My friends, as we begin the holy season of Lent, I am sure that within some of you, there is a sigh, an “ugh” feeling, or maybe for others, a sense of, ah, a new start for me to get right with myself. For those of you who have the “ugh” sensation, that is understandable as the readings for this 1st Sunday of Lent direct us to our sinfulness. They also direct us to God’s graciousness, but those who have put together these readings seem more intent on lifting up our “sinfulness” than they do God’s graciousness and mercy.
Take the first reading from Genesis today—did anyone other than me think it strange that we start out with the “earth creature” whom we assume from other translations to be Adam, enjoying the beauties of the garden that God has created and then the jump of a chapter to introduce the woman just in time to bring “sin” into the world?
Granted that, “our sinfulness” is what is trying to be lifted up throughout the readings, but I also suspect that the ages-old tendency, “to blame the woman “ is afoot here as well. And it is a subtle thing in a patriarchal culture, but it is one to note in any case.
In the reading from Romans, Paul seems to protest too much. His intent in preaching to the Romans who know little or nothing of Jesus is no doubt to have them get a clear picture of Jesus, but I for one, object to the picture he is portraying here. Why does the act of making a human choice have to be carried on through all of humanity? This is faulty reasoning if we are to believe in the graciousness and mercy of God.
It is probably this reading where the notion of original sin comes from and the need for God—and not a loving God, at that, to be appeased through the death of Jesus. This so-called “theology” is so flawed, as it makes God so small-minded, so small-hearted, as Sister Joan Chittister would say of such theology, so vindictive—more like us than God, who in other places—we are told, “is all-loving and all-merciful.” We can’t believe both narratives—that of a vindictive God and that of an all-loving, all-understanding God—the God of the “Prodigal,” a story of over-the-top love which we will read later on in Lent.
The Good News that we should celebrate this Lent and every year at this time is not that Jesus died for our sins—“mea culpa, mea culpa, mea culpa”—or as a friend recalls feeling, “I am scum, I am scum, I am really scum,” but the fact that Jesus came and lived for us to show us the best way to live. Granted, his advocacy for the poor and down-trodden, kept in place by the powers-that-were in his time, and his demand that these same powerful ones do the right thing, caused his death, but certainly, not because our humanity needed reparation.
Why would a God who made humanity imperfect then demand reparation for their flawed natures? No, it makes no sense that a loving God, wanting only the best for these creatures, enough so to be humbled in Jesus, living among us, showing us the way, the best way through life, death and resurrection would then demand the life of Jesus to appease God’s vindication.
Even the terminology that we use in the ritual of distributing ashes, “Remember, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” has the wrong tone. I asked Robert the other day when he hears those words, what does he think of—how in fact does it make him feel? His response: “Like dirt!” So, you may have seen my Church Facebook title for Ash Wednesday where I said, “Remember, you came from the good earth and will return to it one day!”
As our family lost a good man this past week, our daughter-in-law’s father, Patrick O’Flynn, I think of this adage—he came from the good earth and we will return him to it this next week. Over the years that I knew him, Patrick and his good wife, Elizabeth, were always so gracious to those that they welcomed to their home. So friends, when I distribute ashes today, I will remind each of you that you came from the good earth and will return there one day. The true intention in marking us each year with ashes should be to simply help us know our place in relationship to our loving God—that we have been gifted with life from our good earth and all that this entails—no more, no less.
The Gospel from Matthew today is all about Jesus’ preparation for ministry—anyone called to leadership will always be tempted by the power that can come with the role. Jesus is aware of this and thus tries to make himself strong through fasting and prayer, in order to avoid this very strong temptation and keep focused on his mission. Fasting from food has its place in our lives if it prepares us to better focus on moving out of ourselves to see the needs of others, to in fact be better people.
I personally tend to shy away from fasting as prescribed by the Church during Lent as I can’t seem to separate it from the notion of “dieting” and this conundrum was validated for me this week in a piece that I was reading in the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) on fasting and the different take that many women have on the topic. Of course this article was written by a woman! Because many women have grown up with the false impression, created by our male-centered culture, that women are only acceptable if they have a certain body type and shape, fasting takes on a whole different notion for women than it does for men, the writer said. There is a reason friends, why more women than men, in our culture, suffer from anorexia and bulimia.
The men in charge say that you can’t unite the two, that is, using a time of fasting to lose a few extra pounds, the writer continued. And that is why I have stopped trying. If I happen to be dieting during Lent, (when am I not trying to lose those extra pounds?!), I call it “dieting” and forget about fasting, for what that is worth.
So, my dear friends; I see Lent as a gift our Church gives us to grow closer to Jesus and we will—if we keep our eyes on him. If fasting from food helps you to do that, I am not discouraging it, but if it simply leaves you with an “ugh” feeling, then you may want to “fast” in a different way: you can fast perhaps from nagging a loved one, or from using your sharp tongue to denigrate another, or from selfishness with your time, or from judgmentalism, or snobbishness, or the need to have things done your way, and the list can go on. This discussion always makes me think of someone in my extended family that did a perfect job of fasting and abstaining from food during Lent but might have been better served, herself and her immediate world, if she had instead, fasted from her negative ways.
I think if we don’t come out on the other side of Lent knowing that we are mightily loved by our God, then, I would think we had missed something important. When you really look at Jesus’ earthly life, you have to conclude that he was a really astounding fellow—to follow in his ways—actions and words—we certainly could do worse! So, let us pray for each other during these days that each of us can more fully follow our brother Jesus’ ways in gratitude to our God who has given us this awesome opportunity to become more of whom we are called to be! Amen? Amen!