The Common Good
February 2007

Walking toward Possibility

by Malinda Elizabeth Berry | February 2007

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary, Cycle C.

The word “February” comes from februum, the Latin term for purification. But before February became the universally adopted name of this month, it was known by others—such as the Anglo-Saxon Solmoneth (mud month). It seems appropriate that February is when we transition (think detoxification) from the feasting of Christmas and Epiphany to the fasting of Lent, which begins this month.

This season of transition is untidy, liturgist Peter Mazar writes: “Days grow longer … the ground thaws, and the next thing we know, everything is filthy. Our windows need washing, our temples need cleansing, the Earth itself needs a good bath.” But even more than this, he notes how fragmented and fragile we are, which is symbolized and ritualized by the imposition of ashes on our foreheads. “Eden gone to ashes, the dustbin emptied of a winter’s worth of soot … the dry Earth thirsty for water to make it clay of new creation,” he writes.

Our tendency in the United States is to bathe ourselves in whitewash as the antidote to the messiness of life. “America” is a far cry from Eden. But like Eden’s disintegration, the lives we celebrate this Black History Month remind us that human identity is like a quilt pieced together from suffering, pain, struggle, hope, and triumph.

Malinda Elizabeth Berry is a dissertation fellow at Goshen College in Goshen, Indiana.

February 4
Leaving Certitude
Isaiah 6:1-8, (9-13); Psalm 138; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11

In this familiar gospel story, Luke tells us about the first disciples’ conversion experience. After pulling in a net full of fish, Simon Peter, James, and John leave everything and follow Jesus, who says that from now on they’ll be fishing for people to join them in proclaiming God’s in-breaking reign (Luke 5:11).

From the perspective of socially conscious and engaged Christians, walking with Jesus means walking away from certitude and toward possibility. Like Paul, we never know what our work will produce, but we hold on to the hope that as we proclaim, others will believe (1 Corinthians 15:11).

Yet hope in and of itself is not enough. We must be ready to act. On Feb. 1, 1960, Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain, students at North Carolina A&T College in Greensboro, North Carolina, sat down at a segregated lunch counter in Woolworth’s—an act that intensified civil rights activism through the United States. As Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, notes, “No person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.” We need good earth to grow. We need the good earth of Eden.

February 11
A Reformation of Love
Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; 1 Corinthians 15:12-20; Luke 6:17-26

Jeremiah’s scathing words of judgment are interesting to consider, especially around Valentine’s Day: “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strengths, whose hearts turn away from the Lord” (Jeremiah 17:5). His words are a call to carefully consider who, what, how, and why we love. As an Anabaptist, I read and experience the gospel as a call to love friends, neighbors, and enemies. Such love is strong and tenacious—it can’t be bought or sold like flowers, chocolates, or teddy bears. In the face of ridicule and persecution it stands firm, like the flourishing trees that line the riverbanks (Jeremiah 17:8). Such love is also discerning, naming those things that masquerade as love: ignorance, fear, manipulation, coercion, racial supremacy, and more.

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass (who chose Feb. 14 to celebrate his birthday) once said, “Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.” True love teaches us that our lives are intertwined with one another; real homeland security requires gospel love.

Life that flourishes in the face of systemic and personal violence requires persistence and courage. Jesus’ teaching to both the poor and the satisfied in our passage from Luke 6 reminds us that not everyone needs the same kind of healing—some need food, others need laughter—but everyone needs to be healed. Gospel love proclaims the end of sappy love and the beginning of just love.

In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote, “Justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.” Maybe this is why I’m drawn to playwright Eve Ensler’s Valentine’s Day reformation, known as “V-Day,” which aims to end violence against women and girls so that we can trust all those we love.

February 18
The Embrace of the Cross
Exodus 34:29-35; Psalm 99; 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2; Luke 9:28-36, (37-43)

This week’s lections tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. We recall this mountaintop experience just before Lent because it foreshadows crucifixion and resurrection—the time of trial and the time of glory. The three disciples who accompany Jesus to the summit—Simon Peter, James, and John—are the three he first called. Luke is helping us realize that we will not always understand where we’ll end up when we follow Jesus.

My academic work takes me deep into the theology and ideology of the civil rights movement, whether it is W.E.B. DuBois’ double-consciousness, Pauli Murray’s prototypical womanism, King’s pacifism, Malcolm X’s nationalism, or Black Power’s humanism. What I find valuable in all these perspectives is the intensity of transformation inherent in their work to “transfigure” the face of human existence in this country. This Lenten season, I want to journey with travelers who have acted with great boldness (2 Corinthians 3:12) and whose lives help me discover anew where and how God’s spirit frees us from fear to take risks—like Jesus—in the name of gospel love and just love.

Three days after we remember Jesus in a blaze of glory, some of us will display a cross on our foreheads. In her novel Paradise, writer Toni Morrison reminds us that the cross—the vertical line and the horizontal line—is primordial. It doesn’t just represent suffering and sacrifice; the cross is “the human figure poised to embrace.”

February 25
Space for God
Deuteronomy 26:1-11; Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13

The six Sundays of Lent begin with Jesus’ 40-day sojourn of fasting and temptation in the desert wilderness (Luke 4:1-13). Any time we fast, our bodies go through a purification process. This is part of the reason that for centuries people have committed themselves to fasting.

Fasting combines denial and purification in a way that opens up a space inside of us. It is a space where desire is clarified because our body is able to tell us what we need to survive. It is a space of prayer, and prayer, singer Marian Anderson once observed, “begins where human capacity ends.”

But fasting that becomes disordered distorts our reality. When this happens, prayer (listening to God) gives way to temptation and self-deception. How many times have we given up a food-related item for Lent, convincing ourselves that this year we’re giving up dessert for the “right” reason rather than because we secretly want to shed a few pounds?

Walking with Jesus into the wilderness is an invitation to come face to face with misery. It involves traveling the wilderness route of the Trail of Tears, heading through a deep forest wilderness on the Underground Railroad, and limping through the scorching wilderness of the Sonora Desert. What we give up on this journey ought to give us the space to rely on God and God’s intention for our common life.

Jesus teaches us that the pure in heart see God. May that be so for us this month.

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