Living the Word

Losing Our Grip

"We live in an addictive society, and we need to allow the spirit of freedom to pry us free from its grip. We all long for security and happiness, and we need to free ourselves from the idols that promise both but can deliver neither." Jesuit Dean Brackley sums up the work of Lent: prying ourselves free from the false idols around us - or perhaps prying the false idols out of our hands! In the next four weeks, we will enter a process of cleansing; we will learn how to recognize and reject our false gods so that we will know Christ resurrected.

Like the psalmist, we need only listen to our hearts as we turn toward home: "'Come,' my heart says, 'seek his face!'" (Psalm 27:8). Isaiah assures us that we will find what we need; money is of no importance for the covenant God extends again: "Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price…. I will make with you an everlasting covenant…" (Isaiah 55:1, 3).

The journey of the cross, however, is not an easy one, which is why most of us would rather jump straight to the resurrection. But Paul insists that our faith is one balanced by both cross and resurrection, and he labels those who see only the resurrection as "enemies of the cross of Christ" (Philippians 3:18). In the end, there is no other way to the resurrection but through the desert, through the cross. We must be able to strip away our fancy trappings and return to God as we came from God - naked, vulnerable, powerless.

Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

Word and Deed

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18
Psalm 27
Philippians 3:17-4:1
Luke 13:31-35

According to the lives of Abraham and Jesus, conversion must be expressed in two forms: faith and action. In Genesis, Abraham demonstrates so great a faith that "the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Genesis 15:6), for he believes God's promise of descendants without prior proof or experience. God's actions are also remarkable. According to theologian Jon Levenson, writing in his Creation and the Persistence of Evil, "God's offer of covenant is a mysterious and unmotivated decision of God, without regard to the merit or sins of Abraham." The two parties trust in one another without obvious reason, and their mutual faith has formed the blueprint for the Judeo-Christian understanding of covenant to this day.

In his letter to the community of Philippi, however, Paul insists that faith is just part of the equation. He criticizes those who preach Christianity but fail to live its full mystery of both cross and resurrection. Naming them "enemies of the cross of Christ" (Philippians 3:18), Paul speaks out against those whose actions are based on superficial pleasures, for "Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things" (Philippians 3:19). Unwilling to confront the reality of the cross, their understanding of the resurrection is superficial; pleasure was an end in itself instead of an expression of faith and joy.

Jesus, too, has strong words for those who claim righteousness but whose actions reveal otherwise. He first rebukes both the Pharisees and Herod for attempting to prevent him from fulfilling his mission of "casting out demons and performing cures" (Luke 13:32). Next, he laments Jerusalem itself, the supposed center of holiness; he exposes it as "the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!" (Luke 13:34).

If nothing else, Abraham's, Paul's, and Jesus' advice make one thing clear for our Lenten journey: We cannot be satisfied with superficial gestures as we make our way back to God. If we truly believe God's "mysterious and unmotivated" offer of covenant this season, we must live it in both word and deed.

Listen and Live

Isaiah 55:1-9
Psalm 63:1-8
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Luke 13:1-9

Accepting God's offer of covenant this Lent means that we must first free ourselves from the idols we have collected during the year. Isaiah makes the point directly: "Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?…Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live" (Isaiah 55:2-3).

The process of liberation is not an easy one, especially for those of us accustomed to false idols for our comfort and security. For many, power, prestige, and control lead us to believe that we can immunize ourselves from pain and suffering. Senseless violence, unexpected death, and serious illnesses happen to other people, not us. So when tragedy strikes close to home, we are incredulous to discover how vulnerable we, too, are to the forces of death.

Our attitude, however, is not new. Jesus, referring to a massacre of innocent people, asked, "Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?" (Luke 13:2). He understood the human tendency to try to control and avoid suffering by finding reasons for its occurrence, whether it is guilt, bad choices, or bad luck. We cling to our egos, believing ourselves more important or powerful than those plagued by illness, hardship, and suffering.

Lent, however, offers a unique opportunity to discard these false idols. We must relearn that we are, in the end, only dust, no more or less important than any other human being. We are free to cling to our idols, of course, but Jesus is quick to warn us (not threaten) that such a choice will surely lead to death: "…unless you repent, you will all perish as they did" (Luke 13:3).
Perhaps we will not die physically, but our dependence on false idols will surely kill our souls. Lent is our opportunity "to eat what is good, and delight…in rich food" (Isaiah 55:2); it is our chance to listen, so that we may truly live.

Coming Home

Joshua 5:9-12
Psalm 32
2 Corinthians 5:16-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Midway through the journey, we discover new life promised to those in the desert. Paul assures us that repentance brings renewal: "So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17). And the psalmist knows the joy of coming home, proclaiming, "Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered" (Psalm 32:1). Conversion, however, is a long process. It is not accomplished in an instant or with one word, but it is a lifetime process of turning, again and again.

The Israelites discovered this when they ended their long journey from captivity to liberation. Upon reaching the promised land, they began to cultivate and eat their own food; no longer could they depend on manna from heaven: "The manna ceased on the day they ate the produce of the land, and the Israelites no longer had manna; they ate the crops of the land of Canaan that year" (Joshua 5:12). God sustained the Israelites through 40 years of hardship as the Israelites prepared for freedom, and finally it was time for the Israelites to take responsibility for their end of the covenant. It was time to grow their faith until it produced life-giving fruits for the community and for God.

The prodigal son, too, took this journey from dependence to responsibility. The parable is unique to Luke, who emphasizes God's profound desire to welcome us when we freely return from our wanderings. Luke conveys the same message in three parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin - in which God is represented by a woman, a fact virtually unknown and ignored in most churches - and the prodigal son. Like the prodigal son's father, Luke portrays a God who allows us to make choices, and even to do things that may be harmful to ourselves or others. And like the father, Luke conveys God's overwhelming joy upon our return. Repayment, punishment, and justice are not mentioned, only joy and celebration. We, too, can return home knowing that new life awaits us - new life given by God, but cultivated and given back by God's people.

The Path to Resurrection

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4-14
John 12:1-8

Our 40 days come to a close with the most difficult part of our Christian heritage: the cross. Like the disciples, we must confront and accept Jesus' only path to resurrection - experiencing, in his full humanity, rejection, death, and suffering from those who refused his message of justice, forgiveness, and a love unrestricted by class, race, religion, or gender.

Paul knew many crosses in his life and endured them all. He had to confront his own sinfulness as a persecutor of Christians. As a Christian, he chose to suffer the same persecution for his new faith: "I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ" (Philippians 3:8-9). His life reveals the paradox that most of us live - our failure to truly understand and completely live the gospel, versus our continuous attempts to keep trying anyway.

It is a dilemma faced by Jesus' closest followers. Most of the disciples failed to understand Jesus' predictions of the passion and his impending execution; Peter went so far as to deny Jesus at the time of his sentencing and death. According to gospel records, it is only the female disciples who understand Jesus' choice, accept it, and accompany him to the cross. "Mary" (John is the only gospel author to name her) demonstrates how profoundly she accepts Jesus' choice by anointing him with perfume before his death. Versions of this story appear in every gospel; though they differ in some ways, each emphasizes that, according to Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, "the woman anointing Jesus recognizes clearly that Jesus' messiahship means suffering and death."

It is now our turn to follow her example, to know the suffering Christ, the persecuted Christ, in the lives of our families, communities, and world. We accompany one another through hardship not for the sake of suffering itself, but because it is only there, when we love and anoint one another through pain, that the new life of resurrection unfolds.

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