Summary: Isn’t it true that when humans fail, sin, even commit the most awful injustices, God’s mercy is ever present, ever able to forgive when we repent?
First Sunday of Lent 2018
We come to Mass on the First Sunday of Lent, full of energy that has not diminished since we crowded the churches on Ash Wednesday. We know that the Word of God on this special Lord’s Day reminds us of the Lord Jesus’s battle with the Enemy of mankind, the one Scripture calls Satana–the adversary, and the old fashioned “lickin’” that the bad guy took. But in this second or “B” cycle of readings, we might feel disappointed with Saint Mark. The Gospel is so short that we might think he took an axe to the story, excising all the really interesting parts–the bread made out of stone, the scene at the highest part of the Temple, the vision of Christ turning down human political dominion over all the earth in favor of doing the Father’s will.
If the Church’s tradition about the Gospels is true, Mark was giving his community an abridgement of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Other evidence suggests it is St. Peter’s testimony and memory of the life of Christ. But whatever its provenance, Mark’s message was surely conditioned by the state of the church he ministered in, Rome, the center of the Empire and a community under persecution by the tyrant emperor Nero. There is a “curious, detached” quote from Jesus, found only in Mark. The disciples of Jesus are described in this way: “Every one will be salted with fire.” It could be the lead line for the Roman Church in the sixties of that fateful first century of the Faith. It has been the lead line for the Church over and over for 2000 years.
The Roman historian Tacitus describes Nero’s treatment of Christians, whom he blamed for the great fire of the year 64 AD: “Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination.” So Mark reminded the Romans that Jesus, too, was tempted by Satan, and was with the wild beasts, yet the Gospel, proven true by His Resurrection, spread through the whole world. Christ, too, was nailed to a cross, yet unlike the criminals who died cursing and screaming, His behavior during His unjust execution was so moving that the centurion in charge gave the eulogy: “Truly this man was the Son of God.” Thus even those Roman Christians who were arrested and imprisoned and executed were advancing the kingdom of God proclaimed by the Master.
When Jesus proclaimed that the “time is fulfilled,” He was reaching back thousands of years to the establishment of the covenants with Noah and Abraham and their descendants. Noah and Abraham lived in times when evil seemed to be all-conquering. They were surrounded by secular cultures marked by every kind of injustice and idolatry. But God’s ever-faithful love empowered them to endure, and through their descendants keep the flame of faith burning in human hearts. Isn’t it true that when humans fail, sin, even commit the most awful injustices, God’s mercy is ever present, ever able to forgive when we repent? Reread the Old Testament this Lent and see how God responds to human failure. He longs to take us in His arms and forgive us, heal us, and make us disciples who invite others to repent and believe the Gospel.
During this six weeks of preparation for Easter, let’s make a real effort to act in our day as Jesus and Mary and the disciples did in theirs. Yes, the three traditional disciplines should be a weekly, even daily habit–prayer, fasting and almsgiving. But to our prayer we should add lectio divina–prayerful reading of Scripture and the writings of the saints that we slowly savor and apply to our lives. Our fasting should be more than giving something up. It should be sacrificing a good thing so that we can focus on the greatest good–union with our Lord. And our almsgiving should be focused on helping the weakest and most vulnerable. Yes, I mean giving to organizations like SAMM, Haven for Hope, St. Vincent de Paul, and Habitat. But also helping moms and children who were inconveniently conceived and in danger of abortion. Also helping the old and disabled and abused. Isaiah says that the Messiah will not break the bruised reed. In our lives, we all encounter people who are bruised. A word of encouragement, a friendly meal, a hug when invited can be gifts of love entirely appropriate to our Lenten observance.
April 1 this year marks our Easter celebration. If we ignore the gift that is the season of Lent, it will truly be April Fool’s day, and the fool will inhabit our body. But if we respond to Christ’s plea to repent and believe in the Gospel, we will be more like Him, and our community will better resemble the kingdom of God.