The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Seventh Day

NOTE: Each week during Lent, I will post a short reflection on the Sunday Gospel passage--a little food for prayerful thought to go along with our fasting. -- Br. Francis.

In the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Lent (Mark 9:2-10), Jesus is transfigured before the apostles Peter, James, and John in a sight almost too wonderful to behold. Appearing with him are Elijah and Moses, representing the Prophets and the Law, which are fulfilled in the person of Christ, the Son of God (cf. Luke 24:44; 4:24).

An important thing to keep in mind while reading and reflecting on this passage is what immediately precedes it. In Mark 8:31—9:1, Jesus predicts his passion and death, and outlines the self-sacrificing conditions of authentic discipleship. It is only after this that he takes Peter, James, and John—three apostles who will later take on important leadership roles in the early church—“up a high mountain apart by themselves.”

Notice the distinct Trinitarian elements in Mark’s account: Three Apostles; the representation of Law, Prophets, and Fulfillment; and finally, manifestation of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In a scene remarkably similar to that of the baptism of Jesus, a cloud descends, and from it a voice declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” God reveals himself to the three apostles, giving them a brief glimpse of Christ in his glory, and connecting his appearance with all that has happened before him throughout salvation history.

For the moment, Peter, James, and John are simply terrified and mystified. Later, after the Resurrection, the Ascension to God the Father, and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, this will all make more sense to them as they begin their work of laying the church’s foundation.

Most interesting are three words at the beginning of the Gospel passage that are not actually read at Mass from the Lectionary: “Six days later…”

Six days after what?

These three words tie together what follows—the Transfiguration—with what preceded it—the prediction of Jesus’ passion and death, along with the costly demands of discipleship (which Peter, at least, didn’t want to hear). So, seven days after Jesus lays it all on the line and tells his disciples what to realistically expect, he reveals his glory. The three future leaders of the early church are given a heavenly foretaste of what self-sacrifice in Christ, and through Christ, will mean for all disciples through all ages.

In other words, after the harshness of what was told them six days earlier, on the seventh day, they were given hope.

And that is precisely what we celebrate every Sunday—the seventh day, and the beginning of all the days that follow. We celebrate the hope of the Resurrection that is ours in Christ, and we enter into God’s rest. This was prefigured in Genesis’ story of Creation: God “rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it” (Genesis 2:2-3). On the seventh day, we rest in our hope in the New Creation that comes to us through Christ. We are given a glimpse of the transfiguration that awaits all the faithful who deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Jesus.

Truly, it is good for us to be here! Today, we behold the Resurrection and the Life, and know that whoever believes in him, even if he dies, will live, and that everyone who lives and believes in him will never die (cf. John 11:25-26).
--Adapted from Grace in the Wilderness
by Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.
© 2013, Abbey Press Publications

Monday, February 23, 2015

What does repentance mean?

"Turn aside from evil and do good;
seek and strive after peace."
Psalm 34:15

NOTE: Each week during Lent, I will post a short reflection on the Sunday Gospel passage--a little food for prayerful thought to go along with our fasting. -- Br. Francis.

In the Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:12-15), Jesus begins his ministry by declaring, "This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel." Repentance is a key theme during Lent, and Jesus here is calling each of us to do it--and to do it now.

But what does repentance really mean? Unfortunately, we have come to associate the term almost exclusively with struggling more intently against our sinful tendencies or weak natures. Figuratively speaking, with sorrowful hearts, we put on sackcloth and sit in ashes, like many Old Testament figures. During the season of Lent, this may take the form of "giving up" certain things which we acknowledge have too much influence over our daily lives--such as chocolate, watching TV, or engaging in gossip.

That is all fine and good--as long as the point is to grow in our love for God and neighbor. However, mere self-improvement, while commendable in itself, cannot be the point. Otherwise, "giving up" something for Lent risks becoming an exercise in willpower--with the focus entirely on self rather than on God.

That is not the true repentance Jesus calls us toward. Take a moment to read and reflect on the passage from Psalm 34 above: "Turn aside from evil and do good; seek and strive after peace." Or, consider Ephesians 4:22-32, which reads in part: "Put away the old self of your former way of life...and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God's way in righteousness and holiness of truth" (you may want to take a moment to read the passage in its entirety in your Bible). These passages hint at the full nature of repentance.

Notice that the admonitions are twofold: we are not only to "turn aside from evil" and "put away the old self," but also "do good; seek and strive after peace" and "put on the new self." In other words, we are called to become our true selves as children created in the image of God the Father. This is true repentance, as the Greek term metanoia in the original gospel texts suggests. Metanoia implies striving for a genuine change of heart, attitude, and direction in one's life. It means turning toward God in our daily lives.

So, true repentance during Lent is not just temporarily "giving up" something--with an eye toward self-improvement--that we will likely take back up again come Easter Sunday. Genuine repentance is associated with positive, lifelong transformation. During Lent, we focus more intently on becoming who we are called to be in Christ, on being renewed in the spirit of our minds, and on putting on the new self created in the image of God--now and forever.

During Lent, it is OK to strive to tame our sinful tendencies and weak natures by giving up something. But if we want to fully repent in the true spirit of the gospel, we must ask ourselves what we intend to "take up" in order to grow closer to God and our neighbor--in ways that are lasting and life-giving. Examples may include volunteering a little time each month to a local charity, committing oneself each week to a sustained period of Eucharistic adoration or quiet prayer, looking for ways to say something good about people we don't necessarily like all that much, spending more time with family, engaging daily in lectio divina (prayerful reading of Scripture), making that visit we've been putting off to a sick/elderly relative or friend, asking God for the wisdom and strength to remedy an injustice against someone, inviting a lonely acquaintance to lunch or dinner, swallowing our pride and sincerely congratulating a colleague chosen over us for a much sought-after promotion, or seeking to be more patient and forgiving in daily interactions. Those are just a few possibilities--the choices are endless.

So, yes, as we repent, let us turn aside from every evil. But by God's grace, let us also do good, as we seek and strive after peace to become our true selves. There is no time to waste. As Jesus says, "This is the time of fulfillment." Let us fully repent, and not only believe the good news (of God's steadfast love and mercy) that Jesus proclaims, but be the good news by allowing ourselves to really be changed by it--not only for Lent, but for our entire lives.

"If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me."
Luke 9:23

Monday, February 16, 2015

A prayer for Lent

A prayer for Lent based on this past Sunday's Gospel reading (Mark 1:40-45) -- with several other references as well...

Touch Us, Jesus

Jesus, as you feed us
with your Body,
make us one with you.

Heal our weary bodies,
our worried minds,
our wayward souls.

If you wish,
you can restore us,
make us clean.

Stretch out your hand
and touch our
and poverty.

Stretch out your hand
and touch our
and fear.

Stretch out your hand
and cure our
disordered desire,
and pride.

Through your sacrifice on the cross,
gather together in yourself
all that are lost or separated,
driven by hostility,
or choked by thorns.

Renew our faith, hope, and love.
Inspire in us self-restraint,
and integrity.

Grant us holy wisdom,
and awe for our Creator.

As you feed us
with your Body,
may your healing touch
produce in and among us:
decency, restraint, and humility;
faithfulness, gentleness, and generosity;
goodness, compassion, and patience;
peace, joy, and love.

A clean heart create for us, O Lord,
and renew within us your steadfast spirit.

Heal our weary bodies,
our worried minds,
our wayward souls.

Touch our stony hearts
and give us hearts
at one with yours.


Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Faith in the familiar

"Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown,
and among their own kin, and in their own house."
Mark 6:4

Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying goes. We think we know a person, have him or her figured out, and are familiar with his or her background, thought processes, attributes. Nothing—we think—that he or she can do, or say, will surprise us.

Impossible! No person thoroughly knows another—no matter how close they are, how much time they spend with one another, or how long they have known one another. Even the most intimate of companions or spouses have unexamined or developing aspects of themselves. One’s skin contains only one person, and even he or she doesn't fully comprehend who that person is or will become. Only the Creator of all knows all, as recounted in Psalm 139:

O Lord, it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
… Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days
that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.

When we human beings think we really know someone (thinking we are God?), we tend to miss or dismiss their potential, to impose superficial limits on our own perspective (and that of others)—and, quite possibly, on the capabilities of the person in question. We observe someone and then shake our heads, cluck our tongues, and say, “He’s always been that way.”

Another opportunity lost!

I once worked with someone who, at the beginning of the shift, would smile, rub his hands, and proclaim, “I’m excited about the possibilities!” It was an inside joke in a difficult work environment, but he also really meant it. His was a voice of optimism in what could be an otherwise negative atmosphere. His proclamation gave me hope—and no small measure of amusement.

Such an attitude opens doors, presents fresh opportunities, and brings to light new perspectives. At its core, this is faith, pure and simple.

Applying this to our relationship with a person we may think we know all too well, we should ask ourselves: Can I allow myself to be excited about the possibilities; to be open to a new encounter with the same old, same old; to see and hear the presence of Christ within another person despite (or because of) all that I think I know about that person?

In the gospels, Jesus tells us that we are to find him in one another (cf. Matthew 25:31-46). So, in this light, we also should ask ourselves: Am I able to have faith in Christ’s presence in the familiar, in what and whom I know (or think I know)?

Even Jesus was taken for granted by those who knew him, as illustrated in Mark’s Gospel (6:1-6). Familiarity—even with Jesus—bred contempt. Jesus attempts to proclaim the Good News in his native place, but is met with scorn by those who have known him for quite some time: “Where did this man get all this? … Is this not the carpenter, the son of Mary…?” In other words: “Who does he think he is? We know him, where he came from. He’s got some nerve trying to tell us what’s what!”

And so Jesus laments, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Those who were (arguably) most familiar with Jesus exhibited a remarkable lack of faith. Because of this, we are told that Jesus “could do no deed of power there … He was amazed at their unbelief.”

Familiarity is often an obstacle to faith—for all of us. And without faith, we will not experience God’s presence and mighty works. We do well to regularly ask ourselves: Do I too easily dismiss the familiar (whether it’s a person, thing, or circumstance? Or do I look in faith for the possibilities?

As flawed human beings, we tend to place a disproportionate amount of belief in strength, outward beauty, and wealth. When someone seemingly without such qualities—even Jesus—presents us with a prophetic challenge to look with an open heart at what and whom is all too familiar, it is easy to overlook, dismiss, or scorn. We often forget that “power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9), and that such power is the only remedy for the original sin of human pride. In this way—embracing weakness—God became man, was born of a virgin, was quietly raised in humble circumstances, performed mighty deeds and taught great truths within the ordinariness of human living, was betrayed and crucified as a common criminal…and then was resurrected.

Jesus’ words call each of us to look with the eyes of faith at everything and everyone around us, to see the presence of Christ, to detect brand-new possibilities within the familiar, and to acknowledge the power inherent in the “weakness” of another. What can this familiar person, this thing, this circumstance, teach me today? We are called to hear the prophetic witness of the Good News from the most unlikely of sources, and to acknowledge that as much as we know, we really don’t know… Except, that is, through faith in the Person of Christ, who is all in all (cf. Ephesians 1:23). When we allow him to enter our hearts, we can then ask, as did the inhabitants of Jerusalem on Palm Sunday: “Who is this? (Matthew 21:10). Then, the knowledge of who Jesus is will truly reveal us in relation to God and one another.

Through faith, the power of God’s Word—Jesus Christ—is made perfect in what is weak and familiar.

--Adapted from Grace in the Wilderness
by Br. Francis de Sales Wagner, O.S.B.
© 2013, Abbey Press Publications