Saturday of the second week in Lent

Who is a god like you, who pardons iniquity
And passes over the rebellious act
of the remnant of his possession?
He does not retain his anger forever,
Because he delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Micah 7: 18-19
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him
and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him
and kissed him.
Luke 15: 20
. . .
Here we are in Lent, ‘still a long way off’; Easter is weeks away, and the penitential season stretches further ahead of us than behind. Lent has only just begun, it seems, and I have not been wholly faithful to the discipline I set for myself.
Yet even while we are yet a long way off, the Father sets out to meet us on the road. If the transfiguration shines some resurrection light in the midst of Lent, the parable of the prodigal son is an eruption of mercy in the midst of our examination of conscience. Before I have even recognized my sins fully, God is on the way to meet me in my contrition, to ‘tread [my] iniquities underfoot.’
More could certainly be said about these texts, and about the prevenient grace of God (Calvin was right about that, but he certainly didn’t discover it!); but the only thing that really needs to be said is: Deo gratias.

Tuesday of the first week in Lent

Yes, if you forgive others their failings, your heavenly Father will forgive you yours, but if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either.
                                                                        Matthew 6:15
When Isaac of the Thebaid visited a community, he saw that one of the brothers was sinful, and he passed sentence on him. But when he was returning to his cell in the desert, the angel of the Lord came and stood in front of the door of his cell, and said, “I will not let you go in.” He asked, “why not?” The angel of the Lord replied, “God sent me to ask you, ‘Where do you tell me to send that sinful brother whom you sentenced?’” At once Isaac repented, saying, “I have sinned, forgive me.” The angle said, “Get up, God has forgiven you. In future take care to judge no man before God has judged him.”

*        *        *

The desert fathers and mother have quite a bit to say about forgiveness. Forgiving plays a key role in the training of the soul in humility. They seem to have taken Matthew’s warnings about forgiveness and not judging quite literally and very seriously.

I wonder if we really believe the words of Matthew’s gospel. On the face of it—reading the way the words go—it seems clear that forgiving is absolutely essential Christian practice. To refuse to forgive others is to refuse to receive the forgiveness of God; as it says elsewhere in the gospel, “the measure you give will be the measure you get.”

It is vital, according to Matthew and the desert ascetics, to forgive. It is also perhaps the most difficult of all sayings. We are not programmed to give way. Even the youngest talkers learn early on to exclaim, “No!” and “Mine!” We do not, on the whole, uphold turning the other cheek as a moral standard. Anger, bitterness, resentment, even murder can be justified (though not excused: justifiable homicide does not mean the perpetrator is innocent). We learn the right reasons for holding onto the wounds we have suffered. We recognize, of course, the failure in losing our temper over something insignificant. But we also know how to be properly angry, to retain the sins of those who have wronged us. We have been hurt: it is they who have hurt us who should ask forgiveness. They ought to make the first move. We want to make repentance or contrition the prerequisite for forgiveness.

But God doesn’t. God, the Lord, is slow to anger and rich in mercy. God is like the prodigal father, who goes out to meet his son, and interrupts his act of contrition with a call for celebration. God makes the first move…and the second, and the third, and so on. Always God’s mercy goes before us, making the way for our repentance. Forgiveness is part of God’s creativity—yes, God’s creativity. God makes a way where there is no way; God’s mercy is new every morning, welcoming sinners like me back into the sheepfold. And out of that same inexhaustible supply, the fountain of living water, we can draw grace to give away—if only we will.

Eternal Father, you forgive us without resentment and love us without reserve. By your Holy Spirit give us the grace to live in that love and to extend it to everyone we meet.

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger,
      and speaking of wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness,
And your gloom will become like midday.
And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water
       whose waters do not fail.
                                                       Isaiah 58:9-11 (NASB)

Incline your ear, O Lord,
     and answer me;
For I am afflicted and needy.
Do preserve my soul,
     for I am a godly man;
O my God, save your servant
     who trusts in you.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
For to you I cry all day long.
Make glad the soul of your servant,
For to you O Lord,
      I lift up my soul.
                                                      Psalm 86: 1- 4 (NASB)

.          .         .

Isaiah 58 is so beautiful that I almost want just to type it over again, and more of it. What can I possibly say in addition to ‘the mouth of the Lord’? Or I might just add the passage from Matthew’s gospel that tells of the calling of Levi, and concludes with Jesus’ explanation that he came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Today’s Mass readings are rich, and in some ways quite straightforward: God calls us to receive his mercy. Sinners need it, and the psalmist prays for it. God also calls us to be merciful. So Isaiah reminds us, in the loveliest prose.

That might, though, leave us thinking that we receive mercy and then give it. Maybe (I am sure sometimes this is my unconscious supposition) we should be full before we give–satisfied by God’s mercy, we show that mercy to others. But Isaiah suggests that it doesn’t work that way. Isaiah calls us to ‘satisfy the desire of the afflicted’ from the discomfort of our ‘scorched places’ and in the frailty of our weak bones. The ‘spring of water’ is not what we are before we attend to the needy, but is what God makes in us as we do.

I find this a very hard saying. With four young children–including a toddler and a girl with Down Syndrome who’s just about to enter adolescence–and a challenging job as a lecturer in a theological college, I often feel stretched pretty thin. Usually I feel more like an empty pail than a spring of water. Can I refuse to meditate on my emptiness, and look for the ‘hungry’ and the ‘afflicted’ (‘look out … for the interests of others’ says Philippians 2.4!)? Maybe. Maybe that is what it is, concretely, to ‘lift up my soul’ to the Lord, to trust in God for my help, my strength, and my satisfaction.

Whether I find myself able or not, it seems like Lent is a good time to try.

Deo gratias.

Thursday after Ash Wednesday

‘Choose life…’
                    Deuteronomy 30

.           .          .

The readings for Thursday after Ash Wednesday are quite a set. (You can find today’s readings at Universalis.) I intended to focus my reflections on the psalm for the day, but these three passages of Scripture are so fascinating I can’t help but take them together. Today’s psalm (Psalm 1) is sandwiched between a reading from Deuteronomy that centres on the injunction, ‘Choose life’, and the gospel passage in which Jesus says that whoever seeks to save her life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for the sake of Jesus and his gospel will save it.

This business of choosing life must be more complicated than I thought. I remember when I first read this passage from Deuteronomy, when I was maybe 20. I was amused–who needs to be told to choose life? Well. I think that perhaps choosing life is less obvious, and sometimes (often?) less pleasant than it might appear. ‘Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me’ hardly sounds like the same instruction as ‘choose life’. Yet that is precisely it, isn’t it? To choose life is to follow Jesus, whose own path involved entering willingly into suffering and death for our sake.

Psalm 1 makes it–choosing life–seem so attractive: to be like a tree planted beside flowing waters  sounds delightful. Who wants to hang out with sinners or scoffers, anyway?  Especially not when the alternative is presented in such beautiful imagery. I find it very easy to forget that scoffing or expressing disdain is not so far from ordinary, garden-variety sarcasm–all it takes is the right object. It is a pretty short step from there to ‘sinner’.

Lent is about taking up the cross; it is about choosing life. It is about taking the path that leads to the well-watered garden, a path that runs right through the valley of the shadow of death. It is a time to find Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and to follow him as he chooses life–our life–and gains it for us. Forgoing chocolate seems like a pretty paltry penance compared to our Lord’s passion. But as we follow in his footsteps, it is never about us and what we do: it is always about the imitatio Christi. Our imitation is always and only ever a pale reflection; it is a faint glow that comes not from our will to shine, but from our unwavering focus on the Light.

Ash Wednesday

Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to your steadfast love;
According to your abundant mercy,
  blot out my transgressions.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
  and done that which is evil in your sight,
So that you are justified in your sentence,
  and blameless in your judgement.

Create in me a clean heart, O God,
  and put a new and right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence,
  and take not your Holy Spirit from me.

O Lord, open my lips,
  and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.

                                              Psalm 51 [50]

.         .          .

Today we begin Lent, with ashes and penitence; we undertake practices that will, with the help of the Holy Spirit, turn us back to God. Today I acknowledge that, however satisfactory I think my Christian life is, I still need God to give me a clean heart, and a new and right (or steadfast, as some translations have it) spirit within me.

Psalm 51 is a psalm of David, the one that dates from his famous fall: his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband, Uriah. I can look back on my life since last Easter and see nothing quite so vicious in my own life. And yet–I know my transgressions, I know the dark and cold places in my own heart. I know that ‘I have greatly sinned, in thought and word, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.’ My inattention to the Holy Spirit bears fruit of impatience and anger, envy and despair and resentment.

And so I pray with David, ‘Cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation’. However much penance I might undertake this Lent, however carefully I might scrutinize my conscience, I cannot do what needs to be done for myself. I can only empty myself to welcome the risen Lord, who himself will give the clean heart that will receive him at Easter.

Thursday of the thirty-first week in ordinary time

But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.
Romans 14:10 NASB
“In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Luke 15:10 NASB
. . .
Just one. One matters to God. If God is out looking for the lost, if Jesus spent his time with tax collectors and ‘sinners’, then what possible grounds can any of us have for passing judgment on one another? That person I regard contemptuously matters to God as much as my friends do, as much as I do.
It is not new–surely our equality before God is a theological commonplace–but it is sobering. Awhile back, I made a rule for myself. It’s not really a rule of life; I tried all sorts of things and could never quite manage the timetable. Much as I would love to pray the office daily, in solidarity with my ‘home’ abbey in Kent, I can’t. But while I was there I realized that a very simple rule would do: not to speak a harsh word to, or about, anyone, even in my heart. I suppose something like Romans 14: 10 might have been rattling around in the back of my mind as I thought about this rule.
I never thought it would be easy. But it has proved a lot more tricky than I thought. Because judging and regarding with contempt (both count as ‘harsh’!) aren’t always conscious. I just don’t ‘warm’ to this person or that person; I am inattentive. Sometimes I suppose that’s fair enough–it’s human to like some people more than others. Sometimes, though, that coldness hides a deeper dislike. Maybe it’s envy, maybe it’s scorn, based on some less-than-conscious judgment about the character of the person, or arising from feelings of insecurity on my part.
So of course the whole ‘no harsh words’ has not been a perfect success. I have, not surprisingly, failed. Still, insofar as I have become more aware of my own inclination to judge or to dismiss others, the enterprise has been, and continues to be, worthwhile. And today’s gospel reminded me why the rule is so important. It isn’t because I want everyone to think I am nice. It’s because there is joy in heaven over one who repents. There is no contempt for the sinner in heaven, only joy at her repentance.
I still have a long, long way to go.
Kyrie eleison.

Thirty-first Sunday in ordinary time

You can do all things and overlook [people’s] sins so that they can repent.
Wisdom 11: 24
. . .
Somehow–maybe it was struggling to keep the two-year-old quiet–I didn’t hear this in Mass this morning. Not that it wasn’t read: it was read by the son of my two-year-old’s godmother. But I missed it, and the priest didn’t comment on it in his homily, which focused on the gospel. Fair enough, I suppose. There is a good deal to say about Zacchaeus. Still, the readings in the lectionary are ordered, and combinations occur for a reason. Sometimes that reason is pretty hard to discern, but today it is less puzzling.
At least it’s less puzzling if you happen to be a Catholic who has strayed far into Reformed and Evangelical territory. Then the prevenience of grace leaps out of every page of the Bible–even the books of the Bible that only appear in the Catholic editions of the Bible. And here it is in the book of Wisdom. I always associate Wisdom with the key passages in chapters 7-9, about the role of wisdom in creation, including one of my favourites: omnia disponit suaviter, [widsom] arranges all things delightfully. So finding this other theme of the Bible, the grace of God that makes way for the sinner’s return, there in Wisdom is, well, delightful.
And it is, of course, this path-breaking grace of God that drives Zacchaeus up the tree. The change has already begun. Can it be anything other than the Holy Spirit that draws Zacchaeus to Jesus? I don’t think so, and I could quote some early church theologians to support that claim. Besides, Jesus does just what the verse in Wisdom says: he “overlooks” Zacchaeus’ sins, so that he can repent. Religious leaders aren’t supposed to hang out with infamous sinners, but Jesus doesn’t seem too worried about that. He sees beyond the sin, sees the person who needs the space to repent. Jesus makes repentance possible.
Two things follow from this, for me. First, I am struck by the space-making work of Christ. I have noticed it elsewhere in the gospels (see Mark 5: 30-34, for example), but never connected it to Zacchaeus, to repentance. So also, I realize, Jesus is making space, always, for my repentance. Am I perceiving it? Do I enter into that space, or do I avoid it? (I’m not certain, but I am more determined to get to confession this Saturday!) Second, and this is something that has been tugging at me for a little while, Jesus makes space for pretty unpleasant people. Tax collectors are the bad guys in the first century, not the people the messiah is supposed to befriend. Who are the people around me that Jesus wants to befriend? I’m guessing they’re not the people I would ordinarily find friend-like.
No wonder I haven’t seen that space for repentance as space for me: I have just divided the people around me into people like me (friend-like) and people who need space for repentance. The fact that both (1) that Jesus makes space for me to repent and (2) Jesus makes space for “obvious” sinners–the “tax collectors” of our day–to repent means that I am not so different as I might like to think.
Luckily, there’s plenty of that prevenient grace to go around.
Deo gratias.