Homily – 1st Sunday of Lent

My friends, in preparing for today’s homily, I found that much of what I shared with you three years ago is what I would advocate for today, so I will start there and just update some of the examples to present day.

   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 and God.  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 just the same.

   Interestingly enough, I am presently reading a small volume by Sister Sandra Schneiders, theologian, known to some of you perhaps as the writer of the America magazine article some 25 years ago, “God is More than Two Men and a Bird,” who in this volume, which is a collection of articles she did in 2010 for the National Catholic Reporter, documenting and perhaps trying to explain the investigation of women Religious by the Vatican.

   Throughout these several well-resourced articles, she makes clear the frustration of so many Sisters as to the “why” of these investigations. Through discussions with many of her counterparts, the only reason that seemed plausible was that a very small group of hierarchy and unfortunately some very conservative Sisters wanted to return religious life to pre-Vatican II days when the Sisters had a more “controlled” life, or we might say, “were more controlled by the hierarchy. It seems that they really didn’t want these perpetually-vowed women living their lives following their consciences, and the memory of Jesus of Nazareth, which remarkably was often against the agenda of the powers-that-be. 

   Again, she notes, that if “something was wrong” with the lifestyle of the Sisters, why were the orders of Brothers and Priests not also investigated, as they lived similar lives?  In a patriarchal culture, the Sisters were always a prime target, she concluded.  Speaking of Jesus, with relation to women Religious living according to their consciences, and being persecuted for it, Sister Sandra makes the very valid connection to his life in Palestine and the “why” of his death—he was advocating justice for the common folk which was against the agenda of Rome and the religious hierarchy in Jerusalem.

    Continuing then with the Scriptures for this week, pointing to our collective “sinfulness,” it seems that in the reading from Romans, Paul protests too much. His intent in preaching to the Romans who knew little or nothing of Jesus, was no doubt to have them get a clear picture of who he was, 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 and their history? 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.”  Sister Sandra speaks of Jesus’ God, thus, “God was not only compassionate, but compassion itself.”  We can’t believe both narratives—that of a vindictive God and that of an all-loving, all-understanding God—as 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.  So friends, when I distribute ashes today, I will remind each of you and me that instead of remembering that we are “dust and will one day return to such,” I will instead let us know that we,  “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. 

   In the past few weeks, I have come to appreciate anew, “good health” and when my body works properly.  I have acquired a new, persistent pain in my R knee and while on our cruise around Greece, I had a doctor on board look at it, and as a result, he told me to see an orthopedic surgeon when I got home as I most likely have ligament damage.  Old age? Perhaps, as I am not aware of having injured it.  I have added a cane to my life, which helps getting around, only it is humbling to have to admit that I need it. But being in relationship with this “good earth” and life, in general, brings all of this.

   Coming back then to today’s Scriptures, the Gospel from Matthew 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.  Even the confidence that comes naturally with good health, that I mentioned above, is something to be aware of, and balance, in appreciation of that gift.  Also, with this comes the need to appreciate that our “personal goodness,” our worth, extends beyond physical health. 

   I personally tend, as you know, 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 a few years back in a piece that I read 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 or tone to denigrate another, a personal fault I have been reminded of recently, 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!  He was one who saw the goodness of his Abba in all he met and continually worked for the good of all—he saw all as, “his Body and Blood—the eucharist, in the best sense of that word…and so should we.

   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 of 40 days to become more of whom we are called to be! Amen? Amen!