Reflection: Fifth Sunday of Lent
What new thing did you see happen today? What did you do new today? How were you renewed, made new or changed today? I put forth these questions because we read in the first reading from Isaiah “Do not cling to the events of the past. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already. You can see it now.” The words are filled with anticipation and promise. God is hovering, acting, stirring. Isaiah is referring to the Hebrew people and calling them to be in the present moment just as we are being called to live in the present moment in order to participate in the unfolding of life.
In other words, all creation is changing including us. Nothing can remain static. All must grow or wither and die. Even in the 2nd reading, St. Paul is telling us to move or focus our eyes on the future, to move toward our goal which is fullness in Christ Jesus. As I was thinking of this line, the word “focus” jumped out of me and it reminded me of the harnesses that my dad would put on our work horses. They had large leather flaps or blinders by the eyes so that the horses could only see to the front and not to the sides. They were forced to focus on their goal and not be distracted. So, too, Paul is telling us not to be distracted but look ahead. Paul perceives what God is doing and he becomes a vital part of the “something new.”
Speaking of all creation changing, even now new life is beginning to form underground. We cannot see it, but it is happening. There is movement toward warmth and light. Plants are vibrating with new growth energy. Even with snow and frost present, they will be pushing up toward the light to experience new life. The animals and birds, too, are sensing this new life. All creation longs for the fullness of life.
So, too, in the gospel today, involving the woman caught in adultery, we see a new beginning, a new life for the woman and maybe even for the men standing around condemning her. Yet the Scribes and Pharisees do not seem open. Something new is springing forth right in front of them, but they cannot seem to perceive it.
As I was reflecting on that story, I thought of what a terrifying and humiliating experience that was for the woman. She was forced to stand in the midst of all her friends, neighbors, and men condemning her, knowing that she would be stoned to death. It reminded me of the human trafficking today where women and children are used and abused by men. And perhaps those men condemning her were themselves users and abusers of women and therefore could not cast the first stone.
The story also brought to mind an episode in the book The Kite Runner which I am sure many of you have read. The story takes place in Afganistan and in one section, a woman is condemned to death. She is brought into an open arena with the bleachers filled with people watching and waiting. A hole is dug in the ground, she is put into it, and dirt is filled in up to her waist. Then the stones are thrown at her by men until she is dead. She did not have anyone to stand up for her as the woman in the gospel did. I would think there must have been people who wanted to save her but did not have the courage, for it would have meant their lives, too.
Jesus did not condemn the woman or the men but certainly did not agree with her lifestyle or with the self-righteousness and legalistic mentality of the men. Jesus put compassion, love, and forgiveness before condemnation and self-righteousness. His unconditional love challenged the old way of thinking and invited everyone to a new way, to God’s way. I believe the woman experienced a new beginning, a change in her life, and a new spiritual growth. She was not condemned but encouraged to start anew. She must have left the presence of Jesus feeling a sense of liberation that comes from healing and forgiveness even though she had not even asked Jesus for this gift.
I would hope the men, too, perhaps changed and experienced a new way of living and thinking. If not, they probably became more self-righteous and determined to have their way rather than embracing a new and growthful way of being. They would choose to become very hard of heart and miss the beauty of new life.
Jesus constantly calls us forth to forgive, love, to extend kindness rather than self-righteousness and hardness of heart. As we near the end of Lent that culminates in the suffering of Jesus, we need to look at the suffering in the world – the suffering we cause one another – and realize what we do or refuse to do impacts and harms so many other people.
I believe the readings today tell us that our past and our sins are not nearly as significant as our awareness of God’s presence. In God’s presence, we are healed; we become open to God’s desire for us to be whole. In God’s presence, we can share the joy of God speaking to our hearts, “See I am doing something new.” So what was new for me today? Did I rise with a grateful heart and live my day as such? Do I perceive the newness that is happening in my life, in others, and all creation?
—Sister Theresa Spinler, OSB
Reflection: Fourth Sunday of Lent
The readings for this Fourth Sunday of Lent are very familiar. The parable of the Prodigal Son, in particular, has so often been the subject of spiritual authors that we may be tempted to gloss over it, feeling that surely by now we have wrung every possible drop of wisdom out of it. It would be a grave mistake to dismiss these readings lightly for they lie at the heart of this season, speaking of repentance, reconciliation, and the love and mercy of God.
As I prayed with these Scriptures, what really struck me was a line from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians:
God, who has reconciled us to himself through Christ,
has given us the ministry of reconciliation.
What an awesome responsibility! Think of what has been entrusted to us, Christ’s own ministry of reconciliation. What if each of us fully realized and lived out this sacred trust? The thought of it is breathtaking!
Last week on Saturday we heard a reflection on this Gospel at Morning Prayer. Toward the end of the reflection, the author talked about being “stupefied” by the unconditional love of the father, who she said was lacking in understanding of his older son and “completely unmindful of the dishonor the younger son had paid to him.”
This does not ring true to me at all. Do we really think that it cost the father nothing to forgive? I believe that the younger son hurt him in the inmost depths of his heart. If not, could a father say that his son was dead? If we believe that the father was so little touched by his son’s betrayal, we might also delude ourselves into thinking that our own sinfulness has little effect on our merciful God. I also don’t believe that the father failed to understand his elder son, any more than I believe that God lacks an understanding of us.
Why do we find it so difficult to forgive? We like to think that the fault is not ours – we work hard to create and maintain an image of ourselves as forgiving, peaceful followers of Christ in several ways.
Firstly, we are quick to forgive or urge others to forgive when something hasn’t touched us personally. We sign petitions, pray for peace, urge Israelis to forgive Palestinians and Palestinians to forgive Israelis – but however sincere and empathetic we are, we can not begin to comprehend what has been suffered. We even pray for God to have mercy on murderers, even though we do not know the circumstances of their crimes. I am not suggesting that we should stop praying for peace or that we should ignore injustices. I am suggesting that our prayers are hollow if as we make them, we withhold forgiveness from someone who offended us 5 years ago, or 10, or 20 or 40 years ago – or even last week.
A second way in which we build up an image of ourselves as “forgiving” is when we forgive others for something that really didn’t matter much to us. In the same way, it is so much easier to ask forgiveness for some offense that we don’t think is really all that serious. This sort of reconciliation is important in our day-to-day life, but it operates only on the surface of our relationships. And again, we can pat ourselves on the back for forgiving one person for being late or forgetting a responsibility, all the while holding on to a cherished and carefully tended grudge against someone else.
Thirdly, we can feel justified in withholding our forgiveness when we believe we are owed an apology. Unfortunately, when the hurt is the result of a basic disagreement about something that happened, the other person could well be justifying her own coldness expecting an apology from us! Neither party will be the first to reach out: both stay entrenched in their own self-righteousness.
We don’t have the luxury of allowing these pitfalls to trap us – because
God has given us the ministry of reconciliation!
I think that it is most difficult for us to forgive or to ask forgiveness when our pride has been wounded. If someone has done something that has threatened our image of ourselves, or of someone we love, or even of how we want to see our community or the world, that hurt seems to run so deep that it cannot be healed. That is why I think the father was hurt so deeply – all his hopes and dreams of who his son would be and his image of the part he played in his son’s life had to have been shattered by his son’s desertion. And the son, for his part, had to admit that the vision he had of himself was a sham – and he had to realize how very much he had underrated his father. In a way, forgiving and being forgiven hurts – but it is the only way to heal and to free ourselves from a bitter zeal that can destroy our peace and the peace of all around us.
I don’t want any of you to think that I am lecturing as though from some imagined point of advantage. I have fallen into these traps more often than I can say. I had to admit to myself not long ago that I had not only fallen into the trap of resentment and anger – I practically dived into it and barred the exit, refusing to come out. I had to admit to myself that I was making judgments based on assumptions formed by past hurts, and in doing so I twisted the motives and actions of others to fit the negative image I had fabricated. It was painful to admit that I had been wrong and painful to recognize that I had harmed myself far more than I had been harmed by others. And I know that although my repentance is heartfelt, I will continue to stumble and to need to pray each day for the grace to continue this journey of repentance and forgiveness that we call life. But, if we truly are followers of Christ we have no choice for:
God has given us the ministry of reconciliation!
As long as we refuse to make every effort at reconciliation in our own lives, our own words will condemn us every time we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
— Sister Joan Marie Stelman
Reflection: Third Sunday of Lent
As we ponder the readings of this Third Sunday of Lent, we find a shift in focus. In the first Sunday of Lent, Jesus was center stage struggling with the temptations in the desert. Last Sunday, Jesus was transfigured on the mountain showing us the glory that is yet to come. Today’s readings shift directly to humankind as center stage and are very specific about our task for Lent: “Repent or perish, bear fruit or be cut down.” (Living Liturgy, p. 83)
There is an urgency in the readings as the Gospel of Luke notes, “if you do not repent, you will perish. Then using the parable of the fig tree we find that from all appearances, the fig tree must have looked healthy, because the owner came each year to search for figs. It seems the outward appearance of health was not sufficient; for the owner wanted it cut down because he was wasting his resources on it.
The shocker in the parable comes when even though it had not produced fruit for three years, the Master Gardener (Jesus), wants to treat it special for a season to stimulate further growth and perhaps then it will bear abundant fruit.
“Sir, leave it for this year, and I shall cultivate the ground and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.” (Luke 13:1-9). The Good News for us is that Jesus is compassionate and willing to give us a second chance as well.
A similar message of compassion and concern comes to us in the reading of Exodus. God speaks to Moses from the burning bush, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people . . . I know well what they are suffering . . . I have come to rescue them” (Ex.3:7-8). In these uncertain times, we can trust that God knows the suffering of the people. As the Psalmist writes, “Remember the marvels the Lord has worked for us.”
Our compassionate, loving God offers every means of renewal to us, stirring into flame the gifts of the Spirit within each of us. Insights of how we need to repent and change our lives may come to us through our own burning bushes. It may be through our daily reflection on the scriptures that God speaks to us or through conversation with others and their example; they may come to us in the ordinary daily events of life or through the awesome beauties of nature at this time of year. Our challenge is to recognize these manifestations of God’s transforming love, to be grateful for them, and to act on them with courage.
“One author refers to these experiences as follows: “These quick peeks into the mystery remind us that glory awaits us just below the surface of those forbidding places we avoid: our human limitations, our lack of forgiveness, our wants, and suffering and death. (Prepare the Word).
Bishop Morneau writes of these grace-filled moments:
It is there that God works, the back side of the tapestry,
the underside of life: in dark alleys of fear and doubt,
on the margins of poverty and pain,
at the muddled crossroads of heartache.
Don’t look for the Deity elsewhere. . . .
This story came to mind as I was reflecting on the readings of this Sunday. A sticky note sat on top of a pile of work with the words, “I couldn’t get to it, could you?” The writer of this note was an assistant to the manager of a large company. When the manager arrived at work Monday morning his expectation was that the assistant manager had completed the work he had asked her to do before she left on vacation.
Instead, on top of the pile of work he found the Post-it note: “I couldn’t get to it, could you?” The Manager read the note several times in total disbelief. Obviously the job responsibilities, the work ethic, and duties of her job had not been clearly defined for her. The gap between his expectations and the employee’s understanding of her job seemed insurmountable.
Most of us, in a similar situation, would be shocked if we came upon such a note. Yet, that is often what we do to God. God commands us to love, to forgive, to trust, and God’s expectations are that we will follow this command. No matter what the circumstances, our job is to love. No excuses are acceptable and certainly no Post–it notes to say: “Dear God, that love and forgiveness business—I just couldn’t get to it, could you?
We are about mid-way in Lent. The question for us this Sunday is clear: Where are we with God and our Lenten journey?
Are we like the assistant manager: “Dear God, that love and forgiveness business, I just couldn’t get to it” or are we accepting the invitation from the Lord: “Repent and bear abundant fruit.” He assures us in the scriptures, if we are open to his invitation, “. . . I will pour clean water upon you and cleanse you from all your impurities, and I will give you a new spirit, says the Lord” (Ez. 36:23-26). God is faithful and will not let us be tested beyond our strength.
Sister Mary Josephine Torborg, O.S.B.
Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies
College of St. Scholastica
Reflection for the Second Sunday of Lent
Sister Edith Bogue, OSB
The Transfiguration of Jesus is one of the few passages of Scripture that we hear more than once among the Sundays and Feasts of the liturgical year: always on the 2nd Sunday of Lent, and again on its own Feast, celebrated on August 6. Scholars and theologians have written much about the Transfiguration; artists and poets have shared their visions of it—and we have all heard numerous homilies and reflections before. This evening, I propose to focus on “light” and to consider this story of the Transfiguration in connection with our monastic traditions and the Holy Rule, to see what it says to us as Benedictine women today.
We hear in the Gospel that, “while he was praying”—while his heart was turned entirely toward God—”Jesus’ face changed in appearance, and his clothing became dazzling white.” Early writers such as Origen, in the 3rd century, connected the light and glory of Jesus’ appearance on Mt.Tabor with the glory of His resurrection. Origen tied that fullness of human participation in life with Christ to a sharing not just in the Resurrection but in radiance of the life to come. Jesus in his human nature opened the way for humans to enjoy the eternal life of God and its glory. His disciples were amazed, but immediately recognized the greatness of the gift—”it is good for us to be here” may be one of the greatest understatements of all time! They wanted to build tents and remain there. In one sense, this is the dynamic of our spiritual journey today: an encounter with the divine which permeates our lives and ignites a desire to move every closer to that light.
St. Leo the Great recognized that spiritual dynamic, saying “through the Transfiguration, the whole body of Christ was to understand the kind of transformatiuon that it would receive as his gift.”
The abbas and ammas of the desert grounded their ascetical lives in the hope of an experience of divine light like that light which surrounded Jesus on Mt. Tabor, as we hear in a saying from Abba Isaac:
First of all let us force ourselves to abstain from speech; then from this abstinence will be born in us something which leads to silence itself. May God grant you the experience of this something, born of this abstinence. If you embrace this life, I cannot tell you how much light it will bring you.
In the Prologue of the Holy Rule, St. Benedict invites us to turn our hearts and minds back to God from whom we have wandered through spiritual sleepiness. He urges us to respond to a call that comes from outside of ourselves, that is not of our own initiative. “The scriptures call out to us,” he says, and bright light is there to awaken us.
Benedict uses the Latin phrase deificum lumen, which the RB 1980 translates as “the light which comes from God.” Many other translators and scholars translate this phrase as “deifying light”—the light transforms us into God. Benedict doubtless drew upon this ancient theological prespective, which St. Athanasius had expressed by saying, “Christ was made human that we might be made God.”
So it is fitting, on this Second Sunday of Lent, that we hear and ponder the Transfiguration not only as a prefiguration of Christ’s Resurrection at Easter but also as a promise of who and what we might become in Christ.
This hope is found also in the second reading for this Sunday, where St. Paul tells the Philippians that “our citizenship is heaven”—not in this world that can so diminate our minds and energy that we forget our true home. He goes on to promis that “Christ will change our lowly body to conform with his glorified body”—we too, will be transfigured.
In this season of Lent, as we “add something to the usual amount of our service that [we] offer to God ‘with the joy of the Holy Ghost'” (RB 49)—this Gospel and our Holy Rule urge us to hope and watch for the surprising and deifying action of God in our lives, beyond anything we could imagine. We need this reminder no less than the desert fathers and mothers who went before us, as we hear in the familiar story of Abba Lot and Abba Joseph:
“Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba! As far as I can, I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace, and, as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.'”
May it be so for us this Lent.
Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent
Sister Mary E Penrose, OSB
The liturgy for this Sunday presents us with the theme of a recurring problem in all our lives, that is, coming to terms with our true identity. In the first reading Moses reminds his people (Dt. 26: 4-10) of the time Abraham was an alien in Egypt and how, despite the afflictions and oppression he and his ancestors suffered there, God lovingly took care of them. Then He orders: make merry over all the good things which the Lord, your God, has given you (v. 10). We might be tempted to ask, Is this not to trivialize the very real problems which confronted them and which sometimes confront us?
However, for the Israelites and for those of us who believe God’s providential goodness will happen again, the responsorial verse provides a voice. The psalmist cries out (though it seems as if with tongue in cheek, just in case!), “Be with me, Lord, when I am in trouble!” while the second reading gives us a means of survival in difficult times: The Word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (Rom. 10:8). That is, the source of everything we need is found, not in the external circumstances which impinge upon us, but in our hearts supported by and resonating with the Word of God.
Finally, in the gospel, Luke announces that Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit . . . was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days, where he was tempted by the devil. The familiar temptations are enumerated: turning stones into bread, giving homage to Satan in exchange for power, and tempting God by means of a foolhardy action. Before ending his account Luke charts out possible routes we might take in facing our own temptations and trials.
Our temptations, like those of Jesus, are always aimed at getting us to deny who we really are, or making us believe we are something we are not; that is, as the text indicates, by living on the peripheral external appearances of things—bread alone; or by relishing the power and glory afforded by certain positions or offices—our “kingdoms” of operation; or simply by tempting fate in thinking we can do or be more than we can or are, overlooking our limitations. The message Jesus seems to want to give us is that, though these external temptations are very strong, we owe allegiance first of all to the “within” of ourselves.
The “without” or externals are what others may esteem, but to give in to the pressure of measuring our self-worth by what is considered important to others is to be disloyal to ourselves. What others esteem may not necessarily “fit” our true identity. Such an attitude or behavior puts God to the test, for the Divine One tries incessantly, through the small, still voice within, to bring to our conscious awareness all that has been planned for our happiness. Nevertheless, these temptations are relentless, and it is a constant struggle to withstand the satanic attempts of the “without” to govern our lives.
Though Luke’s presentation of temptation is very dramatic, our own temptations tend to be more subtle. Sometimes they come in the form of needs: the need we have to be center stage, to be liked and affirmed by others, to be important in the lives of others, to seem to be caring persons or even to appear to be accomplishing something of worth in the eyes of others. None of these things really express who we are. In fact, it is possible they are hindering us from finding ourselves—that person loved by God at the center of our being.
Sometimes, in order to make the liturgy come more alive for myself, I try to see if it relates in some way with anything I have seen, heard, or personally experienced in life. Reflecting on this particular liturgy, I recalled what Morehead Kennedy said in an interview after his time of captivity as a hostage in Iran: When you’ve been through a death-threatening experience, you are suddenly confronted with your real self. Most of us go through life chasing after a person who never really exists: our IDEA of ourselves. His advice was, Don’t try to chase after an idealized self. Come to terms with the person you really are.
In our liturgy for the first Sunday of Lent, we find Jesus doing exactly that when he was tempted. And so it can be with us. Everything we need to be a follower of Jesus is within ourselves. Let us ask Him to help us tap into these riches so that we, too, can come to terms with our real selves. Since we know God wants us to have happy hearts, it follows there are good things in store for us.