Monday, February 15, 2010

Miscellania for a pre-Lenten Monday

Today is President's Day, a day on which we honor our first president, George Washington, the father of our country, and our sixteenth president, the man who preserved our union, who is certainly revered as the greatest U.S. president, if not the single greatest person our still relatively young country has produced, Abraham Lincoln. Even with all of the inevitable hagiography put to the side, the achievements of these two great men are worthy of living on. Lincoln presided over our nation during a time of civil war. When it was over, in his magnificent Second Inaugural address, after pointing to the fact that the U.S. Civil War amounted to Christians fighting Christians, but nonetheless decrying the grave injustice of slavery, he said, "It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged" and ending with these words:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

Today also finds us on the threshold of another Lent, a time each year during which we are invited to take stock, take inventory of our lives and to endeavor, through honest effort performed in cooperation with God's grace, to change and/or modify our behavior, our thinking, our manner of being, to be more conformed to Christ. In a word, we are invited to repent. We often make repentance synonymous with guilt, meaning that to repent is to feel bad for the sins we commit.

In the second verse of the third chapter of St. Matthew's gospel, St. John the Baptizer preaches: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand". Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder's comment on this is equally short and powerful: "To repent is not to feel bad but to think differently". This single sentence captures well an idea I was trying to communicate in a homily a few years ago, the Gospel for which is Jesus' preaching at the beginning of his ministry, which begins in the very next chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel:

"Jesus’ announcement of God’s Kingdom is simple: 'Repent' (Matt. 4,17). What does it mean to repent? Does it merely mean being sorry for my sins? Well, that is contrition, which is a necessary, but not sufficient part of repentance. The Greek word used in this passage is met-an-o-eh’o, which literally means a change of mind, or, more precisely, to perceive anew. Met-an-oeh’o is a compound word consisting of the preposition meta, meaning beyond and the verb no-eh’o, which means to perceive in a new and different way, to gain deeper understanding. This change of mind/change of perception is what we call conversion, which comes through faith, the gift of God that is truly knowledge, a way of engaging reality. To convert is to change from one state to another. Changing in this way, becoming like Christ, is the means of fulfilling our deepest desire. St. Augustine expresses this human desire in a letter written to a widow: 'We want only one thing, the life which is simply life, simply happiness'."

In his message for Lent this year, the Holy Father encourages us to focus on justice, taking as his point of departure Romans 3:21-22a: "But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe."

Pope Benedict sums up nicely what this passage from St.Paul demonstrates:

What we, as human beings, need most cannot be enacted by governments. "In order to live life to the full, something more intimate is necessary that can be granted only as a gift: we could say that man lives by that love which only God can communicate since He created the human person in His image and likeness. Material goods are certainly useful and required – indeed Jesus Himself was concerned to heal the sick, feed the crowds that followed Him and surely condemns the indifference that even today forces hundreds of millions into death through lack of food, water and medicine – yet 'distributive' justice does not render to the human being the totality of his 'due.' Just as man needs bread, so does man have even more need of God. Saint Augustine notes: if 'justice is that virtue which gives every one his due ... where, then, is the justice of man, when he deserts the true God'?" (De civitate Dei, XIX, 21).

May all our Lenten disciplines serve no other end than to make us more receptive to God's gift, Jesus Christ.

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