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Friday, February 15, 2013

The shadow on the mountain

I have notes to myself from years past that the following words were not heard in the homily on Ash Wednesday: baptism, cross, Christ, Easter, resurrection, fasting, almsgiving, prayer. One year, we were exhorted to make amends to people we’ve offended and to read the bible. I'm good with that! Then we were told not to fast, because no one cares about that, quote: “Read the Bible and eat your chocolates.” I’m sure that this is somewhere in our tradition, but the exact place where it shows up in the Fathers escapes me. Lent is a time of reflection, of turning inward, we were told. Really? Inward is where I am all the time. I guess I don’t have to change. Homilists, may I suggest what you already know: to ignore baptism in Lent is about like ignoring Christ at Christmas. According to our best sources, it's the reason for the season.

Another aspect of Lenten preaching that gets ignored is the communal and political nature of repentance. This can be seen in the context of the first reading from the prophet Joel, about sounding the trumpet in Zion, &c &c. You can read the passage again here. What precipitates the call to repentance, fasting, and change is a disaster that befalls the community. It might be a plague of crop-devouring locusts so virulent that it is compared to an invading army with the power to decimate the population, causing havoc and ruin. Or I suppose it might be an invading army as numerous as a plague of locusts, too. In either case, it is a "shadow on the mountain," and the call to fast is not to address some internal psychological issue. Read the beginning of Joel 2 here. This is a ritual fast being proclaimed in the nation to beseech heaven to intervene in the case of a natural and political disaster. 
Like blackness spread upon the mountains
 a great and powerful army comes;
 their like has never been from of old,
 nor will be again after them
 in ages to come. (Jl 2:2, NRSV)
We moderns don't believe than there’s any connection between natural disaster and divine disfavor, in fact, the New Testament witness goes against the idea that God would in any way be responsible for such disasters, since God makes the sun shine and rain fall alike on the good and the bad. Good things happen to good and bad people, and bad things do too. The cosmos doesn’t really care where the asteroid hits, where the tsunami floods or the tornado destroys. That will, in fact, come up for our reflection on the Third Sunday of Lent this year, at least in parishes not doing the scrutinies with catechumens. 

But the people who suffer the most from these things are those who have the least protection from their ravages and who have the last ability to recover financially from their losses. The natural response can be “every ‘man’ for himself,” so that the poorest of the poor are left not only without means, but without hope. What baptism brings to this situation is an outward sign of the reality that all people are equals and the children of God. All people are called to share equally and eternally in the goodness of the earth and to live in the freedom and mutuality of the dominion of God. What Lent does is try to give us an opportunity, with those who are waiting for baptism right in front of us, to remember the calling we have already received, and to lead us, not inward, but outward, to other people. Lent comes yearly to lead us to the awareness that we might have too much, and that much needs to be cut away so that we can reach others (fasting). Lent calls us to center upon the One whose loving generativity is the origin of our communion (prayer). It gives us the opportunity to develop and practice new habits of generosity so that our goods, however meager or lavish, might be shared with the human family, particularly those who have been less enriched by the cosmos (almsgiving).

The path to this way of solidarity and equality under God is the path to the cross. The way of the world is to desire and obtain, not to be generous and surrender. Our Lenten practices preach by word and example that the riches that we have accumulated really belong to everyone equally, and that our petty ways of separating people into the deserving and undeserving, the in and the out, red and blue, sinners and just, these are all illusions of ego-driven and misguided desire. Those who follow the gospel will be no less vulnerable to the lash and cross than was Jesus who, as the icon of the invisible God, preached the word of justice and equality on earth, the jubilee made human. The way to Easter leads through Good Friday, for Jesus, and for everybody. 

Maybe you can see a little bit why it bothers me when words like “baptism,” “cross,” “Christ,” “fasting,” “prayer,” and “almsgiving” aren’t used in the Ash Wednesday homily. Instead of looking for a "theme" for Lent, we need to mine the tradition of Lent, and remember what it means to renew our baptismal promises. What sin is it, as a community, that we are called to reject? What kind of actions might we discern we would be taking if we really believed in God, Christ, the holy spirit, the church? Questions like these can help us to trust in Pentecost, trust in Easter, trust in the God of Jesus to break through our sinfulness and rampaging desire and keep saving the world. 

We know that the shadow is on the mountain; God give us strength to blow the trumpet, call the assembly, proclaim the fast.