Embarking on the Lenten Journey
by David N. Power, OMI
It is well known that the first four days of Lent were added to the season at a relatively late date, when people were accustomed to enter the order of penitents at that time and when pastors and people were preoccupied about computing an exact forty days of fast. Even then, the Church announces these forty days as a joyous period, as a time in which the Church grows in its communion with Christ in his incarnate mystery, especially through the hearing of the Word and through the contemplation of this mystery, through a penance that heals the wounds of sin and a broken covenant, and through deeds done in the service of the neighbour.
It is the first two Sundays of the season that draw us into this truth, to the moment when Jesus himself started out on his journey to Jerusalem, and to his manifestation even in the anticipation of his suffering as the Son of God whom we are to hear and in whom all are to be transfigured. As Paul puts it, “As you have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith…abounding in thanksgiving.” (Col 2, 6-7). In turn in Galatians, Paul presents Jesus in the lineage of Abraham, the exemplar of faith, faith being fidelity, obedience and trust in the covenant, in face of suffering and loss. Jesus took on human nature at its lowest ebb as far as the world is concerned, a nothing needing God, surrounded by God, open to God, filled with God, and so for us a wonder, a miracle, a revelation. And he walked this earth in faith, day by day meeting whomsoever crossed his path, eyes and ears open to the images and sounds of nature, heart touched and even weighed down by the misery of people around him, angered by the senselessness of those who wished to justify themselves by works, amazed and delighted by the faith of those who are poor of spirit and who seek justice from God.
We cannot hear the Gospel of the Forty Days in the desert, and start on the journey to the Pasch, without seeing how it is Jesus’s Baptism, the mandate of the Father and the urge of the Spirit that drive him into the desert. While Matthew tells the story of the baptism as a theophany, in line with his story of the coming of the Magi to Bethlehem, Mark tells it as a story of what happens between Jesus and the Father. It is he who sees the heavens opened and the dove, he who hears the voice declaring him Son and well-beloved. It is a moment when Jesus knows his own mission in his own being the beloved. He heard John and praised him, but in his own heart he found a God more devout and tender and caring.
The Gospels say that upon his anointing by the Spirit, Jesus was driven out into the wilderness. The sense of God and God’s kingdom which had been given to him were so amazing, so initially preposterous from a Jewish perspective, that a period of retreat into the desert was necessary. He quite literally had to wrestle with this truth, a matter that is nicely if briefly put by Mark who says that he spent his time there among wild beasts and was ministered to by angels. This is a contrast story, one that contrasts with the story of the first man, Adam, in the garden of Eden, where God has walked in the cool of the evening, where humans and animals lived in harmony, sin introduces disorder, conflict. In the wilderness Jesus restores the peaceable kingdom (Isaiah), he is with the wild animals, the angels who blocked the way to the sinner Adam now minister to Jesus, the new Adam. To be baptized is to go out into the wilderness with Jesus, to be his witnesses.
The other Synoptics describe his discernment of law and covenant in more elaborate terms. What is it to live only by God’s Word, with fidelity matching fidelity? What is it to reject the power of domination and possession and to know no power other than that of service to the kingdom and the proclamation of this Word? What is it to work within the temporal serving the priority of the spiritual and yet healing the temporal, the badly “tempered”? What is the true nature of trusting the Father’s fidelity in the midst of tribulation and to do his will in service of the kingdom. Surely we all know something of the devastating but thrilling nature of such questions. As Paul puts it in Romans 8, the liberating power of God’s love and divine sonship drives out fear, it gives an inner dynamism, it teaches to pray from within a deep desire for God and his rule, it gives strength in adversity, it makes us disciples of others before being teachers. It frees from the Sabbath, for the true Sabbath, as with Jesus himself and his companions. It breeds true compassion, since it is God’s own. The first test of a vocation to any particular way of life or of service is the test of being Christians, of the depth at which one lives the mystery of being called and being in truth a child of God in and with Jesus Christ. To let one’s life be enlightened and rendered joyful in this divine love and divine choice shown in baptism and in all subsequent actions in the course of life.
After teaching of the gospel of the kingdom, Jesus shows himself as one who does works of compassion (healing, feeding, stilling the tempest) and begins to ask for faith in himself as the one in whom the kingdom comes. Peter after his timorous encounter with Jesus on the lake, comes to profess him as the Son of Man, the Son of the living God. But he does not yet accept the passion, the crucified Messiah and is dismissed by Jesus as Satan (Matt). In Luke, they have been told of the death before Tabor, but remain silent after Tabor because they do not yet understand or accept this necessity.
Jesus brings Simon Peter (the one who has just been called both Peter and Satan), James and John (the two who wanted first place in the kingdom) with him to Tabor, where his glory as Son of God appears but where it is made clear that this glory is to be shown to his disciples in his passion and on the Cross. Jesus appears along with Moses and Elijah, the mediator of the covenant and the prophet of the Law. But he is talking about his passion and death, what he must undergo in Jerusalem, or his exodus in Jerusalem, his transition across the sea of suffering and death to the glory of the Father.
Glory, in John’s Gospel, is revealed “when he is lifted up”, on the cross, in the perfect communion of the Son with the Father in giving up life, for the life of the world. Why do the glory and the passion converge? It is then that the perfect union of love between the Father and himself is to be made manifest, in his obedience unto death. The point of the story of the transfiguration is not simply to strengthen the faith of his disciples in face of his passion/weakness by the hope of the resurrection, but it is to bring them to that faith, faith in a Christ who is to be handed over, who in this will truly reveal himself in the glory of the Son of God, whose glory as this is stated in John’s Gospel is made manifest on the Cross.
Even now, as Matthew makes clear in the story of judgment, Christ is to be encountered in the crucified of this world, in those who suffer, even when they suffer on account of their own faults, and participation in his glory is to share in the cross exacted by attention to those who suffer — and indeed on the other side to those who reject God or the Law of the Gospel. The orientation of Jesus’ mission has been set by the trial in the wilderness: to live by God’s Word in the midst of everything else, even quest for a restored order; to serve and not to seek domination, service in love being the sign of the kingdom; to trust God even in the middle of trials, that he is present in the middle of trials even when they endure, for God remains ever faithful to his covenant.
The passion of Jesus, to be read on the 5th Sunday of Lent as a story of kenosis (Phil 2:6-11), is anticipated in the Gospels of the Forty Days and of the Transfiguration. The horror and the pity are not lifted, but in faith the Church is enabled to enter this passion as the time when the glory of the Son is made known in his loving obedience to the Father, a love which embraces God and the world into which he has been sent and to which he is revealed.
These two Gospel readings of Sunday one and two, give the Church the meaning of the Lenten preparation for the Paschal Triduum. They are first the start of the meditation on the mystery of Jesus Christ whom the Father has given to the world, and the sketch of the path which believers may travel through these forty days to enter into fuller communion with him. Though saddened by sin and invited to compassion with Jesus’s suffering, the Church finds joy in these days because this is the story of the renewal of creation through the obedience of Christ to the Father’s will, and for the Church it is a journey into the fullness of the resurrection.
The OT Readings
By Fr. David Power, OMI
The OT readings of the Lenten season provide a sequence worth reading on its own, for it is the story of God’s fidelity to a world fallen from grace.
The reading from the Book of Genesis on the first Sunday is poignant. It brings from the hearer from the beauty and peace of the Garden where the couple dwell to the desolate wilderness into which they are cast by their sin. They have been given much but desire more, they want dominance in their own lives and over the earth which is a frustration of the gifts of life and friendship with which God has created them and for which they and their offspring were destined in the bounteous act of creation. They now dwell in a wilderness, in a world whose beauty is veiled, in which strife is the way to earn a living and pass on something to their children. Not only humanity’s relation is destroyed, but also the friendship and peace in which humans were intended to live together.
The story however concludes with a promise of salvation and of life. God is to remain with then in their travail, he is to be an abiding presence, in the woman’s offspring he will renew the original assurance of creation as God’s own image and likeness. The story is a ready preparation for the Gospel that recounts Jesus’ own sojourn in the wilderness where he is to wrestle with and overcome evil and the power of death. It is nicely complemented by the Pauline passage which contrasts the two Adams, the first and the second.
The congregation is left with the query as to how this promise and its fulfilment is to become history, is to turn a history of destruction and strife into one of divine fidelity and grace. The OT reading gives the answer in the person of Abraham and in the call for him, his wife, his retinue, to leave their own land and go where God calls them and where he will abide with them in rich pastures. Abraham is a promise personified, he is the father of all those who turn to God in faith, from whatever people or religion. The story may continue to work itself out in a particular way in the people of Israel, the children of the free woman, but it is a promise made to all and in the fullness of time this will be made manifest.
The narrative is complemented by Paul’s proclamation of the life and the grace given to the whole world in Jesus Christ. Narrative and proclamation lead readily into the Gospel account of the transfiguration, when Jesus is manifested as the Son whom the Father has sent and whose voice is to be heard and obeyed. He is the radiant light of God that overcomes darkness, the voice that speaks of peace.
The OT reading of the third Sunday brings the congregation out into the wilderness with the people of Israel, into that barren terrain through which they have to journey to get to the land of promise. They obeyed the summons given to them through Moses but not enduring their hardship well, they have become rebellious. They are stiff-necked and hard of heart and they cry out bitterly, protesting their lot. But they are God’ people, God’s chosen ones and he does not abandon them. He remains faithful and in the desert gives them to drink from the rock. Drink in the desert, with the people in their affliction, in their 40 years of wandering in search of the promise.
The Pauline proclamation which complements this narrative is that of Jesus who gave his life for godless humanity. The God who was faithful and who remained with his people in the wilderness despite their sin, is faithful in Christ, who through taking on human sin becomes an abiding and life-giving presence in the world. With these two readings, the assembly is prepared for the announcement that Jesus is the living water for the refreshment of sinners, as this is built into the story of the Samaritan woman.
On the first Sunday the Church listens to the story of the choice of David as King over God’s people. God is present among the people according to the realities of human affairs, in a way that puts the covenant into a new phase of historical development. Since he is God’s elect, David though king is to be a shepherd, one who keeps watch over the people, guiding them in the way of God’s law and in the light of divine promises. The complementary Pauline reading proclaims Christ as the light in which believers walk, and from other passages in John’s Gospel we know how he is made known as the Good Shepherd. By these two texts, the Lenten assembly is prepared to hear the narrative of the blind man restored to the light of day and of his conversion to faith in Christ as the light of the world, the Son of God and Son of Man.
On the fifth Sunday we learn from Ezechiel where the promises are to lead. The graves are to be opened, the people made new, the dead restored to life. The spirit promised by Ezechiel is announced by Paul as God’s own life-giving Spirit who raises humankind from the death of sin, who makes even mortal bodies the dwelling place of God. How what is promised in these texts is to be brought to its fullness is heard in the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus and the announcement of Jesus as the Resurrection and the Life.
In these OT readings the elect are taught of the wonder of creation and then of God’s fidelity to the world and to his chosen people in particular, even in the midst of sin. Marvelling at such a story of God’s fidelity and promise, they are the better prepared to perfect their faith in Jesus Christ and in his life-giving Spirit. They can scrutinize their hearts and allow themselves to be scrutinized by the Church, to find there the signs of God’s love and promise and the depth of their faith in the One into whom they will be baptized in the celebration of the Easter mysteries.