A call to change
Last year during his Ash Wednesday homily, Pope Francis said, “With its invitations to conversion, Lent comes providentially to awaken us…. Lent comes to make its prophetic appeal, to remind us that it is possible to create something new within ourselves and around us, simply because God is faithful, always faithful…. With this confidence, let us set out on the journey.”
Well, it’s Lent again! Let’s start with the basics: I don’t like Lent. Never have. Being a competitor, I just haven’t felt I was very good at it. It’s not the giving up or giving more that seems to be the challenge. I can surely muster up the self-discipline for that, at least for 40 days – and all the Sundays that don’t even count. I think the challenge for me has always been the expectation (have I mentioned that I’m competitive?). Perhaps it’s that I don’t like change. That is what this is all about, isn’t it? Changing our ways to make room for change in our hearts?
As I begin this reflection, I draw on the Litany of Non-Violence from the Sisters of Providence (I will draw on this throughout the reflection):
Provident God, aware of our own brokenness,
we ask the gift of courage to identify how and where
we are in need of conversion in order to live
in solidarity with Earth and all creation.
Today we have the opportunity to say yes to the journey of Lent. These 40 days recall Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus’ 40 days in the desert that prepared him for his public ministry. It prepares us to celebrate the mystery of the Cross, where the end of mortal life becomes the beginning of eternal life. It is a time to encounter God, to encounter Christ in others, and to respond with justice and compassion. It is a call to conversion, both personal and societal.
Deliver us from the violence of superiority and disdain.
Grant us the desire, and the humility,
to listen with special care to those whose experiences
and attitudes are different from our own.
Archbishop Oscar Romero has been in the news recently as he has been named a martyr for the faith, paving the way to his beatification. I would guess that that wouldn’t be as important to him as justice for the poor. The story of his conversion is well known. A conservative priest and bishop, he was suspicious of the reforms of Vatican II and troubled by Liberation Theology emerging in the Latin American Catholic Church. He believed in the basic goodness of those who were in power in El Salvador and did not see the need for an end to the social, political, and economic status quo. However, he was deeply moved by the suffering of the poor, those whose experiences were different from his own, the killing of priests and others at the hands of the death squads, and he became an outspoken critic of those in power, calling for an end to the repression. Even as he was being converted, he called for the conversion of the powerful who had turned against him. For his efforts he was assassinated as he celebrated the Eucharist.
Deliver us from the violence of greed and privilege.
Grant us the desire, and the will, to live simply
so others may have their just share of Earth’s resources.
One of the three pillars of Lent, almsgiving, gives us a deepened awareness of how blessed we are. We let go of some of our abundance so that others might prosper, too. The challenge is to examine our want for money, power, comfort, and privilege. By my race and nationality, I was born with a certain amount of privilege. By my gender I may have lost some of it, but overall, it has probably been regained with education and opportunity, job stability, family and community support. I know this is not true for all white, American women. Women the world over, including in our own backyard, suffer from religious and cultural norms that exclude them, or reduce them to less than fully human. As racial tensions ebb and flow in our own country, we realize that these are not isolated incidents with certain individuals, but they point to larger systemic ills in our communities and in society as a whole. Upon the death of a homeless man in our community just this week, the assistant to the mayor, lamenting the lack of funding that could have provided adequate housing to him, wrote to the St. John Center staff, “We seem to be a country comfortable with paying for punishment but not so willing to fund cures for societal ills.” As a covenant people, our baptismal call is to bear witness to the truth revealed through Christ, to be love and peace in our troubled world.
Deliver us from the silence that gives
consent to abuse, war and evil.
Grant us the desire, and the courage, to risk
speaking and acting for the common good.
I was struck by the language of the opening prayer prescribed for Ash Wednesday. It reads, in part, “Grant…that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint….” “Battle.” “Armed.” “Weapons.” Really? As one who believes that words do matter, I’m not sure this is the best way to engender a spirit of peace, especially in our troubled times. Someone has said, “Truth is what you get when truth is what you speak.” (Melissa Etheridge) The same could be said about love and peace. Peace is what you get when peace is what you speak.
Every day we are bombarded with stories and images of war and violence. Guns, bombs, drones, swords, and torture. All these — instruments of war — used to exert power and control. We pray for an end to violence. It begins with the setting down of these instruments so that our hands are empty to take up instruments of peace. While empty hands can cause much harm, they can also embrace, create, nurture, heal, liberate, share, and empower. Lent invites us to give up so that we have the capacity to embrace something new.
Deliver us from the violence
of irreverence, exploitation and control.
Grant us the desire, and the strength,
to act responsibly within the cycle of creation.
And here, we are invited to consider the third pillar of Lent, fasting. Fasting challenges us to give up in other ways, realizing that we take in more than enough to sustain us. This can be, but is not necessarily limited to food. There are many things from which we can fast — irreverence, exploitation, and control, for example. I heard some options several years ago that bear repeating: We can choose to fast from having the last word, or fast from holding on to a past hurt or memory. We can fast from always being right so that we can hear and hold sacred the truth of another. Fasting – how, when, where, and from what — involves choices. When we face temptation, as Jesus did in today’s Gospel, we also face choices. While we cannot avoid them altogether, we can choose to walk away from them. In that choice, we decide who we want to be and how we want to live. Jesus embraced fully the human reality of struggling to be faithful. He faced temptations and he made a choice — to go to Galilee and proclaim the gospel of God. “No doubt about it,” Sister Joan Chittister writes, “Fasting surely has something to do with peacemaking. It puts us in touch with the Creator. It puts us in touch with ourselves. It puts us in touch with the prophet Jesus who, fasting in the desert, gave up power, wealth, comfort, and self-centeredness, and teaches us to do the same. It puts us in touch with the rest of the creation whose needs now cry out in our own.”
The Litany of Nov-Violence concludes:
God of love, mercy and justice,
acknowledging our complicity in those attitudes,
actions and words which perpetuate violence,
we beg the grace of a non-violent heart.
The journey of Lent, indeed “our discipleship journey, is a constant call to move back onto the path that Jesus marked for us — a path that calls us to be instruments of God’s peace,” (Dave Robinson)
to sow love where there is hatred
pardon where there is injury
faith where there is doubt
hope where there is despair
light where there is darkness
joy where there is sadness. (Prayer of St. Francis)
The pastor of the Arab Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Aleppo, Syria, states that “being a pastor in this crisis is not as much about preaching as it is being with the people in their difficult time…. We are called to live in hope. We trust God and we do our job — praying, taking care of each other, reading the Bible and being an instrument of love and peace in this community. This is what we do, and this is the hope we live in.” (Rev. Ibrahim Nsier)
Yep, Lent is here again! Amidst the challenges and expectations, let us walk this journey together, seeking peace within our own hearts that we might bring peace to our homes, to our city, to our country, and to our world. Amen!
Thank you, Joan for a very powerful and challenging reflection.
Dear Joan – that was a profound and beautiful reflection. Thank you so much for giving Lent such substance.