Images of God

The gospel of the 3rd week in Lent is an invitation for us to reflect about “image of God.” After the Transfiguration, Jesus begins the journey to Jerusalem. On the way, he teaches a number of things—sometimes addressing the crowds, other times the disciples, and still other times the Pharisees. Reflecting on our image of God is important because it shapes the way we live our faith and the way we treat others.

God is not about punishment. The first story is about some individuals sacrificed by Pilate to which Jesus adds the victims of a tower’s fall. Jesus strongly refutes the idea, very prevalent in his society and often present in ours, that the misfortune of others was a direct curse from God. The opposite also was true: a person of wealth was considered to be blessed by God. This is not the God that Jesus taught and he sternly taught that the idea had to be changed. The consequence of this judgmental image of God is really that we have no responsibility in the misfortunes of others, when we certainly do. I believe many still operate under the image of a God of punishment, like a cosmic moral enforcer, who is there to police our adherence to rules.

God of Mercy. The second teaching is the beautiful parable of the barren fig tree. It is a story that shows a God of Mercy. If I believe that God is a God of second chances (or third, or fourth…) then I have to be a person of second chances, as well. But the parable somewhat corrects the interpretation that God’s mercy is like a blank check, because…

God is merciful but also demanding. God expects things from us, what today’s gospel calls “to give fruit.” The analogy is simple: parents love their children, they love unconditionally regardless of what the children do; but parents also expect the best from their children. God the Father is the same for us: God expects us to give fruit—to love, serve, do justice, build the Kingdom here on earth. God knows how much we can give, and grow, as He created us. God demands that we strive to become the person He created us to be.

In our reflection on Metanoia!, this gospel becomes an invitation to check, and perhaps change, our image of God—the way we think about who God is and the consequences of that image.

Transfiguration and Change

On the Second Sunday in Lent we always read the passage of the Transfiguration, in Mark, Matthew, or this year, in Luke. It is a good text in our context of change. For one, Jesus experiences his glory on earth—the way we hope to experience our own transfiguration in heaven.

On top of the mountain, Jesus encounters Moses and Elijah, and they speak about his “exodus,” to be accomplished, through his death, in Jerusalem. Exodus is a loaded term, as it refers to the wandering of the People of Israel through the desert in search of the Promised Land. The change of Lent is also an exodus, and it may often feel like a wandering in the desert as we are more mindful than ever about our being in the desert of our shortcomings and sinfulness.

It is also a great gospel to discuss change, as the text clearly shows how difficult it was for the disciples, especially the first ones—Peter, James and John—to assume the novelty that Jesus brought about. There are so many hints in the gospel to show their struggle to understand and embrace Jesus and his mission.

It is especially clear when Peter asks Jesus to “freeze the moment,” and build a tent for Jesus (on one side,) Moses (the Law, in the center of the image,) and Elijah on the other side (representing the Old Testament prophetic tradition.) What I suggest is that Peter is trying to fit Jesus into the categories he knew and understood. He wants to dwell in what he knows, understands and supports. There is no room in that framework for a Messiah who has just told his disciples, right before this gospel, that he is to suffer, and be killed, before experiencing the resurrection.

We, too, struggle like the disciples, so that should be consoling. We, too, try to fit Jesus and his message in our “comfort zone.” We tame, adapt, water down… it is very human. But the Transfiguration is still a promise that awaits all of us, as we, despite our difficulties, shortcomings and struggles, embrace the change, the transformation, that Lent is calling us (and helping us) to undergo.



The Temptations: Our Starting Point for Change

We continue the journey of Lent that we started on Ash Wednesday, and we begin to figure out how to go about fulfilling the invitation to a “metanoia,” the invitation to change we received as a cross of ashes was being stamped on our foreheads. In any of the three years of the Lectionary, on the First Sunday in Lent we read the gospel of the Temptations. If change is a process, the Temptations is a great place to start.

The first thing we need to do is to realize that while the term temptation may have negative connotations for us, the text indicates that it was the Holy Spirit who led Jesus into the desert. God wanted His Son to go through this experience, this test. After the baptism of identity, Jesus goes through three temptations that are also about identity. The devil will begin each charge by asking, “If you are the Son of God…” We may find many different interpretations out there for the specific meaning of each temptation, but I have come to understand them as three variations of the temptation of the Self, which we all experience in our lives.

The first temptation, to turn stones into bread refers to Jesus’ temptation to use his power to satisfy his own hunger, his own needs. The second temptation—the one in the middle, so the most important one is also the easiest to interpret: Jesus could have become a powerful, political Messiah, someone who would have subjects instead of disciples. The third temptation is about testing God. Perhaps the most difficult one to understand, but we can think about the ways in which we often test the love others have for us. (After preaching this Sunday, I also thought that the third temptation could also be about being served—angels will come to serve you—instead of serving others, which is at the core of the identity of the Son of God.

The gospel is an invitation to begin our process of change by identifying our own temptations to our core identity as followers of Christ. Our temptations are really opportunities to grow. I propose that the most common temptation that we all have, and may be behind any other temptation, is also the temptation of the Self. How often we place ourselves and our own needs in the center of our universe, thus not giving room to God and to others.

We preached last year that the Lenten observance of fasting is a remedy against the temptation of the Self, the temptation to live as if others did not exist. If we are by the book, we only have to fast two days during Lent (and if you are older than 59, not even that.) We have also said that what we give up during Lent is a cultural modern adaptation of the observance of fasting. Still, I believe there is an invitation there to take up fasting more deeply. We have said so many times that these things are symbols of something deeper that we forget to practice the symbol and go straight to the “meaning.”

There is an obvious connection between body and soul. Fasting—which comes precisely from the gospel we read today—is about emptying ourselves so we make room for God, and for others and their needs. Fasting of so much Self may be the place to start to change.

Metanoia SHC 2016


Metanoia 2.0

Ash Wednesday inaugurates a new season of Lent. As we suggested in the last post, we need a revolution of substance. Lent can become an anecdote, a missed opportunity, if we do not become very intentional about it. The forty days of Lent are an invitation to change.

Last year we began each and every homily during Lent reflecting on what we think is a bad translation. When Jesus calls us to “metanoia” he is not only calling us to “repent” (as we will hear when a cross of ashes is drawn on our foreheads), but also to change. Metanoia means change, change of heart, conversion (if you prefer a more religious language.) Repentance seems to be only one step in the process of change, and it connects directly with sin when we may be asked to change things that are not necessarily sinful. Repentance also seems to reflect about the past, a past action, and change is a reference to a hopeful future.

Change is difficult, we know. It is especially difficult if we do not count on God’s grace and we only trust our human power. To help us further, the Church gives us the three Lenten observances. They are wonderful tools to begin and develop our own metanoia. They come directly from the gospel that we read today: prayer, fasting, and giving. We need to be intentional about these three practices if we want them to be fruitful.

The kind of prayer described in the gospel today is a silent, individual prayer. It is not a prayer of intercession, when we ask for something; or a prayer based on formulas that we all know. It is a prayer of quieting ourselves and our minds to be able to listen to what God is trying to communicate to us. We will have to be intentional about it, find a time and a place, and enter into a rhythm during the season.

Fasting is a symbol of an attitude, and out of the three observances, the one we may misunderstand the most. Fasting begins with the realization that we do not need that much, that we have to empty ourselves of the obsession with the self and our perceived needs. If we are just about the dry observance of the rule, fasting only applies to two days during the season: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But fasting applies to the whole season. We need less of everything. We need a radical emptying of our own needs, so we make room for God and others. (Of the three observances, fasting is the one that fascinates me the most at this time. I want to research more about it, and I think it will be the theme of one of the Sunday homilies in Lent.)

Fasting in modern times has been adapted into some “Lenten give-up.” It may be good, especially if we see it just as a symbol of a deeper change (I read some place that Lent should be less about giving up and more about giving out!) It is certainly not about “giving up something and then patting ourselves on the back for our self-control” (as my friend Fr. Carl put it.)

Lent, and the change that Lent invites us to initiate is much more than giving up chocolate or sweets. As we have said in previous years, ask someone who loves you what you should really give up. I guarantee you they will not say chocolate.

Fasting is connected with the last Lenten observance. The origin of (alms)giving is that we save money with what we give up in material terms (the chocolate, for instance) and then we give this money to the poor. So our giving up is not self-serving; our sacrifice does improve someone else beyond ourselves. There is a lot of change needed in the way we consider and treat the poor, and we may be far from trusting God’s promise that when we give sacrificially we receive all kinds of blessings. We need change in the way we give, also—and more about that during Lent.

A cross of ashes will be stamped on our foreheads as a sign of our willingness to enter into this season of transformation. We prepare ourselves for the upcoming celebration of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ, by praying for God’s grace to transform us into individuals more like the Jesus who lived and died for us. Happy Lent!!

Metanoia SHC 2016


They left everything and followed him…

This weekend was the kick-off for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee Catholic Stewardship Appeal. We played a video on our newly installed screens, and I did not have to preach. Still, I had some ideas, and the good thing here is that I did not have to choose between them. And I can also use this blog to tell you about those ideas and I still do not have to choose.

The gospel is the call of the first disciples, according to Luke. After the powerful experience of the Baptism and the Temptations, and after some time teaching and healing by himself, Jesus calls disciples to follow him. The first possible homily a pastor in a parish could preach would be about telling people that we are to do what Jesus did, so we are “called to call” others to follow Jesus. In our lives, and with things standing where they do, that translates into calling people to join our faith community. The faith community, in turn, needs to be all about being open to grow and feed those who come. Now everybody calls that attitude “discipleship,” but it really is to follow Jesus in the modern context in which we find ourselves. We could discuss why it is so difficult to invite others, and why it is so difficult for a parish to be about making and growing disciples.

Another idea would focus on the last line in the gospel, “they left everything and followed him.” One could begin by speculating if the process was as quick in terms of time (it all happens on the same day) as it seems in the text, or if Simon Peter’s struggle in what we read today really shows a long process that culminated in a decision to accept Jesus’ call—mindful, as well, that this is only the beginning, as it will take Peter a long time to experience his real conversion. I would probably have preached about what “leave everything” means for us. Can we, really, ask people to leave everything? A whole homily could develop what “leaving everything” may mean for modern Christians, who come to church with families, jobs, multiple social activities, finances, commitments of every kind, etc. We cannot ignore the radicality of Jesus’ call (that some do follow literally!), but we could have a great conversation about how that call can be translated in the lives of most of our people (I did read in a book about church communication that an effective homily is one that initiates a conversation.)

A third idea would have been to preach about the need for depth in the way we live life and faith. This homily would have been based on Jesus ordering Simon Peter to cast his nets into the depth. We need a revolution of depth. Just look around and see how much silliness and superficiality abounds in our society. Look at what people post on Facebook and Instagram, and the point may not need much more in terms of an explanation. Perhaps I am getting old, but I even feel that lyrics in popular songs are more stupid than ever (admitting that perhaps every generation has felt this way about the music of the next generation.) The same goes for movies, or with books… the stories seem to lack substance. Faith can also be lived very superficially, as we have seen many times, under the appearance of rigor and love for rubric and form, and we could fill our rituals with a lot of empty majestic gestures.

I am glad I did not have to choose.

Fisher of Men

Tension brewing in the Synagogue

As we said last week, the gospel today narrates the second part of the scene of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. It is not difficult to feel the tension that built up last week, which continues today. It builds up so much that those in the synagogue decided to kill Jesus. There is a glitch in the text which is not helpful. How can the people in the synagogue speak highly of him and the gracious words that were coming out of his mouth? It is simply one of the most gross translation mistakes in the New Testament. People are annoyed, disappointed, upset with Jesus, and the feeling does not change through the whole interaction.

Why are they upset? I suggest three reasons. The first reason is the one we discussed last weekend. Jesus has chosen a passage in Isaiah that describes the Messiah. He has read a text that describes who he is and what his mission is going to be about. The people in the synagogue expect another kind of Messiah, one that would liberate the people of Israel from the yoke of the foreign enemy.

They are also upset because these people know perfectly well that Jesus has cut Isaiah’s citation one line short. Jesus has read about the “year of favor” from God, but has intentionally decided to omit the next line, which reads “and a day of vindication by our God.” Jesus’s God is not one of political vindication. Conversely, many churchpeople still may be more comfortable today with the God of vindication than with the God of favor.

Finally, and that’s the core of this Sunday’s gospel, the people who are quite annoyed already recriminate Jesus for having done miracles in other places and not in Nazareth. Jesus replies by giving them two examples of situations in the history of Israel when God showed favor to the foreign—in a religious system that called the foreigner “impure” and forbid any interaction with them.

Now that we have done “exegesis” (studying the meaning of the text for the intended audience) how do we apply the lesson of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth to our lives? I suggest three applications. The first one is what we already preached last Sunday. We need to reflect whether or not as church, faith communities, families and individuals who call themselves “Christian” we are living faith according to Jesus’s mission statement: again, do we feel anointed? Do we bring good tidings to the poor with the actions we undertake inspired by our faith? Do we help to relieve captivity, in the many ways in which it presents itself in our lives?

Second, this reference to the “stranger” should make us reflect about the make-up of our faith communities. Do we welcome the stranger, the different? But I also believe it is an invitation to us to expand the limits of those we love and care for. Jesus may just be asking us to do with others (the stranger, even the enemy) what most of us do with members of our families and close friends.

Third and perhaps the most provocative: Jesus provokes conflict. He did not shy away from confronting the people in the synagogue. Our churches (the only “business” I feel a bit authorized to talk about) often become places where we simply pat people on the back. For instance, a pastor will be more popular if he preaches what people want to hear, instead of what people need to hear. If we want real growth, we have to embrace “constructive conflict.” Conflict makes us uncomfortable, but peace for the sake of peace is not conducive to real growth. If you have children, for instance, you know conflict is part of parenting. Never, for the sake of peace and safety, should we deny our convictions. It is the only path to growth.

Jesus in the Synagogue