"Though we go forth weeping, we shall come back rejoicing!"
Russian philosopher Nicolas Berdyaev, a devout Christian, observed, "I always knew...that freedom gives birth to suffering, while the refusal to be free diminishes suffering...freedom is hard; it is a heavy burden." We face this burden on the Lenten journey. It is our choice whether or not to follow this God-turned-slave, this Word-become-flesh, even unto death. Knowing the end of the journey should help us enter into it more easily and joyfully-but for many, Lent remains a confusing jumble of obligation, guilt, and custom.
If we want to follow the suffering Christ, we must strip away all that is false and all that keeps us from worshiping God. This is the mystery of the passion; only when we are stripped and emptied can we be filled with the bountiful new life of the resurrection. Only when we have plumbed the depths of our own limitations and failures to live as God's disciples can we know and freely accept God's forgiveness. And only when we know ourselves as broken yet fiercely loved can we share the mercy and new life with which we have been gifted.
Let us enter this process joyfully. We are not alone, but accompanied by the strength of the ancient covenant, our religious ancestors, and holy people around the world. We go forth with confidence, knowing that "My strength and my courage is the Lord...I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord" (Psalm 118:14, 17).
Michaela Bruzzese, formerly program associate with Call to Renewal, is a free-lance writer living in Chile.
Serve God Alone
Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16, Romans 10:8b-13, Luke 4:1-3
Having answered the call to repentance on Ash Wednesday, we begin the Lenten journey with this dramatic set of readings. A beautiful telling of our history as a wilderness people in Deuteronomy is brought full circle to Luke's account of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. Forty years in the desert for the Israelites become 40 days for Jesus, where he, too, comes face to face with the best the devil can offer. The temptations are basically three sides of idolatry: the worship of comfort and gratification; undeserved power and wealth; and false gods. Jesus cuts Satan down to size using carefully selected Deuteronomic laws as his weapons, sacred laws that reaffirm his absolute loyalty to God. These laws are radical at face value; a closer look exposes their even-greater relevance for 21st-century Christians.
Jesus' answers to the tempter are found within Deuteronomy chapters 6 through 8, an outline of the fundamental laws of the covenant. These basic laws, however, are contained within a greater theme that bookends the covenantal teachings in chapters 6-8. This theme is prosperity and its inherent dangers, specifically, fidelity to God in the midst of prosperity (Deuteronomy 6:10 and following verses) and the dangers of prosperity (8:6). Our faith tradition implies that prosperity is an overarching temptation that gives rise to others and threatens our very existence: "Remember then, it is the Lord, your God, who gives you the power to acquire wealth....But if you forget the Lord...I forewarn you...that you will perish utterly" (8:17).
Jesus' temptations thus encapsulate the greatest temptations we will confront on our journey with him. When we freely accept the invitation to discipleship, we must identify and defeat the false gods we have accumulated. As today's scripture demonstrates, we who enjoy material prosperity are uniquely vulnerable to "serving and worshipping" false Gods. Let us then begin this journey, reclaiming our birthright as children of the Most High: "God alone shall we serve."
Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18, Psalm 27, Philippians 3:17-4:1, Luke 13:31-35
Paul's letter to the Philippians, also known as "the letter of joy," is a wonderful guide with which to continue the desert journey. As in the other readings, Paul assures us here that we can confidently place our trust in God alone. He encourages us to "continue [the] pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus." We need such encouragement if we are to truly enter into the Lenten experience. We are invited to walk more deeply with Christ, who walks with an unshakeable faith and a profound love for his people.
Leading up to this week's verse is Paul's confession of his own personal struggles (Philippians 3:7-11). Paul recounts how, prior to his conversion, his faith was perfect in a legalistic manner, and "in righteousness based on law I was blameless." Yet Paul's legal righteousness obscured a spiritual corruption that allowed him "in zeal to persecute the church." Paul's words are not a condemnation of Judaism but of any legalistic forms of belief that serve as instruments of exclusion rather than love. Every faith and religion is vulnerable to such misinterpretation; Paul invites us to examine our own faith as we walk this journey. An authentic faith is one that loves unconditionally, even to the point of suffering. Do we, like Paul, use our faith to exclude and judge others? Can we follow this mysterious Christ into the desert with our hearts and eyes open-open to the reality of our own shortcomings and to God's loving forgiveness?
Isaiah 55:1-9, Psalm 63:1-8, 1 Corinthians 10:1-13, Luke 13:1-9
The third week of Lent finds us mid-desert, still confronting all that keeps us from God. Stripped of our comforts and distractions, we continue to face our strongest temptations. Here we confront the shallow faith that surrenders easily to the quick fix of idolatry. How quickly do we give in to the temporary satisfaction of food, drink, money, work, or a thousand other false gods? Yet we continue through these 40 days not just for ourselves, but so that the whole community may enjoy the fruits of the resurrection.
Confronting these temptations is gut-wrenching work, and we need reassurance that God waits for us with boundless forgiveness, rejoicing in our decision to come home. Fortunately, this week's readings are filled with the testimony of those who knew well the joy of repentance and the gift of new life from a loving God. David, the great sinner, sings for us a song of longing to God, for "you are my help, and in the shadow of your wings I shout for joy!" Paul reassures us that "God is faithful and will not let you be tried beyond your strength." Isaiah's God invites us to "Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life."
Finally, though Jesus has harsh words for those who consider themselves above repentance in Luke's parable of the fig tree, he also portrays a God who can't help but give us one more chance when we ask. Even we barren trees who haven't produced anything in years get a second chance from God, another year of fertilization and care in the joyful hope that next year, perhaps, we may gift the world with real fruit.
We bear the fruits of love and forgiveness when we have known their abundance in our own lives. Let us keep striving for true conversion on this journey, knowing that next year's harvest of peace and justice in the world depends on it.
Prodigal to Prophet
Joshua 5:9-12, Psalm 32, 2 Corinthians 5:16-21, Luke 15:1-3,11b-32
Having confronted our personal demons in the desert, by week four of Lent we should have a good idea of our shortcomings, our lack of faith, our tendency to worship false gods. Lest we become disheartened by all this self-reflection, this week's readings give us all the reason we need to turn toward home. Luke is uniquely concerned with assuring us of God's forgiveness; he is the only gospel author to portray a God who runs to meet us as we return from our self-imposed exiles in the parable of the Prodigal Son. Who else but God can welcome us back from our most devastating screw-ups, who is so happy that, as David proclaims, "with glad cries of freedom you will ring me round"?
But, as Paul observes, forgiveness is just the first part of this renewed relationship, for forgiveness gives birth to new life. Our faith in Christ makes us a new creation, so joyful that we sinners become "ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us." We who were unworthy are now commissioned as the bearers of God's love and forgiveness! The mercy we have been shown spills over into a passionate desire to be channels of peace and justice in our communities.
Oscar Romero, struck down by an assassin's bullet 21 years ago (March 24, 1980), was a drum major for justice. His "safe" world as the new archbishop of El Salvador was shattered by the murder of his friend, Father Rutilio Grande, who criticized the government's treatment of the poor. His mind and heart now broken open to his people's struggle for justice, Archbishop Romero returned to God anew and became a prophet of the poor.
Halfway through our Lenten journey, we too can be reconverted to God by taking up the cause of those excluded from the riches of this world. We will not be alone-God comes to meet us, celebrating that we who have been dead to the needs of our brothers and sisters "have come to life again."
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Week five of Lent brings us one of the most moving, and misinterpreted, scripture passages. Mary's loving anointing of Jesus inspires criticism and probably jealousy from the other disciples. Much attention has been rightly focused on Jesus' response to their criticism: "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." Perhaps no other verse has been as damaging to Christianity's attitude towards those who are poor, and modern scholars have recently gone to great lengths to lend light and clarity to the verse. Many now place the emphasis of the passage on "you" instead of "the poor"; in other words, "You will always be with the poor, but you will not always be with me." Phrased this way, Jesus' statement is more clearly one of location, rather than an assertion that persistent poverty is somehow part of a divinely orchestrated plan.
Though this clarification is important, we should not become distracted by it and miss the profound impact of Mary's actions. Her act revealed that she alone among the disciples displayed an understanding of Jesus' mission. In Mark's and Matthew's telling of the event, Jesus had made at least three predictions of the passion by the time of the anointing, and yet only Mary displayed her acceptance of Jesus' fate and her faith in his choice.
As we continue this journey with Jesus toward Golgotha, let our eyes be opened and our hearts, like Mary's, be prepared to know an incomprehensible suffering. We do so not in vain, but so that we may better minister to one another as a resurrection people: If we cannot minister in the midst of death, we cannot adequately know or share the joy of resurrection. Let us strive to be the Marys of today's world, seeking out those who suffer, prepared to have our eyes opened, our hearts broken, and our lives changed as we walk together.
April 8: Palm Sunday
Become a Slave
Isaiah 50:4-9a, Psalm 31:9-16, Philippians 2:5-11, Luke 22:14-23:56
This day of palms and passion begins with a king's welcome and ends with a prisoner's execution. Jesus' painful steps are not limited to a singular event in time; rather, they are a recurring journey throughout time for those who try to forge love and justice in an unjust world. Jesus now invites us to his cries in the cries of all who struggle and to witness his suffering as theirs. Do we dare? As Christians, can we do anything less?
There is a high price to pay for such witness and solidarity, as the scriptures testify: "I gave my back to those who beat me....My face I did not shield from buffets and spitting," Isaiah proclaims. The psalmist cries for help: "I am...a horror to my neighbors, an object of dread to my acquaintances; those who see me in the street flee from me." Despite his pain, his faith is not shaken, for "my trust is in you, O Lord; I say, You are my God.'"
Truly, this is our God, who, as Paul says, "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave." This is no god, no king that we're used to. This is the master turned servant, Word become flesh, with a love so powerful that he seeks us out in human form, walking among us as peacemaker and healer, repairer of the breach.
Many prefer to avoid Jesus' radical Palm Sunday commitment to justice and love. One month before his assassination in El Salvador in 1977, Father Rutilio Grande decried that "there are those...who would prefer a buried Christ, a dummy to carry through the streets in processions...not Jesus of Nazareth who asks for lives lived in service to establishing a just order, the uplifting of the wretched, the values of the gospel."
On this Passion Sunday, we can choose which Jesus we will follow. We pray for the courage to accompany Jesus of Nazareth, the suffering Christ, knowing that death will never have the last word.
April 15: Easter Sunday
I shall not die, but live!'
Acts 10:34-43, Psalm 118:1-2,14-24, 1 Corinthians 15:19-26, Luke 24:1-12
At last, this long 40 days has come to a glorious end-one that we can hardly believe. Is it truly possible that our Jesus now walks among the living again? An unsteady faith leads us back to the tombs, as it led Mary in her desire to anoint Jesus once more in death. And we are greeted with the same question with which she was confronted: "Why do you seek the living one among the dead?"
Indeed, why do we seek our living Christ among the tombs of despair and hopelessness? For Christ is risen, alleluia! This mysterious God who has remained faithful through our neglect, idolatry, and apathy has defeated death forever, and who can believe it's really true? Stacked against our faith is the reality of countless injustices in our communities and nations, horrifying examples of the ways we use the force of evil to destroy and degrade one another. They persist despite Christ's example, his life among us, and his death and resurrection. But Christ is risen, alleluia! The assurance of life's triumph over death is the only weapon we need for our constant struggle for justice in the world. The psalmist affirms God's loyalty, for "in my straits I called upon the Lord; the Lord answered me and set me free."
We, too, have been set free, free from death in all its forms-fear, despair, apathy. We cannot linger in the graveyards of hopelessness and resignation. We must seek the living Christ where he is to be found-walking with us, in our midst, as we continue to build the kingdom as he did-among those excluded. The truth of the resurrection, astounding and incomprehensible as it is, forms the very crux of our faith-that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again! This ending of our 40-day journey is just the beginning of our 2,000-year struggle to live more fully our heritage as a resurrection people.
So I Send You'
Acts 5:27-32, Psalm 118:14-29, Revelation 1:4-8, John 20:19-31
On the first Sunday of Easter, the church community receives its inheritance as followers of the living Christ. Just as Jesus breathed his spirit upon his frightened disciples, giving them the strength and authority to go into the world, so too can we leave the confinement of our fears to live the good news.
In Revelation, John reminds that we follow "the Alpha and the Omega...the one who is and who was and who is to come." These words appear four more times in Revelation and twice in Isaiah, clearly identifying Jesus as the living God, who chose to live and act in history but who also transcends the confines of time. If Christ is the beginning and the end, what need we fear of the middle? We can live the gospel without fear for "my strength and my courage is the Lord....I shall not die, but live and declare the works of the Lord."
The first words of the risen Jesus to his disciples affirm this confidence: "Peace be with you"; Matthew records them as "Do not be afraid." Christ's first gift to his frightened followers is the gift of peace. Peace forms the cornerstone of the first community and of our own discipleship.
Jesus' second gift flows from the first. "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." And so we are sent by the risen Christ to work in his name. He commissions each of us to tend the suffering, be peacemakers, and to work for justice, no matter what our qualifications, gender, ethnicity, or wealth. As John tells us, this is the God "who has made us into a kingdom, priests for his God and Father."
Truly, we are all part of this beloved priesthood, bestowed with the privilege of serving one another and especially those who are outcast. We do so joyfully, knowing the beginning and ending of our journey is Christ. With this knowledge, we can believe without seeing; we can fully claim our rich inheritance as followers of our Lord and God.
From Mourning to Dancing
Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
With the gift of peace and the commission of discipleship we are prepared to build the kingdom in the name of the resurrected Christ. The final readings here demonstrate the power of the one who broke the chains of death once and for all. And by rising from the dead and destroying death's grip, Jesus also delivers us from our own private deaths. We, like the psalmist, can praise this God who has "changed my mourning into dancing...who took off my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness." Moreover, Jesus' physical appearance to his disciples following his resurrection emphasizes that we do not have to wait for our physical deaths to know resurrection; rather, we are invited to new life in the here and now. This very day we can change our mourning to dancing!
Through Jesus, his followers Peter, Ananaias, and Paul experience the shock of resurrection from the different forms of death in which they were imprisoned. Peter, who before Jesus' resurrection denied him three times, now professes his love and fidelity three times. The man who before could not publicly stand by Jesus becomes one of his most passionate ambassadors. Paul, his life bound with the chains of hatred and violence, is invited to new life through the one whom he sought to persecute. Blinded for three days, he arises on the third day with new life in Christ as an ambassador of love and acceptance. And Ananaias, God's instrument of cleansing for Paul, also receives liberty from the prejudice that imprisoned him and almost prevented him from ministering to one who most needed his healing touch.
This week, and always, the risen Christ invites each one of us to leave the confines of our own private forms of death-our prejudices, limitations, fears, and untruths. Jesus calls us to cast our nets with him, to reap the new life that only he can give. The risen one gives us the courage to leave our sackcloths of fear aside and to dress ourselves instead in the gladness of new life.