Ash Wednesday, this year on March 5, 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, are offered to help you during your Lenten journey. Adapted for the web, the reflections and prayers below for the Cycle A 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 - Put to the Test
"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, after which he was very hungry, and the tempter came... " (Mark 4:1-2)
The scriptural readings of today draw a parallel between the temptation of Adam in the Garden of Eden and the temptations of Jesus in the desert. We are familiar with both stories. We are also familiar with temptation.
The first Adam, surrounded by all good things to eat in a horticultural paradise, fell. He wanted the knowledge that would make him a god. The second Adam, Jesus, hungry and surrounded by barren wastes, stood. He was obedient to the ways of God which are not our ways.
The first story describes our human condition: sinful and vulnerable. The second story, in the replies of Christ to the tempter, lists the priorities we must have if we are to survive the human condition. We could have bread and still be dead, without God's word. We could expect God to turn up at our beck and call and we could judge God, put God to the test, instead of really trusting God.
We may worship — that is, have as a first priority — something that is not God. What might it be? On what do we make the biggest sacrifice of time, money, interest, energy? Is there time left for prayer and the company of God in our garden?
An old adage said: Tell me who your friends are and I'll tell you who you are. We could read: Tell me who your god is, I'll tell you who you are. That is perhaps the real test.
Which of the three temptations is closest to my life today? What is the obstacle that must be turned into a stepping stone on my road? What is it that I must face in my desert?
Lord, my greatest temptation, the one that seems to recur and recur is ____________. It seems to distance me from you though I believe in your great love for me. Is there something or someone you have sent to help me — as angels were sent to comfort and strengthen you in your desert? Stand by me and with me in this difficulty and share with me your faithfulness.
Second Sunday in Lent - On the Mountain of Vision
Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain. There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun... the disciples fell on their faces, overcome with fear. And when they raised their eyes they saw no one but only Jesus... “Tell no one about the vision until the Son of Man has risen... “ (Matthew 17)
We associate mountains with vision. A mountain is a place where one can go "up, up and away" from the usual busyness of life. Standing on such a high place, one can see a long way to other shining ranges and future possibilities. It is like being in another world and it is exhilarating.
Abraham was told to "go to the land of vision" and sacrifice his son on the mountain. There he received the new vision of lands, people and the blessing of all nations. But he had to go on the promise and leave all that had been familiar. The same happened to Moses who saw the bush burning on the Mount. Before him was set the vision of a freed people, a promised land and a God who IS. But this Moses who appears on the mount of transfiguration had also to journey first through desert places in an Exodus.
The close companions of Jesus are invited up the mountain and given a glimpse of Jesus in the glory of God. They want to stay there — naturally! But, like Abraham and Moses, they must descend into the valley of suffering and darkness. They are to walk the way of the cross and, leaving everything, die before the vision they have just had will be fulfilled.
No one is as dead as a person without a vision. We are told by survivors of death camps that people without hope, purpose or a vision of life, died before their time came. Those who had a vision of one day being released and being united with loved ones and going on with their lives, were able to endure most terrible sufferings. Indeed, there would be no Glen Goulds, no Terry Foxes, no Mother Teresas without a great vision. But no vision is attained without sacrifice and the letting go of one’s life in some way. In that sense, life is very like a trapeze!
What is the vision that I live by? What is my vision of Christ Jesus? In what ways and moments has he shown me his glory? What is my hope for the Church and for the human race? And what am I willing to do and to endure to make that vision real?
Let us give thanks for the gift of faith which in its way is truly vision. Let us give thanks that the apostles shared with us their faith and their vision on the mountain. May we never lose the vision or doubt that it will be fulfilled for us as for you, Christ Jesus, in your resurrection to glory, of which your transfiguration was a promise. We believe! Help us to live by our faith-vision.
Photo by Elaine Guidinger CSJ
Third Sunday in Lent - Water
When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, 'Give me a drink'... 'If you only knew what God is offering and who it is that is saying to you: Give me a drink, you would have been the one to ask, and he would have given you living water.' ... 'Sir, said the woman, 'Give me some of that water...'" (John 4)
Thirst is a dreadful and wonderful thing. Physical thirst tells us our body needs liquid and so it regulates our intake. In drought, in heat, in desert, thirst becomes unbearable.
There is also spiritual thirst. Unlike bodily thirst, we can dull it or drown it in material satisfaction, or harden our hearts against it or even extinguish it, like shutting our doors and windows to a small pleading voice.
Did Jesus perceive a thirst still alive in the outcast woman of Samaria who came alone to the well? Though not of good reputation, she was open to what Jesus was offering. First he made appeal to their mutual physical need for water. But his second offer was about a deeper well, the spring of life with which the Spirit of everlasting life resides and acts.
The woman takes the offer. She gives Jesus a drink and in return he gives her the water of life. It is a free gift like the one we received through the water of baptism from the goodness of God in Christ. We deserved it no more than the Samaritan woman. Do we use it as well?
Do I believe in the water of life springing up within me? Do I live creatively because of it? Do I call upon the power of life that it is? Do I "drink from my own well"? Do I share this water as the Samaritan woman did?
Christ Jesus, give us always that water in abundant supply so that we may not thirst nor go elsewhere for water that does not slake our thirst. May we never give up but push on through our own deserts, knowing that water will always be welling up within us. May we never murmur against you, doubting that supply of water which you have promised will be like a fountain within us.
Photo by Elaine Guidinger CSJ
Fourth Sunday in Lent - Now I See
As Jesus went along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth... 'I am the light of the world.' Having said this, he spat on the ground, made a paste with the spittle, put this over the eyes of the blind man... So the blind man went off and washed himself, and came back with his sight restored... 'He is a prophet,' replied the man. 'I only know that I was blind and now I see... '" (John 9)
God sees the heart. That is not a threat. It is in our favor. God does not judge by appearances otherwise, David, a mere boy, would never have been anointed with oil to be the shepherd-king of his people.
The blind man whom Jesus met was "judged" to be in sin but it was not so, and he was given sight by that strange and earthy anointing with mud by the one who is light. The man saw and he proclaimed Jesus insistently. The man was no theologian, doctor or teacher, but one thing he was sure of — that Christ had opened his eyes. Neither threat, nor contempt, nor repeated interrogation could make him change his story.
It was not a very classy anointing — mud on the eyes! But it was a "classic" illustration God uses that our healing can come through ordinary things, like hands, earth, and words of forgiveness.
We were anointed with oil at baptism and at confirmation. Oil is used in consecration. It is a symbol of strengthening and health. We too have been called out of darkness, given sight so that we need not stumble around in the dark. We are to live awake, as children of light with open eyes.
Are there areas of my life in which I prefer to remain in darkness? Do I proclaim Jesus with the same conviction as the blind man who had received sight? Do I live in the light of God's grace, God's word, God's light?
"I cannot cause light; the most I can do is try to put myself in the path of its beam," writes naturalist Annie Dillard in her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.
Open our eyes to recognize you in others, to see your power, your action and your presence all around us. May we see to walk your way and eagerly proclaim what you have done in our lives.
Fifth Sunday in Lent - Meant for Life
"'Our friend Lazarus is resting'... but they thought he meant 'sleep,' so Jesus put it plainly, 'Lazarus is dead...' Jesus said (to Martha), 'I am the resurrection... ' Jesus reached the tomb. Then Jesus lifted his eyes and said, 'Father, I thank you for hearing my prayer...' He called with a loud voice: 'Lazarus, come here! Come out!' The dead man came out. 'Unbind him and let him go free.'" (John 11)
We were not meant for death. Today's readings are about opening graves. Just as we first became eternally living beings by the breath of God (Genesis), so it is that same life-breathing Spirit that calls us to life, out of our grave-clothes that bind us. It is the strong Spirit with power to raise the dead. Jesus, in that Spirit, called Lazarus by name and he came out alive. One day that same Spirit would raise Jesus himself from the grasp of death.
Once in a hospital I spoke with a man whose wife was sick unto death in a nearby room. They had been in a car accident some months before. Now the woman was desperately in need of surgery but because of blood thinning against clots, she was bleeding dangerously. They waited on a decision. But the man told me, "She cannot live. She has given up. Will you come, please?" I went to her and said, "You must live, for your husband and children who will be so sad if you leave. You can live, you know." She looked at me like a child and whispered, "Can I really live?" "Yes." I thought she believed me. I prayed with her. Then I left. Some time later her husband met me and said, "She is ready for surgery."
Years later, the woman and I met in a department store in London and we recognized each other. She was very much alive shopping for her daughter's wedding. She had been in need, that day in hospital, for someone to call her from death to life and she had responded to the call.
We are to choose life. Sometimes it seems we cannot, but we can at least respond to the call as Lazarus did, as this woman did. This is called "conversion" and it happens both in the spirit and in the body.
Can I name that from which I need to be unbound and set free? Can I help others to choose life by being a sign of life to them?
Jesus, in the midst of your own sorrow and tears for your friend Lazarus, you called his name and he came to life. Fill us with your Spirit that we may choose life and live it fully in you. Call us out of our grave-clothes and set us free.
Artwork: Carnival Stars by Virginia Varley CSJ
Passion (Palm) Sunday - Passion and Palms: Love and Death
"And when they had finished making fun of him, they took of the cloak and dressed him in his own clothes and led him away to crucify him... When they had finished crucifying him they shared out his clothing." (Matthew 26:14-27:66)
God knows how to reply to the weary. He comes, human and destructible, emptied of glory, to walk with us. A true disciple of the Sender, he sets his face like flint and he never turns back but walks all the way to the end. Dogs surround him. He is sold as a slave. Then come the striking, the spitting, the mocking; finally, the lifting up between earth and heaven to die on a criminal's cross.
"If an enemy had done this..." it would have seemed less. But it was those whom he loved who yet did know him. What can one say to a young man in agony? What does one do for a dying man? Stand near, very near. Know that most will flee from the ordeal. Only a mother, a forgiven woman, a dear friend will stay. The sinful woman had already anointed him for his burial with an ointment whose perfume filled the whole house. It is enough. If, like her, we can receive forgiveness, accept that we are so loved, it is enough.
No wonder this is called "Passion," for is not passion the pouring out of love and its price suffering? Love and suffering are as one and cannot be separated.
For what am I willing to suffer? For whom? What is the reality of my love? Is it great-hearted? Is my love restrained and colorless or ardent, true and willing to bear all things?
May your name, Jesus, be forever and always remembered with love and proclaimed with passion among us. May we bow in silence at the reading of this your love story: your Passion and Holy Death.