Summary: Change is necessary for every Christian to become like Jesus and Mary; it is essential, but it is seldom pleasant.
Second Sunday of Lent 2013
Change. One of my famous Christians once told me that the hard part about being a disciple of Jesus Christ is that we are always having to change. To be more like Jesus and Mary, we have to give up habits that keep us from them–gossip, overeating, the SI swimsuit issue, bigoted comments. In our spiritual reading, we are constantly challenged to change–to pray more intently, to fast from legitimate pleasures, to give more generously to the Church and to the poor. “Why do I always have to change?” we may ask. The answer is direct: we are incomplete people; if we don’t change to be more like Jesus and Mary, we will slide back into self-centered thoughts and behaviors. If we do not focus on letting the Holy Spirit change us into the self-giving person centered on the Father’s will that Jesus and Mary were, we will become like the people our consumerist society wants us to be: “Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.” We cannot attain to some state of blissful stasis. We either become true children of the Father or we become slaves of sin. Walt Disney said it well: change is inevitable; growth is optional.
The encounters with God described in today’s Scriptures are both attractive and terrifying, because in one way or another, they describe what God wants for us in prayer. Lots of people run away from the kind of intense, time-consuming prayer described in the Bible and the spiritual masters like Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross, and most of them use excuses like “I have no time,” or “prayer is boring.” But that’s not really the issue, is it? Our real fear is that giving ourselves over to prayer is scary. Reread the story of Abram. To reach this stage of intimacy with God, Abram had to live well beyond his eightieth birthday, and had to be a person of deep faith and prayer. That was hard work. And when he reached that point of his life, he was challenged by God even more. A strange sacrifice, a deep sleep filled with terrible dreams, a darkness of spirit and body that just about killed him–all these had to precede his encounter with the Lord. And that was just the beginning. Ultimately it led Abraham–who experienced even a change of name as part of his conversion–to Mount Moriah, where he was led to the brink of sacrificing all his hopes by immolating his only son, the son of God’s promise. I don’t think Abraham enjoyed even a moment of his encounters with God, but he remained faithful, and now the promise of unlimited descendants is fulfilled in the over one billion members of the Church alive today, and the many, many more of previous and future ages, besides the many millions of Protestants, Jews and Muslims who also claim Abraham as their spiritual ancestor.
St. Paul, writing rather late in his ministerial career, also could look back at intimate times of prayer that came without much enjoyment, but that strengthened him in his faithfulness to Christ. Paul, at that time called Saul, began his journey of faith as an observant Jew. In fact, he says in another letter that he exceeded in his religious works and prayer all of his contemporaries. He went even further. With his synagogue of Jews from the diaspora, he took part in the first persecution of the gang of Jewish renegades who called themselves followers of that Jew the Romans executed for treason–Jesus of Nazareth. When their deacon, Stephen, preached a sermon to the Jewish Sanhedrin that accused them of being unfaithful to the covenant of Abraham, he held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen to death. Then he got the proper authorization and began rounding up these Jesus freaks himself, even going off to distant towns to do so. All the while he continued reading the Torah and praying the prescribed prayers, seven times a day.
Most of us don’t think about what Saul was doing while he was walking with his team of Jewish police to Damascus. I think he was praying. And then he had his epiphany. A bright divine light blinded him and he fell on the ground. His companions saw the light and heard a sound but could not tell if it was thunder or a voice. But Saul heard the voice: Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goad. Saul knew that the voice was his Master, but he asked “Who are you, Lord?” The reply cut him to the heart: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Still blind, Saul let himself be led to the Christians of Damascus, where, in the most dramatic turn of religious history, he asked for baptism and took up the mantle that Stephen laid down at his martyrdom, and a new name that symbolized how short of God’s will he had fallen by his own merits. Paul prayed to God and was answered. There he found his joy, his life’s mission, but by no means could we call it a “fun” experience.