We pray for the desire to overcome our sins by prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. Prayer will reduce us to our baptismal dignity. We pray so as to hear more clearly our baptismal name and mission.
Fasting puts us in a delightful tension. On one side we experience our selfishness which is so attractive and demanding. On the other side is that dignified self which is not ruled by delights of all kinds and whenever. Fasting as a prayer is not a subtraction, or a “giving up”, but a receiving of a delightful truth; we are humans who have drives, instincts, tastes, fears, and shoulds, to which we do not “have to” respond. Fasting, prayerfully done, offers us a sensitivity to our fallen humanity as well as the real nature of the delights of creation.
We are also encouraged in our Opening Prayer, to experience the works of mercy as a way of expressing God’s mercy toward us. When we pray and when we fast so as to be open to, then that freedom will move us to mercifully receive those around us who have lost or forgotten the sense of their God-given dignity.
We pray as well for confidence in God’s mercy when we ourselves have lost contact with our truest selves. “Mercy is above all Your works.”
While sitting here just now, an email popped up from somebody; I don’t know who it is, and that person thanked me for the Reflection for the Sunday before Lent. This person wrote that she/he never liked Lent, and does not now. Then I read, “Does anyone?” Just exactly what I needed to begin today’s Reflection.
Compose in your imagination the whole people of Israel who, three months previously, were freed from the slavery in Egypt, standing at the base of Mount Sinai. Moses has informed the people that God would be speaking to them very soon. Accompanied by thunder, lightning and trumpet blasts, a dense and dark cloud appears. Does “anyone” like that?
Then the news everyone has been waiting to hear comes forth from the cloud. The news is comprised of ten commands which God wants carried out or else! “Does anyone like that?” The people don’t like the sound-effects and light-show and beg Moses to talk directly to them; God is too much. Moses, in response, encourages them by telling them that God was getting their attention and wanted to make a deep impression on them about the importance of these laws.
This then, is the context for our First Reading for this liturgy. The whole historical relationship between God and Israel is summed up with God’s reminding the people who God is in their history, namely, the One Who brought them out of the land and state of slavery. These ten laws are forms of living gratefully as the people who were saved. They are ways of respecting God’s presence in all of life’s relationships. They can be heard as “have-to” and “shouldn’t-do”. Does “anyone” like listening to that?
These commands cover most of our fallen-nature’s tendencies. Way down deep, they are all about reverencing the Truth of God in everything. Stealing is a sin, because I don’t like the truth that I don’t have what you do. Killing is wrong, because I do not reverence your life as a presence of God’s life. Coveting, and false speech is also about not reverencing God’s truth. In brief, everything is holy, and the Sabbath is the day to catch up, not on our work, but on all that God has worked in our lives. The question is about whether these are commands to frighten us into submission, or invitations to real orderly life. Doesn’t everyone like that?
Talk about thunder and lightning to get attention! The Gospel is an attention-getter all right, but Jesus’ anger is not the main event, but a dramatic element setting up the more dramatic revelation of Jesus as the “New Temple”. This event takes place at the time of the Passover and people are coming to the temple to celebrate the historical revelation of God’s having brought them out of Egypt. Animal sacrifices were a part of that religious expression, but apparently the secular was edging its way into the sacred; God’s mercy was being merchandised. John’s Gospel uses this situation of tension, or ambiguity, to highlight Jesus as the new, yet old.
I smile to think of how this Gospel will be heard in our parish-churches, perhaps followed by announcements about ticket-sales, books, religious articles, Irish Soda Bread and other good things being sold out in the vestibule. The more important thing is Jesus declaring that as holy as the temple is, His Body is even more sacred and timeless. This Gospel is compiled years after the Romans had destroyed the Jerusalem temple. It had been the focus of the presence of the Holy. The Jewish people were being presented with various options or sects proposing God’s election or selection. John’s Gospel proposes Jesus and during His days, because of His Signs, many Jews came to believe in Him as the Holy One. This Sign took place in Jerusalem during the Passover, not an insignificant fact. He will be the Lamb, sacrificed during the Passover in due time. For the Jews, this is very hard to hear and believe. How could the Holy Temple of God be replaced by a single human man come down from Galilee?
What about Lent is there to like? The Ten Commandments are not so much to like, because they tell us what to do and not to do and give us a way to know how we are doing religiously. Usually we are not doing as well as we would like, so that’s something not to like about Lent. Fasting, praying and doing charitable works, what’s not to like here? Opposite to the Ten Commandments, doing these is fine, but they do not tell us how to do them and so again, we do not know how we are doing religiously. What’s there to like about Lent? What with the thunder, fire, turning over of tables and whipping with cords of today’s Scripture, God and Lent do not come across as too inviting. Lent is the time for letting God get our attention and if God gets our attention we will hear of the holiness of God, of all life and especially of ourselves. Doesn’t everyone like that?
“How happy they who dwell in your house! For ever they are praising you!” Ps. 88, 5
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