Cease striving, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
The God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Psalm 46 : 10-11
I admit that these two verses are not among those set for the reading of this psalm today at Mass. But they strike me as particularly apt for this point in Lent. “Cease striving,” the psalmist says (many translations have “be still”). Yet I don’t think about Lent as a time of rest. What place does rest have in a penitential season? Here I am, giving up and taking on (and not doing a stellar job of either, truth be told). Is the psalmist telling me to stop it?
Somehow I don’t think so. I think, rather, that the psalmist is reminding me (in these two verses and those to be read in Mass today) that all the abstinence and action that make up my Lenten observance aim for this end precisely: rest in God. To give up something I enjoy has a double effect: a certain suffering that comes from a want left unsatisfied, and the possibility for refreshment from another source, from God. And what have I taken on, but more time for reflection, more frequent attendance at daily Mass? This is a recipe for resting in God for me.
Because that is, after all, what God desires of us. Cease striving, says the Lord: I am God, I will be God, and I will be exalted. You can sit back and enjoy my strength; you can rely on my saving help. We see our need for that strength and saving help better, perhaps, when our Lenten discipline makes us want. How much more ready, then, will we be to enjoy the good things that God gives us–and to recognise their source–come Easter?
You do this, and I should keep silence?
Do you think that I am like you?
A sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me,
and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.
Psalm 49 : 21, 23
‘Do you think that I am like you?’ Too often, yes, I do think exactly that–that God is like me, like a human being. I mistake God for a finite being, whose love has limits, who can be offended in a way that makes forgiveness difficult. But God isn’t like that. As one translation of the Benedictus has it, ‘through the bottomless mercy of our God / one born on high will visit us’.
I like that. God isn’t like us. God’s mercy is ‘bottomless’–an inexhaustible reservoir of love and forgiveness. In my finitude, I run out. I run out of patience; my will to forgive fails. Bitterness creeps in, and resentment, too. But God has none of that: only love, and mercy, and patience, and compassion. I bring my failings and disappointments to God, and receive in return grace, and delight, and joy.
That doesn’t sound very Lenten. But all the penitential practices of Lent aim precisely at this goal: to make space for that joy and delight that should fill our hearts at Easter.
I wait for the Lord, my soul does wait,
And in His word do I hope.
My soul waits for the Lord
More than the watchmen for the morning;
Indeed, more than the watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, hope in the Lord;
For with the Lord there is lovingkindness,
And with Him is abundant redemption.
And He will redeem Israel
From all his iniquities. (Psalms 130:5-8 NASB)
Today, a challenge: can I be quiet enough in the midst of a crowded airport to reflect properly on the Scripture? The last few days have not been especially Lenten: a trip to Rome for my birthday and to see a friend. Gelato was involved.
Also, though, lots of visits to churches. Although I am a terrible tourist, and hate seeing ‘the sights’, I love visiting churches. I especially love those churches whose long years have seen many, many penitents and worshippers on their knees before God. Rome is full of those–churches where for centuries people have waited on the Lord.
But none of those churches is as dear to my heart as the beautiful and unassuming Santa Maria in Trastevere. Turing the corner yesterday evening, and finding myself in the piazza in front of the church was pure joy. And entering the church, hoping for a moment of quiet prayer, to find Mass beginning…was whatever is more wonderful than pure joy. It was the thing I had most desired, perhaps, as I thought about this trip to Rome. But I had not said so.
As I visited other churches in Rome over the past couple of days, I sometimes wondered about all the grandeur, and all those who had gone before, hoping in the resurrection. Eschatology has never been my strong suit. But there, in Santa Maria in Trastevere, I knew the lovingkindess of God. So, back to the usual tension between knowing God, and wondering how it all fits together. God is good, and yet…things can be hard, I can be uncertain.
So this psalm is for me, and for all who find the way difficult: ‘hope in the Lord, for with the Lord there is lovingkindess and abundant redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.’
Then the King will say to those on his right hand, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take for your heritage the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me drink; I was a stranger and you made me welcome; naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the virtuous will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you; or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome; naked and clothe you; sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “I tell you solemnly, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me.”
Matthew 25: 34-40
I confess I still tend to associate holiness with piety. But the rest of the passage from Leviticus, and the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s gospel suggest otherwise. God says, ‘be holy’; what follows is not an order for prayer and worship, but instructions in dealing with our neighbours. To live charitably–that is holiness.
So Jesus identifies with the needy: I was hungry, I was naked, I was thirsty, I was in prison.
Jesus changes everything. We expect to find God in holy places; he comes to us in a stable. We encounter God in the Eucharist; we also meet God in the person of the hungry, homeless stranger. Jesus is the image of the invisible God; in him the fullness of the deity was pleased to dwell. And he says he dwells among us still–in our hearts by the Holy Spirit; in his holy church, his body and his bride; and in those who hunger and thirst, those who are sick or in prison.
If I cannot love my brother or sister, whom I can see, then how can I say I love God, whom I cannot see? And how can I profess love for God while failing to love his image in the world, in every person? Holiness is as horizontal as it is vertical. And I am not very good at either loving God or loving neighbor, I realise. I need that new heart, that heart of flesh, that God wants to create in me, the heart fit to receive his love and to pour it our lavishly on others.
Lord in your mercy…