Lent: Are We Living Dangerously Enough?

At Lent retreats, I used to ask participants if they had ever been to the desert.  But after moving up to Connecticut, I finally stopped.  Everyone said “no.”  Except a few who would ask, “Does Las Vegas count?”

No, Las Vegas does not count.

Have you ever been to the desert? 

I have.  I understand what the desert is all about.  It is quiet, still, empty, beautiful, harsh and dangerous.  In the desert, you are always one false move away from needing something desperately.  Like water, or shade, or an antidote for a snake or spider bite. Yes, my desert had tarantulas.

In the desert you face your own fragility and the fragility of those around you.  All it takes is that mercilessly hot West Texas sun to remind you that your place in the universe is small and precarious.  Survival is not a given.

Jesus spent forty days in the desert.  Israel spent forty years.  Days and years of precarious living.  Days and years of facing one’s own weakness, accepting that survival is not a given, looking beyond oneself or one’s environment for certainty. 

Leaning heavily upon God alone, Jesus and Israel emerged from their deserts.  Israel settled in a new land and embarked upon an enormous task, to live faithfully as God’s people.  Jesus was strengthened and resolved for mission, to tell God’s story to the human race and to love his own to the end.

We speak of Lent as our desert time.  In this desert, do we recognize how fragile we are, how precarious life is, how the structures and things we depend on for security are one false move away from falling around us like a house of cards? 

Precarious living is actually Gospel living.  It recognizes that total dependence on God is where true strength is found.  The trials of the desert are where we meet God and live only by what he offers – living water, the shadow of his wing, and the antidote of his love. 

From Lent, from life, from desert, we may not emerge unscathed.  But we can emerge as God’s own, strengthened, emboldened for mission and “filled with the power of the Spirit” (Lk. 4:14). 

* * *

“If we ask God for so little it may well be because we feel the need for him so little.  We are leading complacent, secure, well-protected, mediocre lives.  We aren’t living dangerously enough; we aren’t living the way Jesus wanted us to live when he proclaimed the good news” (Anthony de Mello, Contact with God: Retreat Conferences). 

Briton Riviere,  The Temptation in the Wilderness , 1898

Briton Riviere, The Temptation in the Wilderness, 1898

Sunday's Gospel: Self-Preservation vs. Love

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist Magazine.  For subscription information, visit Catechist.com.

FEBRUARY 19, Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:38-48

In this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues to examine laws and take us to a deeper, more demanding understanding of them. He continues to follow the “antithesis” formula: “You have heard that it was said ... But I say to you ... ”

This excerpt from the Sermon on the Mount provides us with some of Jesus’ most revolutionary and challenging teachings. First Jesus acknowledges a long-standing law of retribution: “You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth'” (verse 38). This ancient way of living in community, though it may sound harsh to our modern ears, was indisputably logical and certainly effective in preventing some crimes. If you knew that if you gouged someone’s eye out, they could lawfully gouge your eye out, you might think twice about doing the gouging in the first place!

And yet, as we might expect, this ancient law was far from Jesus’ ideal. He proceeded to teach something far less logical, something that goes against the grain of just about every human instinct we have: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one as well” (verse 39). Jesus goes on to offer similar difficult teachings about giving to anyone who asks, and serving anyone who makes a request of you. All of this is to be done without expecting anything in return.

The next antithesis is even more difficult: “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (verses 43-44). This may be the most-ignored teaching of Jesus in the history of Christianity. How often do we excuse ourselves from it because it seems so extreme? How often do we tell ourselves that Jesus did not mean it for our particular situation? How often do we secretly deem it impossible? Indeed, as Jesus continues to preach, we discover that he wants us to live like God himself: “For he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and unjust” (verse 45). Being like God is a tall order, but Jesus does not say “try” or “sometimes.” He simply says to do it.

Our most basic human instinct is self-preservation. Jesus is challenging this instinct. He wants us to receive his teaching with the total dedication of a true disciple. If we do, our instincts can gradually be reshaped. Self-preservation falls by the wayside as we begin to instinctively act out of love for others. This teaching is as revolutionary now as it was then. To intentionally make sacrifices for the sake of others is the way of Jesus himself, the way of the Cross, the way of true discipleship.

ASK YOURSELF: In what area of my life can I live these difficult teachings? How can I avoid retaliating, even in small ways? How can I show love for someone who is opposed to me in some way?

ASK YOUR STUDENTS: Do you think it is impossible to love someone who is your enemy? How might you learn to do this? When Jesus says we should allow someone to strike us, do you think he means we should allow others to physically hurt us or verbally abuse us? Help your students distinguish between abuse (which should never be tolerated) and situations where they can safely choose not to retaliate (discuss some examples).

PRAY: Lord Jesus, you must think very highly of me to have such wonderful expectations of me! Help me to live up to your expectations. I can only follow your teachings if you help me.

LIVE THE GOSPEL: This week identify someone in your life who may not be an “enemy” but who is difficult to live with, work with, or be around. Ask God daily for the grace to love this person. Pray for this person. Find small, concrete ways to extend kindness to them.

Grisaille (underpainting) of Jesus and Thomas by Jack Baumgartner.  The stance of Jesus in this scene demonstrates the absolute receptiveness of Jesus to the other.  It might be trite to say a picture speaks a thousand words, but this one actually does.  Published with permission.  More of Jack's incredible work can be found  here . 

Grisaille (underpainting) of Jesus and Thomas by Jack Baumgartner.  The stance of Jesus in this scene demonstrates the absolute receptiveness of Jesus to the other.  It might be trite to say a picture speaks a thousand words, but this one actually does.  Published with permission.  More of Jack's incredible work can be found here

Sunday's Gospel: Those Countercultural Beatitudes

The following is republished with permission from my column in Catechist Magazine.  For subscription information, visit Catechist.com.

JAN. 29 , 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Gospel Reading: Matt. 5:1-12a

This week we have the familiar teachings of Jesus known as the “beatitudes.” Beatitudes are blessings, and they were common expressions in Jewish writing. For example, Proverbs 8:32 reads, “Happy are they who keep my ways.” As is the case in this verse from Proverbs, the word “blessed” is sometimes translated as “happy.” The blessed one is the happy one, the one whose life is governed by God’s will and wisdom.

Having heard these verses so many times, we often forget how surprising they were and how countercultural they still are. Wouldn’t it have been more logical for Jesus to say blessed—or happy—are those who have everything they need, who have nothing to mourn, who own things, who have land? Aren’t these the people that God has blessed? Aren’t these signs of their prosperity and favor with God?

A major thrust of Jesus’ ministry was to dispel these myths about the supposed connection between worldly prosperity and God’s favor. The wealthy are not prosperous because God loves them more than he loves the poor. Those who are heartbroken have not displeased God. Those who are sick or in pain do not deserve their plight due to their own sin or the sin of their ancestors. Instead, Jesus says, God loves those who are suffering—the poor, the marginalized, those who are hurting. They are blessed— happy—because they are God’s special ones. If they turn to God in their poverty, their mourning, their lowliness, their hunger, they will be satisfied by the abundance of God himself.

As you can imagine, Jesus’ teachings not only comforted the poor and suffering, but they disturbed the wealthy and prosperous. Suddenly their complacency and self-assuredness was dislocated, thrown off balance. Jesus challenged the notion that their wealth and status were automatic signs of God’s favor. Jesus the teacher strikes again: soul-searching required all around.

NOTE: You may have noticed the letter a at the end of the biblical citation for today’s reading (Matthew 5:1-12a). The letters a and b (sometimes even c) are used to indicate the first half (a) or the second half (b) of a Scripture verse. (The letter c is used when the verse is easily divided into thirds. John 1:1 would be an example of this: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”) Matthew 5:12a indicates that in today’s Gospel reading, only the first half of verse 5:12 is included.

ASK YOURSELF: Which of the beatitudes resonates most with me right now? Why? What is Jesus promising me or asking of me?

ASK YOUR STUDENTS: Which one of the beatitudes from today’s reading is hardest to understand? Why? Which one is special to you?

PRAY: Jesus the teacher, may your ancient words fall on fresh, fertile ground and change me.

LIVE THE GOSPEL: The beatitudes challenge us to see each other differently. This week seek out someone who is suffering in some way— poor, sad, lonely, ill. Treat them with the comfort, mercy, and peace Jesus promises in the beatitudes.

Elsie Anna Wood, Illustration from  The Sermon on the Mount , by Elsie Anna Wood. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

Elsie Anna Wood, Illustration from The Sermon on the Mount, by Elsie Anna Wood. Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.

What Is the Kingdom of God?

The centerpiece of Jesus’ preaching ministry was the bold declaration that “the time is fulfilled” and “the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mk. 1:15).  In fact, Jesus said that preaching this message was his purpose for coming (Mk. 1:38)! 

But what is this kingdom of God?

God’s kingdom is best understood not as God’s place but as God’s reign.  The reign of God means that God is in charge, God’s ways have embraced all creation.  To put it simply, God’s reign means that God is present. 

When we hear this, we may be confused or even skeptical.  The time is fulfilled?  The reign of God is at hand?  God is present?  Sometimes it sure doesn’t seem like it.

When preaching the kingdom of God, Jesus simultaneously calls for repentance (Mk. 1:15).  Repentance is much more than sorrow for sin – it is a genuine change of mind and heart, a total reorientation of our lives.  But before we can repent, before our lives can change, we must first learn to see and believe in God’s reign in our world.  We must be open to possibilities beyond (or deep within) what we can see, smell, touch or hear.  We must look at our world with the most charitable eyes and the most sensitive hearts.  We must believe that God has drawn near.

If we do not live this way, with this kind of hope and openness, then we do not live in God’s kingdom.  We live in a kingdom of our own making.  And the kingdoms we make are small and confining.  Our own reigns are weak and always leave us wanting more.  But if we can listen to Jesus – there was never a bolder preacher – and believe the good news, the gospel, he declares, then we will learn to see God drawing near.  The reorientation of our lives will naturally follow.  And God will be all in all.

Charles Plessard, Gouache on Paper, Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.   Heureux  means  happy.

Charles Plessard, Gouache on Paper, Courtesy Sacred Art Pilgrim.  Heureux means happy.

Christmas Gift Idea!

No, I’m not earning a commission on these Bibles, but I should be!  I was recently given a Little Rock Catholic Study Bible, and it’s the most beautiful Bible I’ve ever owned.  It’s a wonderful gift idea for Christmas for those in your life who love Scripture, or those who you want to encourage to love Scripture!  This Study Bible has all kinds of useful features like background articles, definitions, charts, informative footnotes, timelines, maps and even prayer starters. 

The photos below are of the “deluxe” edition, which is substantial but not too big, with a leather-like cover, ribbon markers, and nice-sized print.  (The Study Bible is also available as a regular hardback or paperback, or even an e-book, with all the same study features.  But the deluxe one is by far the most beautiful!)

A Study Bible can make a huge difference in your understanding of Scripture, which can then make a big impact on your spiritual and prayer life.  There are a lot of great Study Bibles out there, and this is one of them.  Several of my Scripture students have purchased this Bible, and they just love it!

Little Rock Study Bibles are available online.  On the Little Rock Scripture Study site, the deluxe edition is $64.95.  Happy shopping, sharing, reading and learning!