Sunday, March 29, 2009

Year B 5th Sunday of Lent

Readings: Jer. 31:31-34; Ps. 51:3-4. 12-15; Heb. 5:7-9; John 12:20-33

Our second reading from the Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus "learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb. 5:8). It was by learning obedience through suffering that our Lord was able to accept His passion and death, which cup he prayed the Father to take from him, as the primary purpose for which He became incarnate. Indeed, the Incarnation of the Son of God is the fulfillment of Jeremiah’s prophecy that God would establish a new covenant with Israel because of their unwillingness and inability to live up to the covenant previously established. In other words, Christ accomplished in His own person what Israel was unable to do, which was to be faithful to the covenant through perfect observance of the Law. The heart of God’s covenant with us is concisely set forth by Jeremiah: "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33).

By virtue of our faith, expressed in baptism, we can be considered the friends and even the relatives of Israel to whom the prophet refers in this passage. For the covenant was established, beginning with Abraham, for the purpose of blessing "all the nations of the earth" (Gen. 22:8). Indeed, as we reflected on the First Sunday of this Lent, from the very beginning, God has only sought one covenant with humankind, whom He made in His image and likeness solely for the purpose of communion. Understanding this leads us to realize that St. Paul’s teaching is derived from the heart of the Jewish Scriptures when writes in Romans, "For what the law, weakened by the flesh, was powerless to do, this God has done: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for the sake of sin, he condemned sin in the flesh"(8:3). So, through faith in Christ, all can share in the one covenant.

The essence of the covenant God has established with us is forgiveness. This is what God communicates through his prophet, when Jeremiah writes: "All, from least to greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evildoing and remember their sin no more" (Jer. 31:34). The reason that forgiveness is the heart of God’s covenant with us is our inability, even our unwillingness, to abide the precepts of the Law, which are summed up by our Lord in the two Great Commandments: "You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:26-27; Matt. 22:36-39). St. Paul, again writing to the earliest Christian community in Rome, which, at least at this early stage, was comprised largely of Jewish Christians, tells us that "the one who loves another has fulfilled the law" (Rom. 13:8).

Love makes no greater demand on us than to forgive. It stands to reason that when most of us think of the word grace, we rightly think of God forgiving us our sins. My friends, this is the Good News: there is nothing for which God cannot and will not forgive you! Nothing! Fr. Albert Haase observed: "Praying for forgiveness is a vivid reminder that God frees us from debilitating guilt and forgets our past. No sin is written with indelible ink" (from Living the Lord’s Prayer: The Way of the Disciple). Often the person we have the most difficult time forgiving is ourselves. Like some among the children of Israel, to whom Jesus alluded in our Gospel last week, who refused to even glance at the brazen serpent Moses was holding up in a last desperate attempt to stay alive after being bitten by a poison serpent, we refuse to accept that through Jesus Christ our sins are forgiven. Not being able to accept God’s forgiveness results in our inability to forgive others. We have a beautiful scene of God’s forgiveness on the west side of our Cathedral, above the chapel of Our Lady, the scene in which a sinful woman, a prostitute, washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Of her, the Lord says: "her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little" (Luke 7:47). We can forgive and love only because we are first loved and forgiven.

Frederick Buechner, writing about the petition from the Our Father in which we pray to God to forgive us as we forgive others, observes that "Jesus is NOT saying that God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our forgiving others" (from Wishful Thinking: A Seeker's ABC). The reason Jesus cannot mean that, Buechner insists, is because "forgiveness that’s conditional isn’t really forgiveness at all" (ibid). He goes on to say that our unwillingness and our inability to forgive are things for which we most need God’s pardon. So, he concludes, "[w]hat Jesus apparently is saying is that the pride that keeps us from forgiving is the same pride that keeps us from accepting [God’s] forgiveness" (ibid).

There are very many things we do to each other that cause serious and traumatic suffering: rapes, murders, physical and verbal abuse, neglect, lies, fraud, etc. As Christian people, who have died, been buried, and been raised to new life in Christ, if we don’t live forgiveness, even as it pertains to the most unimaginably horrible things we to do each other, fully recognizing that we cannot do this without God’s help and the support of others, then we deny the very basis of our new existence. From time to time we see positive signs of this, like the State of New Mexico’s recent elimination of the death penalty.

Perhaps the best reason for the sacrament of penance is that it allows us to say what we have done wrong out loud to another person and to have that person, a priest, respond: "God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Rite of Penance). These are words of life and liberty. Besides, to believe that our sins are bigger than God’s mercy given us in Christ, far from being an attitude of humility, is one of of arrogance, just as to state that by entering a church God will cause it to collapse is to overestimate one’s self and reduce God to an all too human, that is, unforgiving father. We are finite and God’s mercy is infinite. As human beings in a fallen world, though one in the process of being redeemed and sanctified, very often God’s infinite mercy stands in stark to our experience.

God is, indeed, the Father of mercies. As we continue our Lenten journey, let us pray with the Psalmist: "Give me back the joy of your salvation and a willing spirit sustain in me. I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners shall return to you" (Ps. 51:14-15). As transgressors ourselves, the willing spirit for which we pray can only be the willingness to forgive others, not because they deserve it, but in recognition of the fact that "while we were still sinners Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). So, we need to forgive others even when we don’t want to, even when it causes us to suffer, because, like our Lord himself, our obedience is perfected through just this kind of suffering.

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