The Grace that comes from Easter begins in the Wilderness of Lent: A Post-Lenten Reflection

download 2Author’s note:  I apologize for the lack of postings of late.  I have recently had surgery on my knee and I am playing catch-up with my homilies.  This special post is a culmination of Holy Week and Easter season.

In all my years of being a Christian in the Catholic Tradition, I doubt that I have had as much self-reflection and discernment in my faith as I have had these past five months.  The role that I placed myself within my Parish and my self-importance was different than what it had been-and what it SHOULD have been- at the moment of my ordination.  The image that what I wanted to display was one of the “go-to” guy to take the pressure away from the Pastor so he can plan his retirement.  But what the role became was someone who was seen as “Mr. Indispensable.”

When a person thinks they are indispensable, the sins of Pride and Vanity creep up in their lives and become more important in their mind than those whom they are helping and, unfortunately, more important than God.  Having confidence in one’s abilities is one thing, and important to be a success.  But it is another to place ourselves as the center of our faith replacing God.  To be indispensable means that we can do no wrong; that is the definition of God, not Man.

This could be the reason why Jesus went into the wilderness after being baptized by John in the Jordan River.[1]  John had been preparing his disciples for the Messiah, but assuring them that was not him.[2]  When Jesus did arrive to be baptized, the names that he was called could have caused him to think he was more important than the Father (who announced Jesus as his beloved Son)[3], or the Holy Spirit (who descended down on Jesus like a Dove)[4].  This thought would have placed him out of the Holy Trinity and, effectively, above God.  Even John’s pronouncement of Jesus as the “Lamb of God” would have made someone have delusions of self-grandeur.[5]

I had faced a similar situation earlier this year.  After I had received my Master’s Degree in Pastoral Theology, I had thought my life would change and I was on the path toward full-time ministry.  When I was asked to take over our Parish Pastoral Council, I believed I was on my way.  What I soon found out was that for all my abilities and accomplishments, if I do not treat those around me as equals and respect their abilities, I am nothing but a narcissist.  Because of the result of that attitude, tensions became strained with the Parish to the point where I had to get away from the Parish and gather my thoughts.

Before Jesus had got caught up in his self-importance on earth, he retreated to the wilderness, away from all distractions so he can hear the voice of his Father.[6]  He used this time to prepare for the ministry that he was to do on Earth; and yet he already knew what his purpose was.  It was the purpose that showed the Universe who he was from the beginning:  A beginning that did not start in the wilderness nor in the Temple nor at his birth but at the start of the Universe itself. “In the beginning was the WORD; and the WORD was with God; and the WORD WAS God.” [7]

When I had gone away, I did not want anyone to know the reasons for my absence.  It was not their concern.  I could not see what the power was doing to me.  Then to add the pressures of my regular job (I work for a national utility company in their customer service department) had caused my mental state to reach a stretching point.  I felt the world was crashing around me and in order to maintain my control I had to push back.  I had taken these positions as a point of pride, but they were just preparing me for the fall.  I fell hard, but the fall had already started, so the landing was not as hard.  The mentors that I spoke with gave me the proper insight to help myself and enabled me to work a bit better back in my parish and at my work.

When Jesus returned from the wilderness, he may have thought his temptations were over.  On the contrary, they were the just the beginning.  The Devil viewed his human weakness as an opportunity to control his humanity by preying on his divinity.  When Jesus came from the wilderness, he was tired and hungry.  The Devil tempted him three times to use is power to refresh his body, his mind and his soul; and three times Jesus refused to give in to the temptation.[8]  He realized the danger when our bodies are tired and hungry that we may try to do whatever or agree with whomever to make us better, stronger and popular.  When we are down, we look to find things or people who will take our pain away.  Yet we realize that when we seek what help us, we replace God’s plan with our own.

During Lent, I spoke about the four methods of self-importance.  They were the methods I realized I had done prior to my “journey in the wilderness.”  I place them here for review:

The first view comes from one who is totally blind of the world around them.  They do not know nor do they care.  They are acclimated to the world, know how to function, and do not care if their lives get any better.  They have no reason to think their lives will get any better.

The second view is one of societal assumptions.  We may not know the reason why we do something; we just know we do because we were told it was the only way to do it.  It was just fine with their parents, and it is just as fine with us.  It is at these moments we begin to hear the song “Tradition” from “Fiddler on the Roof.”

The third view is in the form of the “societal arbiters.”  These are the ones who gain influence over others by association and laud it over those who are not in line with their view of the world.  These groups can get their members from the other groups who are looking to be better but are not sure who to join.  That seems more like dependency than determined opinion.

A final view comes from a person’s lack of self-confidence.  When someone gets bullied or ignored as a child, that pain will manifest into either a flawed sense of domination or a continued peer-subservience.  Their lack of engagement with others does not prepare them for the simplest disagreements so they stay in their own little world and blame others for their own unhappiness.  Whichever view is held, it still comes to only one conclusion:  that anytime we act for ourselves alone we prevent the Grace of God to act for us.

Our path from self-importance to salvation starts with our moving away from our work being for ourselves and for our God.  It some cases, that path requires us to go backward in our lives so that we can move forward to the beginning.  And that beginning starts with understanding who Jesus was and what his life on Earth means for us as he continues his ministry through us as he lives in Heaven.  “In the Beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God; and the Word WAS God.”  This was the time when everything came into focus for God and the world was created because of it.  So he sent someone to prepare for the coming of the Son of God.  “A man named John was sent from God.  He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.”[9]

It continued in a cave.  That light did not come with a flourish of trumpets nor found in a palace bed, but in the cries of a small child born of a carpenter in a cave used to store the animals at night in a town he was not from.  “And the word became flesh and dwelt among us.”[10]  He was wrapped in swaddling clothes that resembled the wrappings of someone who had just died.  His mother placed him in a manger; the place for putting food out for the animals to eat.  The light of the world came to earth to be the food in which all will partake to enter Paradise.

His coming was foretold by the prophets that waited for a Messiah.  But the kind of Messiah they wanted was not the one God had sent.  It was John the Baptist who came to prepare the way of the Lord.  “He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  There is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”[11]

As I was on my retreat, there was a moment that I felt that I was “unworthy to untie the sandal strap.”  The chapel inside the retreat center looks upon the large church used by the monks.  The windows behind the altar of the chapel are in a criss cross design, and they looked like prison bars.  I had been to the church many times for Mass and daily prayers, but this particular morning I could not see myself entering those doors.  So I just stayed in the chapel.

At one point, I went up to the window and looked across the way.  I felt like the rich man staring across the chasm toward Heaven.[12]  Something was stopping me from going over, so I sat down to focus on it.  As I did, the prayers that I were doing took a deeper meaning.  They were not being recited, they were being said, as if I was speaking them from the heart rather than from the book.  It was like the same moment a musician or singer stops performing notes on the paper and making music to the world.  Then I looked down at my hands.  When once they were together as in conventional prayers, they had a hard time being put together and were in the position in front of my body as if I were holding someone else’s hands sitting across from me.  I was not the person leading the prayers; I was the person being led by the one who the prayers were meant. I was being guided through the prayers and now understand that is how our prayers need to be done:  not as a recitation, not as a reading of ancient texts but as a guide to help us communicate with God and allow us to be led by them to Paradise.

When Holy Week came, I had a new insight into the Passions being proclaimed to the Church.  When I spoke about this on Good Friday, I talked about the rationale behind this.  During Holy Week, the Church proclaims two versions of the Passion Narrative:  one on Palm Sunday taken from the Gospel of that year (this year being Matthew) and on Good Friday which always comes from the Gospel of John.  Why is that?  Each Gospel has its own account of what happened and what Jesus did on the way to Golgotha.  For example, we have all heard about the Seven Last Words of Christ.  But not all of the seven words are in all four.  Matthew and Mark only have one word noted, while Luke and John have three separate words.  In Matthew, we hear Jesus cry out, “My God, My God, why have you abandoned me?” that come from the beginning of the 22nd Psalm.  The psalm continues saying that I cry by day to God, but get no answer; and at night I find no rest.  Yet God is holy, enthroned on the praises of Israel; their fathers cried out and were rescued; they trusted God and were not put to shame.  This psalm runs parallel to Jesus’ cry in the Garden.  According to Fr. Raymond Brown, Matthew “does not hesitate to show Jesus in the utter agony of feeling forsaken as he faces a terrible death.”[13]  By contrast, John’s Gospel is portrayed as someone who understood this moment and had prepared for it from the time of his birth in that cave in Bethlehem.  “He is not a victim at the mercy of his opponents,” Brown continues, “since he has freely chosen to lay down his life with the utter certitude that he will take it up again.” [14]

This image of Jesus is demonstrated in the words John writes while he was on the cross.  Like anyone who has accepted their fate, they move to get their affairs in order.  Jesus sees his mother standing in front of him with the Apostle whom he loved.  He gave his mother to the disciple; and the disciple to his mother.  This made the disciple her son, and therefore, Jesus’ brother.[15]

He then tells the crowd that he thirsts.  When he is given wine to drink that was in a sponge attached to a sprig on hyssop, John brings back images of the First Passover, where hyssop was used by the Hebrews to sprinkle blood from the Paschal Lamb on their door posts.  When Jesus drank the wine, he declared “It is finished” in which he gave up his spirit and died on the cross.

These two Gospels, bookending Holy Week, take this image of the Crucifix and take it from being a badge of belonging to the Key of Salvation.  As we continue our Easter Triduum, let us heed the challenge from Pope Francis to wear the Cross not as an ornament but as a promise; a promise that we are to do for others what He did for us when He was nailed to the Cross.  Not an image; Not a morbid curiosity; Not a fantasy; but a reality that transcends all time for those who understand and truly believe in the Cross that can truly call themselves, without hesitation, a Christian.

Not only had I taken a different view of the prayers, I have also looked at some of the images we have in the Church to assist us in our worship of God.  On that same day, I asked the congregation when they see the crucifix, what comes to their mind?  Is it just an image?  Is it an ornament to hang on a wall or a badge to wear around your neck?  Do they just see it as a piece of art that they didn’t like because it portrays a dead man?  To view the crucifix is not just to look on it as a symbol of Church identity but as a reminder of what was done for us to gain our freedom from sin and death.  That is what we are supposed to have in our minds when we think of the crucifix, anyway.

And yet, we still use it as some ID charm, or worse, a way to show moral superiority over those around us, including our brothers and sisters in the faith.  This was a concern Pope Francis spoke about last week at Mass.  He asked his congregation that day, “What is the cross for us?  Yes, it is a Christian symbol, we make the Sign of the Cross, but often we do not do it well… the Cross is like a badge of belonging… that’s fine, but it shouldn’t be like a team badge, it must be instead a reminder of what became sin.  How do I wear the Cross?  As a souvenir?

When I make the Sign of the Cross am I aware of what I am doing?  Or is the Cross only a symbol of belonging to a religious group; an ornament, like a jewel with gold and many precious stones?”  Pope Francis then challenges them (and us) by asking “Have I learned to carry (the Cross) on my shoulders, where it hurts?”[16]  The Cross maybe just a symbol to some, but for those who understand, the Cross is the whole of Salvation for the entire world.

In coming from the wilderness, we are given the chance to lose our indispensability to the world.  We can only survive in the world when we help others so they can help us so that we can all succeed.  By looking at what Lent is to be (as a chance for purification) rather than what it has been (as a practice of sacrifice and repentance) then we can take its meaning in its fullness rather than as a disturbance in our lives.  Then Easter becomes much more intense than we have celebrated and, as a result, our faith becomes more intense, more enlivened and more authentic.  This is the true meaning of the Lenten and Easter Seasons and what we all should strive to attain.

 

 

 

 

 

[1]Mt. 3:13-17/Mk. 1:9-11/Lk. 3:21-22.

[2] Mt. 3:7-12/Mk. 1:2-8/Lk. 3:7-12/Jn. 1:26-27.

[3] Mt. 3:17

[4] Mt. 3:16

[5] Jn. 1:29-34

[6] Mt. 4:1-2/Mk. 1:12-13/Lk. 4:1-2

[7] Jn. 1:1

[8] Mt. 4:1-11/Mk. 1:12-13/Lk. 4:1-13

[9] Jn. 1:1-9.

[10] Jn. 1:14.

[11] Jn. 1:6, 26-27.

[12] Lk. 16:19-31.

[13] Brown, Raymond E.  “A Crucified Christ in Holy Week:  Essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives.” (Collegeville, MN.:  The Liturgical Press.), 1986, p.44.

[14] Brown, 57.

[15] Brown, 65.

[16] Agasso, Dominico Jr. “The Cross is not a badge; it must be carried on the shoulders, where it hurts” in The Vatican Insider (La Stampa). April 4, 2017 (www.lastampa.it/vaticaninsider/eng).

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