Metanoia! (VI and last)

We conclude our series Metanoia! (Change!) on the fifth and last Sunday in Lent. As we have done during the series, we look at the gospel to see how it can shape our reflection on change. The gospel on the fifth Sunday of Lent answers a very basic question: What do we need to change into? The Church teaches us that Lent is a time to become more Christ-like in preparation for Holy Week and Easter.

When some people (Greeks, the gospel states) approach the disciples because they want “to see Jesus,” he speaks to them about the Cross. Hardly a good marketing strategy if what Jesus wanted was just to grow his following. One of the things we most need to change is our ability to embrace the Cross. I believe the Cross is the ultimate fasting, the total self-emptying that fasting is supposed to mean.

Embracing the Cross is not easy for us, as it was not easy for Jesus either! Jesus did not want the Cross. The hidden pearl in today’s gospel is that Jesus preaches about the Cross but then says, “I am troubled.” Jesus loved life, and he loved those around him. If we remove this anxiety Jesus felt, if we make of him a super-hero without fear or regrets about his fate, then we are not allowing ourselves to understand the Cross. The first Christians knew about this anxiety and they accepted it, as we read in the 2nd reading from Hebrews that Jesus “offered prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.”

The lesson for us is that Jesus trusted God. That despite his feeling troubled he trusted in God. During our reflection on change we have said this often: yes, if we do not trust God, change is extremely difficult. We have to learn to make God part of our lives, beyond an intellectual belief. The same God that promised Abraham a people, is the same God that promised Moses a land, and the same God that took Jesus by the hand in his pilgrimage from a horrible death into the new life of the Easter Resurrection. This is the same God that will take us from what we are today into what we can become—a road that goes through but does not stop at the Cross.

Lent 2015

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Metanoia! (V)

This is the fifth installment of our series called Metanoia! (Change!) We continue reflecting about change against the backdrop of this conversation between Nicodemus and Jesus. The problem we find this weekend is that the gospel is cropped. We do not know who Nicodemus is, and we only get half of the conversation with Jesus. How do we explain the cropping? I am not sure. Some would argue that those who put together the Lectionary were not scriptural scholars—but the cropping is too obvious for that explanation. Another possibility is that some of the language in the part of the conversation we do not read on Sunday may be difficult to understand. Just take the whole section, a few verses before what we read on Sunday, and you will see what I mean.

One way or another, it would be helpful to know who is Nicodemus—knowing that most times we do not get the name of the person who interacts with Jesus. A few verses before what we read at Mass, the text says that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, “ruler of the Jews,” who came to talk to Jesus “at night.” Jesus has just performed the cleansing of the Temple, which had to irritate the ruling class. But Nicodemus has been attracted by the person and teachings of Jesus, and he needs to process what has happened. Notice that he comes out at night, which may mean that Nicodemus does not want to be seen, especially by his ruling colleagues. From the conversation between Jesus and this man, in our context of change, we have selected three themes:

On the first theme, if last week we reflected about the concept of “sudden change,” this week we look at “deep change”: In the part of the conversation we do not read at Mass, Jesus tells Nicodemus that one needs to be born again. Some of our Christian brothers and sisters have made of this a whole denomination. For me it means that Jesus calls Nicodemus and us to total change. It is not enough to give up something superficial. The change (transformation, conversion) we are called to experience is like being born again, a fundamental, deep change.

The second theme from the conversation is something we have discussed here often enough: Because Nicodemus is a Pharisee, Jesus reminds him that salvation comes from believing and following a person, instead of a set of rules, or rituals, symbols and institutions (the bread and butter of the Pharisees.) I believe this is what Jesus means when he says, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.”

The third theme comes from one of the most beautiful statements that we find in the whole of the Bible, one that we should repeat to ourselves a hundred times this week: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” Jesus invites Nicodemus—and us—to change his condemning ways. And it is a challenge, because we are very good at condemning. As Church, we have been and are very strongly involved in the business of condemnation. I recall Saint John Paul II’s homily on March 12, 2000, during the jubilee year, when he asked for forgiveness for the sins of the Church. Most of them were related to intolerance.

But as individuals we also condemn. We do it because it is easy. We do it because once you condemn the dialogue is closed, we have no responsibility for transforming a social reality or a person. We have discussed before how “condemning” a leper—calling them impure and asking them to live separately—excused people from actually feeling responsible for the ill person. We should not judge—which is at the root of a condemnation—because we never know the whole story ever, and because it means that we claim a higher moral ground that we may or may not have.

Condemnation—of social issues, of whole sections of society, of individuals in our lives—do not help us in fulfilling our task to transform the world. It is rather useless because it does not really change others, it just marginalizes or antagonizes them. Change is difficult (you all tell me) so we need to garner all the energy we can. Condemning is a waste of energy that we could very well use in changing ourselves.

Did you know you can listen to Sacred Heart homilies on line? Check it out at www.sacredheartracine.com.

Lent 2015

Metanoia! (4): The Cleansing of the Temple

This is the first time in Lent when there are two different sets of readings, depending on whether a given parish has RCIA candidates—thus reading the RCIA gospels—Cycle A—or, if not, we read the gospels from Cycle B of the Lectionary—which is what we do this year at Sacred Heart.

We continue our reflection on Metanoia! (Change!) in the backdrop of a very intense gospel: the cleansing of the Temple. The institution at the head of a whole religious system had become a marketplace, the Temple had become the most apparent sign of the corruption of a religious system.

Jesus’ prophetic gesture gives us new clues to continue our reflection on change: the role of anger in our life; the need for sudden change; and our need to turn our beliefs into convictions.

Anger

Our anger is not the anger of Jesus in today’s gospel. We mainly get angry when someone inconveniences us. We get angry when someone cuts us off in traffic, or when we do not get our way. This is not the anger of Jesus. People often come to confession and they mention getting angry. I always ask two questions: what did you get angry about? And what did you do with your anger? Only then can we discern whether there is sin or not. Sometimes not getting angry about something would be the sin! Jesus displays anger to change a wrong.

Did you wonder why Jesus in this gospel takes special offense at those who are selling doves? Why not with those who were selling the sheep and the oxen? Doves were what poor people could afford for the sacrifices prescribed for the Temple. It was one more way to take advantage of the poor. Jesus is even angrier at witnessing this extortion on the poor.

Anger is a great motivator—both for personal and for institutional change, and we have to consider how it plays out in our lives. (I see a future series on anger.)

Sudden Change

In one of the most fascinating lines I have read in a gospel at Mass, the text states that Jesus did not need anybody to testify to him about human nature, he knew human nature well. We all know change (at least positive change) is difficult for us. This is precisely why change sometimes needs to be sudden, it cannot be done slowly. We know examples of that in our lives: you want to lose weight or to quit smoking…you have to do it right away. Jesus wanted the Temple to change. He did not organize a six-month plan, with meetings with those selling animals and the money changers… Especially when you want to change the culture of an institution, you can’t approach change with a soft approach. Often we think that if we go slowly we may embark more people into the new paradigm, but the opposite seems to be true: if more time is given, those who oppose change will have more time to enforce their position.

Conviction

Jesus is asked where he gets his authority to cleanse the Temple, a prophetic gesture that Scripture indicated the expected Messiah would perform. Jesus got his authority not only from being who he was—the Son of God—but also from his conviction about that identity and his mission. Conviction, according to the dictionary, is a “firmly held belief.” To be people of conviction is not in fashion these days. Or we have conviction for things that are unimportant, like sports. In faith, we choose whether we are people of beliefs or—taking it a step forward—of conviction. I believe that one of the problems we Catholics have when compared to Evangelicals, is that they seem to show much more conviction than we do about our faith.

When was the last time we got angry for something that was a situation of injustice that happened to someone else? In experiencing the change of Lent, are we taking the sudden-change approach? Do we feel like people who are able to show faith conviction to others?

Lent 2015Blog Pic, the Cleansing of the Temple

Metanoia! (III): The Transfiguration, 2nd Sunday in Lent

I do not need to explain again why we are calling our series on change “Metanoia!” but during the homily we introduced a new angle. If we think repentance we imply that we are doing fine, we are set in the right direction. We have a fall out, or a slip, but we repent, stand up again, and we continue on the same path. The change Jesus preaches about—what Lent calls for—is really more about a change in direction, a true U-turn, a conversion.

On the second Sunday of Lent, we always read the gospel of the Transfiguration—from Luke, Matthew or this year, from Mark. It is difficult not to focus on Jesus in this passage, as the Transfiguration is a glorious moment. His dazzling clothes inevitably catch our imagination. Scripturally, it is fascinating to see the connections between the Transfiguration, the baptism, and the resurrection. However, in our reflection on change, I suggest that we pay attention to the disciples Jesus has taken with him to the top of the mountain.

The text says they were afraid. The text says that Peter did not know what he was saying. The text says that the voice of God, which at the baptism had addressed Jesus (“You are my beloved Son”) now is addressing the disciples, “This is my beloved Son,” adding “Listen to him”—because they were not really listening.

What is happening to the disciples? Like us, they were afraid to change. Jesus is changing their worldview, their mental and spiritual framework. With the comment about building tents for Moses and Elijah (the prophet of victory) Peter is trying to place Jesus in the old framework—the Law and the Prophets—that we call Old Testament today. Jesus is breaking down their expectations of what the Messiah had to be like, and they cling to tradition, they cling to the past. They are like us, we also fear change.

Why we fear change could make for a long and not very original dissertation. We fear change because it makes us vulnerable. We fear change because it is easier to stay within our comfort zone. However, Lent calls us to deep change. A change that, I suggest, begins in our minds and takes a lot of mental strength. It is in our brain that we ground our worldview, our beliefs and behaviors. As we said last week, we can dream about changing the world, but that change begins in the only factor that I can control, myself, and there it begins by changing the way I think.

When I was beginning to think and plan this series, a book jumped out at me at the bookstore. No one told me about it, I just saw it and I had to buy it (I do believe this is an example of the serendipitous way God acts in my life). The title of the book is 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do by psychotherapist Amy Morin. While it is a secular book, I thought it was profoundly spiritual. At the homily I joked that I was going to preach about all 13 items—which would have made for a long, long homily.

What I did is to survey a group of parishioners and a friend who is a psychologist. I asked them to choose three. Interestingly enough, they all chose the one we are preaching about: mentally strong people do not shy away from change.

Mentally strong people embrace change, sacrificing the false comfort of staying just where we are. There are multiple reasons why we shy away from change: we are creatures of habit; because change makes us feel vulnerable; because we fear losing control. But to shy away from change means also to shy away from possibility. It is foolish for us not to embrace change because change does not ask for permission to happen. As I read elsewhere, “If we always do what we have always done, we will always be where we have always been.”

Two more items in Dr. Morin’s book are related to this: mentally strong people don’t dwell in the past, what the disciples in the Transfiguration were doing, tents and all. It also connects with another of the book’s items, mentally strong people do not fear taking calculated risks, as change entails taking risks.

Change, again, is difficult. We can set ourselves to embrace change, but where do we get the strength for such an enterprise? Where do we think about what to change and how to change it? In Prayer. The prayer of Lent, silent and individual.

Again, what I found fascinating about the book is that while it did not mention God a single time (I think), while it is a “secular” book, I found it profoundly spiritual. It is easy to see how all 13 items can be thought about in spiritual terms. Interestingly enough, one of the items in the list states that mentally strong people do not fear alone time. Prayer—quiet and individual—is our spiritual alone time that we should not fear.

Being alone and being in silence are very challenging exercises, we are not used to them, our culture does not promote them. We have already reflected about the need to carve this Lenten Observance as a habit into our lives. When we do something, even difficult, for an extended period of time, it becomes an acquired behavior. Either we do not pray, or we pray without really praying. We often do the opposite of praying, that is worrying. While worry is a dialogue with ourselves over things we cannot control, prayer is a dialogue with God about things He controls already.

When we worry we focus on things we cannot control (another item in Dr. Morin’s list.) Worry is about the past, while change is about the now and the future. Lent is an invitation to change, to transform ourselves into the person God calls us to be. Jesus experiences the fullness of who he is on the top of the mountain. Becoming the person God created us to be requires embracing change without fear, a change grounded in constant prayer. This is the wisdom of Lent, a journey into becoming our transfigured self: the best version of ourselves. The person God created me to be.

Lent 2015Blog Pic, the Transfiguration