Ash Wednesday, this year on February 13, is the first day of Lent, the time of preparation before Easter. For 40 days plus Sundays we are encouraged to pray, to fast, to do good works and to sacrifice something, to give something up. The following reflections, taken from a book called Until the Son is Risen written by Sister Mary Alban Bouchard CSJ, are offered in our Pray with Us section to help you during your Lenten journey. Adapted for the web, the reflections and prayers below for the Cycle C Year of the Lectionary (weekend readings are on a three-year cycle: A, B and C) will take you through the five Sundays of Lent and Passion (Palm) Sunday.
First Sunday in Lent - Questions of Bread and Other Temptations
Filled with the holy spirit, Jesus... was led by the Spirit through the wilderness, being tempted by the devil... Jesus replied: Man does not live on bread alone... — Luke 4
Were the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness temptations of another age, another time, of his day only? On the contrary, ours is a generation trying to live on bread alone as never before, at least in the northern hemisphere. The cult of the body has many devotees. At the same time we deny bread to those who have none and destroy our surplus with fire or plough under what we cannot sell for a profit, making a mockery of the reply: Man does not live on bread alone.
But we do hear other voices in our days, voices in our wilderness inspired by the Spirit, saying:
- Live simply enough that others may simply live.
- The economics of enough.
- Servant church, pilgrim church.
- Ecumenism — recognizing truth, goodness and faith in churches
- Justice is a necessary element of preaching the Gospel
- Development (bread) the new name for peace.
Do we recognize and listen to these voices and join our own to them?
Long ago, Isaiah asked: Why do you spend money for what fails to satisfy? We still need to ask ourselves the question. We do well to examine what answer we would make to the same temptations as Jesus faced and whether we even recognize them in our life. Do I share my bread but also feed my spirit with the bread of life? Whom do I really serve? Where do I think my real happiness lies? Do I look "outside the kingdom of God"?
Jesus was exhausted as he passed through his temptations. No one ever said choices were easy. But he knew where he stood: firmly in the kingdom of God. Where do I stand?
In response to the story of the temptations of Jesus and the temptations in your own life, say slowly and reflect on the meaning of the Lord's Prayer:
Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name
thy kingdom come
thy will be done
give us this day our daily bread
forgive us our trespasses as we forgive...
lead us not into temptation
Second Sunday in Lent - Paradox of the Mountain
Jesus took with him Peter, James and John and went up the mountain to pray... Suddenly there were two men there... they were Moses and Elijah... and they were speaking of his passing which he had to accomplish in Jerusalem. — Luke 9
The glory and the dazzling beauty of Jesus on the mountain and maybe, too, the sense of rightness and fulfillment were so great that the real topic of conversation went right over the heads of the disciples, notably over Peter’s. It was so good up here away from it all, away from the hassle of crowds and authorities. Peter’s reaction was to settle, to pitch camp. This was a holiday weekend he wished would never end.
But the paradox of the mountain is the paradox of life: we cannot stake as if to stay until our life work is accomplished. We have here no lasting city; yet we must stay and run to the final wire. We are ever ready to be pulled up by the roots; yet we must bloom where we are planted — here. We must pull up the tent pegs; yet we must abide here where our salvation is taking place. We must live here and leave here.
Like the apostles, we have something to accomplish in the design and kingdom of God. Like Abraham, Moses and Elijah, like Peter and the others, like the Church, we have our part to play in history, a part no other can play because we are each a unique creation. Our face has to be changed, like the face of Jesus on the mountain, to bear more and more the light and likeness of the glorified countenance of Christ.
Am I willing to labor faithfully until my life is accomplished? Am I willing at the same time to be uprooted, to pull up stakes? To go down into the valley of death with Jesus? How great is my hope of being transfigured like him and by him?
I believe, O God of all of us and God of Jesus Christ, that my life is significant in your eyes. I believe that I have my mission, my life, my passover to accomplish just as Jesus had his. As I journey by high mountain and deep valley, transform my life so that the glory of the cross of Jesus may shine in me.
Third Sunday in Lent - Spare and Save
But unless you repent, you will all perish as they did... He told this parable: A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it but found none... ’Cut it down! Sir, leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit next year.' — Luke 13
I have a liking for this parable because I have several little trees growing, sprung from sprouted seeds — orange, grapefruit, tropical, evergreen. I immensely dislike pruning. I cannot bear to cut the top growth off. As a result, my trees are spindly and fruitless. But the tried and true gardener cuts and prunes, digs and fertilizes. Of course, fertilizer "smells," whether it be fish fertilizer or just plain manure. Most of us do not like being manured or pruned. It is humiliating. It is painful. We often prefer to go fruitless. Wanting me to bear fruit and to be all that I can be as a child of God, my parent-God acts also as my gardener, applying both pruning hook and fertilizer.
It' s a funny thing about fertilizer: how can manure add up to fruit? How can being planted in the grave add up to resurrection? in new being? It is the paschal mystery and it works! The proof is in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The hand of God tending Jesus in the Gethsemane Garden brought us through him the fruit of our redemption. God spares us and spares all sinners in order to save them. And God spares me day after day — not only spares but nourishes — so that I may grow to full height bearing fruit for God’s glory and the good of my brothers and sisters. Why, then, am I so quick to cut down another?
Today, what is the fertilizer, the suffering that can turn barrenness to fruitfulness in me by God’s grace? What is God pruning in me? How is God digging me at my very roots these days? Am I willing to grow or do I resist? How may I help others to grow, by sparing them, loving them, forgiving and nourishing and encouraging them?
Dear Gardener, it is hard to accept your horticultural treatment, to be pruned of some branch I had proudly (or not) thrust out. It is painful, the digging down. It is really hard to take some of that fertilizer, especially from some people. I'd rather come off smelling like roses. Give me complete trust in your skill and care as Gardener, to shape me and make me grow and bear fruit of everlasting life.
Fourth Sunday in Lent - Cast of Three
'This man,' they said, 'welcomes sinners and eats with them.' So he spoke this parable to them: 'A man had two sons... The younger son... said to his father, "Father, let me have the share of the estate that would come to me... " He squandered his on a life of debauchery... — Luke 15
How well we know and love the story of the prodigal son, perhaps the best known and loved of all Jesus’ parables. But let us play out this story. First, you are the father or the mother. After what your youngest did (your youngest whom you just couldn’t help favoring and even spoiling just a little), what would you say? "Enough is enough! You chance and you blew it!"? Does one have to be God to forgive as in the story? Is it sufficient to be a loving parent whose heart has been broken?
Now take the role of the elder son or daughter. You are thinking that the youngest always "gets away with murder." "Why should I forgive? Isn’t that condoning evil? Haven't I a right to be angry?" You’re not going to give in. You’re not going to relent or repent because it’s not fair. (But isn’t Lent about repenting? letting go of grudges? changing our heart and our judgment?) What a struggle to be the elder!
And now you play the role of the younger one. Maybe after all, the younger one is the very one in the story you really cannot relate to. You’ve never been that rotten, surely! Or ever that down and out and undeserving of respect!
But there is one thing about being the younger son or younger daughter that you may relate to, as may we all; that is, we do not repent or change until we have to, until we are desperate!
On the other hand, perhaps you recognize yourself in the younger one’s true knowledge of the kind of parent (God) that you have. Do you trust that, in spite of everything, God will take you into a forgiving embrace when you let go and return?
In role-playing this story, what have you learned about yourself and your relationship to God? your knowledge of God as parent? What have you learned about yourself as child of God?
Jesus, I thank you for this amazing and timeless story of selfishness and love which reveals us and God. Thank you for your goodness and forgiving love. I return to you now, trusting not in my own goodness but in yours. I embrace you now, knowing you have already embraced me.
Fifth Sunday in Lent - One by One
Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery and Moses has ordered us in the law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say? — John 8:4-5
In Canada, in 1987, the question was raised of returning capital punishment by the State to Canadian law. There was a long, debate on the subject in the Parliament. Canadians, individually and collectively, sent letters, postcards, telegrams, telephone calls to their Members of Parliament arguing the case. There were many pros and cons. How does a government and justice system respond to increased violence in society and to legitimate fear on the part of the population and of victims in particular, if not with the threat of death for murderers? On the other hand, many asked: "Why do we kill people who murder others to show that killing is wrong?"
The vote in the Parliament of Canada on the motion to return the death penalty was a free, personal vote, not according to party. It took place at 1:30 on the morning of June 30, 1987 and many of us stayed up watching, waiting and praying. The members did not slink away: they stood up to be counted, one by one. The motion was defeated 148 - 127. Joy and celebration broke out in the House, not because of a political victory but because the Members knew they had done something good. It seemed to me to be a moment of grace in the middle of the night.
How difficult it is to distinguish in our own hearts and in cases close to home the difference between justice and vengeance, between forgiving and righteous anger. We have a certain disability in putting ourselves in the place of another person. If we were judging ourselves, we would no doubt find extenuating circumstances and beg for a chance to change our lives. In something smaller than the death penalty, how does my heart decide? How does my usual attitude towards all sorts of sinners.
What sins of mine have gone unpunished — for which I am most grateful? When has mercy healed (or when would it have healed) me where vengeance and punishment did not?
Jesus, what can I say in the face of this story? I, too, am speechless. How wise, how concerned, how kind you are! Let me watch and observe and absorb some of your goodness. But I know I too must answer the question posed to you. Let your gracious Spirit enable me to judge as you judge, forgive as you forgive.
Passion (Palm) Sunday - Not into Temptation
Pray not to be put to the test. — Luke 22
There are two translations of this phrase, one using the word "test," the other using the work "temptation." These two are not quite the same. The first seems to indicate a trial, the second a lure. The first would make us strong in endurance, the second might lead us astray. Jesus underwent the great temptations in the desert, as we read in the first Sunday of Lent. He overcame them with commitment to the Reign of God. In the garden, he again undergoes the terrible test of obedience to his passion and he overcomes again by his submission to God. He twice warns the disciples to pray not to be put to the test nor to enter into temptation. It is the same prayer as we find in the Our Father. It is not entirely clear what Jesus means.
In any case, one of the three disciples, Peter, had declared he would never deny Jesus, that he would pass any test. We know what happened: three times tempted, three times failed. Was he playing with temptation by hanging around the courtyard, curious to see the end? He was unable to withstand the digs of the servant girls. Had he left after the first accusation, the story might be quite different. It is a strong case for praying not to be put to the test.
Jesus himself was about to be put on trial before Herod, Pilate, his own people, the priests. Even the thief put him to the test: why don’t you save yourself and us, if you have the power? Jesus was taunted to come down from the cross. Was this the last and greatest temptation?
Might they believe, if he gave a show of power and came down? Might they? Could he win them all by the great escape? If he came down, would they all be cowed and never threaten him again? One thing is certain: Jesus taught us well to pray that we not be put to the test or to enter into temptation. "Lead us not into temptation": it is a mysterious phrase. Is it the terror of the end-time from which we pray to be delivered? Is it a prayer not to be tested beyond our strength in the trials we must endure in our lifetime? Is it a prayer for faith and trust in God? Perhaps it is really after all a prayer that we may never despair.
What is the great temptation of our time? What is putting people off the path? What is my own personal temptation? The reign of God is a very radical choice in our lives. We have seen what it cost Jesus. We have also, though, seen the fruit of his choice: God’s glory and our good. Have I really chosen God’s reign?
Lead us not into temptation. Do not allow us to lose faith in your promises and in your ability and will to draw good out of our suffering, to make good our death in resurrection. Do not allow us to be threatened so as not to trust you. Do not let us fall prey to fear or be driven by it. Do not allow the darkness to overtake us. Let your Holy Spirit guide and enlighten us in all our ways so that they may be your ways. Give us total trust in you. ”Father, my God, into your hands I commend my spirit."