Sunday, March 1, 2015

Listening to the Son

This past week I began teaching a Lenten series at a local parish. While the 6-week program is ostensibly a study of the Ten Commandments, the series is really about how we—as believers—engage difficult moral issues. So, I suppose, it could be called “Moral Theology 101.” But, when all is said and done, the classes really come back to the basic theme of discipleship: how are we living out the faith we profess in our daily lives?

We began our time together by reflecting on the importance of the season of Lent and how Lent is really a model for the Christian life because (when it is celebrated properly) Lent is always leading us somewhere—to the Cross and Empty Tomb. This is the season when we reflect on the quality of our discipleship and work on developing those virtues and habits that will enrich our faith and commitment so that, on Easter Sunday, we will be truer, holier disciples than we were on Ash Wednesday. Ideally, that forward momentum will continue through the Easter Season and beyond.

For some in the class, this wasn’t anything new. For others, this idea of Lent being something bigger than the “40 days” was a real revelation. And, as we discussed how prayer, fasting/self-denial, and almsgiving were about freedom and the hallmarks of every day discipleship, I think a lot of things fell into place for these folks… I can gratefully say that those “Aha!” moments are why I do what I do. Those conversations are very much on my mind as we celebrate this Second Sunday of Lent.

The three Readings proclaimed at Mass on this Sunday all focus on the Mystery of Jesus’ Divine Sonship: “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him” (Mark 9:7) and “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, how will he not also give us everything else along with him?” (Romans 8:31b-32). In these texts (along with the highly symbolic account of the sacrifice of Abraham), we are given an important reminder of Whom it is that we have committed our lives to.  

In his Message for Lent, Pope Francis wrote:
God is not indifferent to our world; he so loves it that he gave his Son for our salvation. In the Incarnation, in the earthly life, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, the gate between God and man, between heaven and earth, opens once for all.  The Church is like the hand holding open this gate, thanks to her proclamation of God’s word, her celebration of the sacraments, and her witness of the faith which works through love (cf. Galatians 5:6). But the world tends to withdraw into itself and shut the door through which God comes into the world and the world comes to him… God’s people, then, need [interior renewal], lest we become indifferent and withdraw into ourselves.

The Transfiguration from the Church of Our Lady
in Bruges, Belgium by Gerard David (d. 1523)
The Transfiguration of Jesus (retold in today’s Gospel) has often been understood as the great revelation to Peter, James, and John of Jesus’ divine glory, hidden beneath the veil of his humanity. By allowing this glimpse of the fullness of Christ’s glory, God was empowering them to face the coming days of passion and death with faith and trust in God’s ultimate power. And this is a good and worthy interpretation. However, I recently came upon another perspective on the Transfiguration that I think is especially worth considering in these Lenten days: the Transfiguration wasn’t so much about giving the three Apostles a glimpse of heavenly glory as it was an invitation to see what heaven on earth can be like for those who choose to believe in the transformation power of Christ. 

For many of us, Lent can be reduced to a sort of spiritual “self-help” program. We aren’t really focused on conversion and often shy away from those resources that will foster a true spirit of repentance and that celebrate our freedom as God’s children (an open engagement of Scripture, frequent celebrations of the sacraments [including the Anointing of the Sick, the forgotten sacrament] and the support and challenge of other faithful Christians). Lent can see us doing lots of “work” but showing little benefit from our efforts.  In his wonderful book The Prodigal Father, Angelo Scarano writes:
We “mature Christians” know exactly what is and is not sin, and are quite willing to “better ourselves,” and know all about the mistakes we make and certainly want to correct them. “Spinning the wheels” without getting anywhere despite our best efforts provide us, however, with an important lesson in humility, teaching us that we cannot manage on our own and that we need a push from someone else. We need the courage to say, “Lord, show me my mistakes and what their roots are, but let it be you who helps me change.”
Recognizing our motivations and needs are important steps in conversion. And our willingness to ask ourselves—and God—difficult questions is essential for becoming the kind of disciples we are called to be. The Season of Lent also challenges us to really ask ourselves if we are listening to what it is we are being called to and called for. These are privileged days, but as John W. Martens observes, "the God who showed [the Apostles] a vision of heavenly glory and spoke to them out of the glory was the same God who spoke to them when Jesus said that he would suffer and die. When you listen to God, you do not get to pick the 'good stuff,' the words that appeal to you: God asks that you listen always." But, Martens continues, "Trials, tests, and suffering are not the end of the story... The end of the story is God's glory, but it requires hearing God's voice in the midst of trials, suffering, pain, and loss, even when it seems to be God's voice commanding the suffering.  Be patient and listen again, for the voice of God desires only our blessing."

A prayer for the Second Sunday of Lent +
O God, who have commanded us
to listen to your beloved Son,
be pleased, we pray,
to nourish us inwardly by your word,
that, with spiritual sight made pure,
we may rejoice to behold your glory.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Saint Serenus the Gardener: Cultivating Virtue

The one who supplies seed to the sower
and bread for food
will supply and multiply your seed
and increase the harvest of your righteousness.
—2 Corinthians 9:10

As we celebrate the Season of Lent—the Church’s “springtime”—it seems only fair that among the holy women and men we remember in these reflections is a saint who is honored as one of the patron saints of gardeners: Saint Serenus.

Born to a Greek family in the third century, Serenus (who is widely known as Saint Cerneuf in France) became a hermit, living on produce he grew in his hermitage garden in Syrmium (Sremska Mitrovica in modern-day Croatia). When a persecution of Christians erupted, Serenus went into hiding for several months. He eventually returned to his hermitage and garden and it seems to have been widely known that he was a Christian.

The most popular account of his life tells us that he was an exceptionally attractive man and a hard worker. He was respected and admired by everyone who came into contact with him, particularly the wife of one of the guards of the Emperor Maximian (r. 286-305). Her interest in Serenus quickly turned into sexual advances which led him to criticize her behavior, declaring that she was dishonoring both herself and her husband. The spurned woman responded by writing to her husband and declaring that Serenus had insulted her.
A 19th century depiction of Saint Serenus the Gardener
from Pictorial Lives of the Saints
A short time later, the husband presented a complaint to the governor and had Serenus brought to trial. The hermit defended himself so well that the husband dropped the charges, realizing that his wife had been the one at fault. Serenus was acquitted, but the governor suspected that anyone so conscientious must be a Christian. And so, Serenus was charged with being a Christian and invited to sacrifice to the Roman gods. He refused, declaring, “It has pleased God to reserve me for this present time. It seemed awhile ago as if he rejected me as a stone unfit to enter his building, but he has the goodness to take me now to be placed in it; I am ready to suffer all things for his name, that I may have a part in his kingdom with his saints.” He was martyred around the year 303. His commemoration is celebrated on February 23.

The witness of saints like Serenus challenges us to reflect on how we cultivate our own “garden”—our spiritual life. His life as a hermit, commitment to a truly Christian morality, and the witness of his martyrdom remind us that, regardless of our state of life, every follower of Jesus is called to cultivate virtue and witness to our faith in every facet of our lives: in our work, in our private moments, and especially in those times our faith is challenged.

Lent is that time set aside for us by the Church when we are supposed to pause and take stock of the quality of our discipleship. As we know, our commitment as followers of Jesus isn’t measured or reflected in how much we “give up,” but in how we care for one another, in our dedication to prayer, and in the way our faith guides and inspires our day-to-day decisions. With this in mind, spend some time this week reflecting on your own Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Ask yourself if your Lenten “good works” are leading you to focus your attention inward or if they are inspiring you to cultivate a life of virtue, goodness, and fidelity—like Saint Serenus—whose fruits enrich the world around you.

A prayer in honor of Saint Serenus the Gardener +
Almighty God, who gave to your servant Serenus boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the powers of this world, and courage to die for this faith: Grant that we may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in us, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
(from Holy Women, Holy Men)

This post was originally written Mayslake Ministries and was posted on their blog on February 24, 2015.

Keeping Lent Real

In his Rule, Saint Benedict observes that "the life of a monk ought to a continuous Lent" (from chapter 49). Those words might strike some as harsh, but why is that? Is it because we too quickly associate Lent with ash-smudged foreheads, "giving up" things we generally enjoy, fishy Fridays, and lots talk about guilt and sin?

The insight that we can gain from Saint Benedict's perspective is that the spirit of Lent is something that should permeate our lives every day of the year. And, by saying that, I don't mean the doom-and-gloom that too many associate with this season. Instead, Saint Benedict was saying that our Lenten emphasis on ongoing conversion and covenant is something we should carry with us each day, because conversion and covenant are at the heart of our commitment to follow Christ.

This can only make sense for us today if we try to remember that Lent was originally a 3-day time of fasting and prayer for those who would be baptized at Easter. While this eventually grew into the 40 days we keep today (remember that Sundays are not included in the 40 days of Lent because Sunday can never be a day of penance), the meaning is there for us, as well: Lent is the time when we prepare for the celebration of baptism and the renewal of our baptismal promises. For those in the RCIA process, who are now in the final weeks before they will be baptized at the Easter Vigil, these days are anything but a burden--this is a time of anticipation and joy. But, for the rest of us--who have already been baptized--Lent is often anything but a season of joyful waiting. And yet, each of us will renew our commitment to discipleship on Easter Sunday by recalling our baptismal promises and being sprinkled with holy water. Sadly, most of us miss the connection of this liturgical act and the season of Lent.

In classes and workshops, I often say that Lent is the time to "get back to basics." These are the days to reflect on what it means to be a Christian, to really look at how we are living out our baptismal commitment/covenant, and to begin to take steps to becoming a truer disciple of Jesus. This rarely has anything to do with "giving up" luxury items like chocolate, Facebook, reading fiction. Most of us would benefit more from finding a way to care for the poor, nurture faith in our families, and pray more. The "giving up" of Lent is only intended to remind us that there are things we all desire and hunger for, but these days are also a time when we should be asking ourselves if we're hungering for the right things. In this sense, Lent is the most "grown up" of all the seasons of the Church year. Lent is the season of discipleship.

At the end of the Gospel proclaimed on this First Sunday of Lent, we hear that, "Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the Gospel of God: 'This is the time of fulfillment. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the Gospel.'" This is the meaning of Lent: Now is the time. Live like you really believe what you profess.

As we continue our Lenten journey towards the Cross and Easter, take some time to reflect on where you're putting your energies and attention this Lent. Are you looking beyond the 40 days and choosing to take up a good work that will enrich your faith in and commitment to the Risen Lord? How, in your prayers and almsgiving, are you reaching out to support those who have been entrusted to our care--especially the poor and those who are suffering? Do your Lenten good works include times for prayer and reflection, almsgiving (sharing your resources with others), and making sacrifices that will truly free your body, mind, and spirit? Are you praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters, Church leaders, for an increase in vocations, and for the grace of conversion? If not, remember that each day is a new day and a time to begin again because we are a people committed to conversion: "The life of the Christian ought to be a continuous Lent," always looking towards that eternal Easter.

Happy Lent.

A prayer for the First Sunday of Lent +
Grant, almighty God,
through the yearly observance of holy Lent,
that we may grow in understanding
of the riches hidden in Christ
and by worthy conduct pursue their effects.
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
(from The Roman Missal)