Sunday, February 26, 2012

Year B First Sunday of Lent

Readings: Gen. 9:8-15; Ps 25:4-9; 1 Pet. 3:18-22; Mark 1:12-15

"The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel" (Mark 1:15). With these, the first words spoken by Jesus Christ at the beginning of His ministry in St. Mark’s Gospel, we begin our Lenten journey. Jesus proclaims these words after His baptism by John in the river Jordan, just as He emerges out of the desert after forty days. It is important to pay attention to the order of these events that inaugurate His ministry. First, Jesus was baptized by John and then, as if in response, He entered the desert. It also important to note that immediately following His baptism came His confirmation as God’s Only Begotten Son, the Messiah and Lord, when, upon His coming forth from the water, the heavens were “torn open and the Spirit, like a dove, descend[ed] upon him. And a voice came from the heavens [saying], "You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased" (Mark 1:10-11).

In addition to, "Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return," the other injunction that can be used when imposing ashes on Ash Wednesday, is "Repent and believe in the Gospel." To repent means to change, to be transformed, to be converted. The Greek word we translate into English as "repent" is metanoia. In today’s Gospel the word issuing from Jesus’ mouth is metanoeite, a form of metanoia that indicates repentance is on-going. Metanoeite, translated literally, means "be repenting," just as the word that follows it, pisteuete, literally rendered, means "be believing." All of this just means that repenting and believing the good news are not one-time events, but are on-going, that is, together they constitute a way of life. Again, the ordering is important; Jesus does not say, "believe and repent." Rather, He says, "Be repenting and be believing in the Gospel," indicating that the two are inextricably bound together, the one, believing, flowing from the other, repenting.

Our Psalm response today helps us understand this better. A few moments ago we sang together, "Your ways, O Lord, are love and truth to those who keep your covenant." This prompts the question, "What about those who do not keep God’s covenant?" For those who do not keep God’s covenant, which you entered into when you were baptized, God’s ways are not love and truth, but just so many rules, a lot of prescriptions and prohibitions, merely a lot of "dos" and "donts." One mistake often made by those who do not see God’s covenant as love and truth, is to think they must believe in order to repent, which makes faith something abstract instead of something concrete, something spectral instead of bodily. It is important to grasp that God has only ever sought to establish one covenant with humanity. God’s covenant was succinctly articulated by the prophet Jeremiah, whose words are quoted directly in the New Testament by St. Paul, in 2 Corinthians, and the author of the Letter to Hebrews: "I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer. 31:33; 2 Cor. 6:16; Heb. 8:10).

God, speaking through the prophet Ezekiel, in a passage we can’t help but turn to during Lent, says, "I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you… I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them ... you will be my people, and I will be your God" (Ezk. 26a. 27. 28b). Lent is the time when we seek to put to death the flesh so that we might have life in the Spirit. Life in the Spirit is not disembodied life.

The word "flesh" in our reading today from 1 Peter is a variant of the Greek word sarx, as opposed to the Greek word soma, meaning "body." This is a crucial distinction, lest we tend towards a gnostic dualism, the kind that sees the human being as a spirit trapped in a body trying to get out. While Jesus was put to death in the flesh, life in the Spirit, which is eternal life, was fully realized by the resurrection of His body. Lent is the time of repentance, the time for penitential acts, the time for mortification, that is, putting to death everything in ourselves that is death-dealing instead of life-giving. Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are but means to this end of being converted, changed, becoming more like Christ.

It is only by serving God in freedom that we realize God’s ways are love and truth. Paul warned the Galatians not to use their freedom "as an opportunity for the flesh," but to "serve one another in love" (Gal. 5:13). Paul says the one who lives by the Spirit does "not gratify the desire of the flesh" (Gal. 5:16). A person who lives by the Spirit, according to the apostle, realizes that "the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want" (Gal. 5:17). Even though the Spirit-filled person is not to do only what s/he wants, that is, often desires to do, such a person is "not under the law" (Gal. 5:18). What are the works of the flesh? St. Paul leaves us no doubt: "immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like" (Gal. 5:19-21a). Paul warns those who indulge in such fleshly pursuits, that they “will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21b). By way of contrast, the apostle tells us that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal. 5:22-23a). Those "who belong to Christ [Jesus],” St. Paul concludes, "have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24).

Our second reading for this First Sunday of Lent taken from 1 Peter, is one of the few times the lectionary bids us to take up Purgatory. St. Catherine of Genoa begins her Treatise on Purgatory, by saying a soul finds "herself, while still in the flesh, placed by the fiery love of God in Purgatory, which burnt her, cleansing whatever in her needed cleansing." It is interesting that St. Catherine spoke about the soul still being "in the flesh." Based on what she went on to say, I take her to be referring to the soul still encumbered by the fleshly desires, those that were enumerated by St. Paul, that were not mortified, that is, burnt out by the soul’s love of God before death. One goes to Purgatory to be purged of what St. Catherine described as all of "the rust and stains of sin" a person did not seek to rid himself of during mortality. She goes on to say that in Purgatory one can no longer ignore his/her issues, that is, those habits and affections that landed her/him there. Bearing witness to God’s great mercy and love, she went on to observe, "I believe no happiness can be found worthy to be compared with that of a soul in Purgatory except that of the saints in Paradise."

St. Paul stated that it was "[f]or freedom [that] Christ set us free" (Gal. 5:1). If this is true, then how do we get around the fact that during Lent the Church obligates us to do certain things, like to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as to abstain from the meat of warm-blooded animals on Fridays? It doesn’t take too much investigating to arrive at the conclusion that you are only obligated insofar as you obligate yourself. The Church has no enforcement mechanism for such matters, nor should it.

For example, when we fast we get hungry. When we are hungry we want to eat, which makes fasting difficult. It is precisely here where we engage in the struggle between Spirit and flesh, especially in our gluttonous culture, which forbids that any hunger pang should ever go unsatisfied. It is precisely when you experience this that you are forced to ask yourself, "Why am I doing this, again?" It is important in such a moment to understand that you are free, free to go ahead and eat something, realizing God will not love you less for doing so. So, what ought to stop you? The only thing that ought to stop you is your own desire, your desire for what is ultimate, your desire for complete fulfillment, your desire for God. This also helps you to see your weakness, which helps you understand how much you need God, shows you your true condition, which gives you a great opportunity to experience for yourself that God’s ways are love and truth. This realization is the only starting point for life in the Spirit because it is life in the Spirit, which is life eternal, that which was described by St. Augustine in a letter to the Roman widow, Proba, as "the life that is truly life." So, over these weeks leading us to Easter and beyond, be repenting and believing in the Gospel!

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