Easter morning, reminds each Christian of their dignity and call to holiness of life.

While sometimes still too often forgotten, the Second Vatican Council reclaimed the perspective of the early Church that holiness of life has its foundation in Baptism, not religious consecration or ordination.  The waters of Baptism call the believer to an objective disposition, an attitude, of holiness each one in relationship to their particular way of life.

This past weekend I joined a team in offering the Retrouvaille program.  This program seeks to help married people who are struggling to maintain their commitment.  Once again I witnessed the power of God’s presence as couples worked hard to reclaim a love they once knew.  Once again I witnessed the grace of conversion.  One participant on Friday evening asserted his belief that the weekend would be a waste of time.  By Sunday afternoon, he really wanted to work on his marriage.  Besides teaching better communication skills, several talks on the weekend remind couples of the grace and holiness of Christian marriage, a holiness rooted in Baptism.  Other themes of the weekend center on forgiveness, compassion, and love.

Now we can return to Yancey.  Inspired by Dostoevsky, Yancey writes that “Satan has the power to coerce, to dazzle, to force obedience, to destroy” (p. 76).  He further claims, “God’s power, in contrast, is internal and noncoercive” (p. 76).  The Jesus I Never Knew calls into question our penchant for quick-fix and short term solutions.  The Retrouvaille couples know that their love will demand hard work.  Philip Yancey, echoing the Gospel, calls into question the nature of true power, how God ultimately acts.

Gospel stories of the ministry of Jesus make clear that the ultimate power of the Holy One is love.  God acts by way of compassion, mercy, healing, forgiveness, and generosity of spirit.  In the coming Sundays we will hear of the glory which is ours, the call to authentic religion, the healing power of faith, the promise of new life, and a love for us that death cannot destroy.  Entering this new spring time of grace, let us stand in awe of the dignity that is ours, and let us be renewed in our way of life.
Francis Berna, berna@lasalle.edu
La Salle University