From Death to Life: A reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

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From Death to Life: A reflection for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

by Mark Hakes, Oblate of St. Benedict

For many, Lent is about giving something up to make more room for God, for love, for connection. It’s a time of letting go, an opportunity for a little spiritual spring cleaning, if you will. A week before Ash Wednesday, a student worker in Campus Ministry said to me, “I can’t believe it’s almost Lent! I haven’t even figured out what I’m giving up!” To which, I responded, “I feel like we’ve been in a perpetual Lent since last March, we have given up so much.” It’s almost cliché at this point to remark on the ways our lives have been disrupted and to pine for a return to normal — though, as we inch closer to full vaccination, I wonder if I even want to return to normal, to go back to the way it was.

In two weeks we will celebrate Easter. My favorite resurrection story is that of Mary Magdalene in the garden. We read in the Gospel of John that Mary had gone to visit Jesus’s tomb and found the stone rolled away and the tomb empty. She then rushed back to tell the other disciples and then they all rushed back to the empty tomb. It’s after this commotion that Mary, while kneeling and sobbing at the tomb’s entrance, encounters the Risen Christ. 

We read in the text that she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she had no idea who he was. Jesus asked her, “Why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?” She assumed he was the gardener and responded, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” Jesus said to her, “Mary!” The text says she turned again and finally recognized Jesus. Jesus then tells her not to cling to him, but to go and tell the other disciples about the coming ascension.

If you notice, this reading seems to say Mary turned toward Jesus twice. Now, of course they could be literal turnings; perhaps she’d looked away from him, but I like to read the second turning as a spiritual turning. The moment Jesus gently calls her name, Mary is brought into a fuller understanding. Like Paul when the scales fall from his eyes, Mary is now able to see more clearly the reality in front of her, rather than remain blinded by what she thought should be.

In addition to the pandemic upending our lives, the past year has laid bare so much in our world. We have experienced the murders of our black and brown siblings at the hands of those sworn to protect, the continued disregard for indigenous lives and lands, inequities in healthcare, income, and quality of life, and the cacophonous, racist rhetoric that often permeated the most recent transfer of presidential power. The times demand that we pay attention to the countless ways our systems and society are unjust and oppressive. Like Mary, Jesus is calling us from our many blindnesses into the light of understanding. 

The temptation is to “return to normal,” to ignore the clarion call for transformation, to cling tightly to what has been. But then Jesus upsets our plans again by telling us not to cling: let go and allow the wheat grains of our lives to fall and die.

In the Jewish mystical tradition of Kabbalah, the creation story goes something like this: In the timelessness of the past there was only the holy darkness, the Ein Sof, the source of life. And then, in the course of history, at a moment in time, this world, the world of a thousand, thousand things, emerged from the heart of the holy darkness as a great ray of light. And then there was an accident, and the vessels containing the light of the world, the wholeness of the world, broke. And the wholeness of the world, the light of the world, was scattered into a thousand, thousand fragments of light, and they fell into all events and all people, where they remain deeply hidden until this very day.

For those who practice Kabbalah, all of humanity is a response to this accident. We are here because we are born with the capacity to find the hidden light in all events and all people, to lift it up and make it visible once again, and thereby to restore the innate wholeness of the world. And this task is called tikkun olam in Hebrew. It is the restoration of the world. And this is, of course, a collective task. It involves all people who have ever been born, all people presently alive, all people yet to be born. We are all healers of the world.

This story opens a sense of possibility. So many parts of our lives have been cast to the ground like grains of wheat! The challenge in this moment is to consider deeply which grains we need to pick up and which we should leave to die so that we can find a more fruitful way to live. It is to let go of what we think should be, see the reality of what is, and work to heal the world around us.

Dorothy Day, one of the co-founders of the Catholic Worker movement, put it like this:

What we would like to do is change the world — to make it a little simpler for people to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves as God intended them to do. And, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the workers, the poor, the destitute – the rights of the “worthy” and the “unworthy” poor, in other words – we can, to a certain extent, change the world; we can work for the oasis, the little cell of joy and peace in a harried world. We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever-widening circle will reach around the world.

We repeat, there is nothing we can do but love, and, dear God, please enlarge our hearts to love each other, to love our neighbor, to love our enemy as our friend.

In a global community, a country, a Christianity, that often feels split, we are called to live the bridging love of Christ. We are compelled to face the challenges of today’s world, to contribute toward reconciliation between all people, and so participate in the reconciliation of God and creation.

The Way of Jesus demands that we see the injustices present in our community to spur us into action. We must recognize the oppressive structures that cause people to go hungry, experience homelessness, and endure prejudicial treatment, and then begin dismantling them. It compels us to stand in solidarity with our trans* siblings, to put our bodies where our mouths are when we say that “Black Lives Matter,” to link arms with native communities to stop pipelines and the continued exploitation of native lands and lives, and to provide sanctuary to undocumented people and fight for their rights.

As Children of Light, we are asked to look beyond the surface and uncover the divine light in the world that touches us; to watch the ripples from our individual pebbles widen and merge with one another to create a tempest of love and healing. We are given the essential task of allowing God’s love to overwhelm us, reveal our blessedness, and then let it overflow into the world, uncovering the hidden shatters of divine light. In this way, we become co-creators with God in the work of resurrection and re-creation.

There is a beautiful phrase used in West Kerry in Ireland to speak of trust. It says “Mo sheasamh ort lá na choise tinne,” which means, “You are the place where I stand on the day when my feet are sore.” We are called to be this for one another and for the world.

In the midst of the darkness, division, and disconnection all around us, may we each see the sparks of light, hope, and joy in our lives. As we move collectively into a new way of living, may we stop clinging to what has been and begin building an equitable world in the shell of the old. May we allow our grains of wheat to die and grow into something far more fruitful.

And in all of this may we relish those places where we can stand on the days our feet are sore, remembering the words of Julian of Norwich: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.

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“Our humanity comes to its fullest bloom in giving. We become beautiful people when we give whatever we can give: a smile, a handshake, a kiss, an embrace, a word of love, a present, a part of our life...all of our life.”
–Henri Nouwen