The Deep Soil (Matthew 13:1-23)

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Before arriving at the famous Parable of the Sower — the Gospel reading for today — we are first given Isaiah 55:10-11 to contemplate. Though Isaiah’s words were written approximately 500 years before Jesus spoke the Parable of the Sower, his parable calls to mind Isaiah’s prophecy so beautifully that it isn’t hard to imagine he might have deliberately intended it that way. Isaiah writes:

Thus says the LORD: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful, giving seed to the one who sows and bread to the one who eats, so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.

My word shall not return to me void, says the Lord through Isaiah. And so Jesus begins to tell the crowds what “the kingdom of God is like…” It turns out that the nature of this kingdom is best revealed through parables, and in one of them, a sower goes out to sow seeds. The sower can be God, and the seeds can be the seeds of his kingdom, the little seeds that God plants in our lives that we have to look for and really notice to find. They are always there; do we see them? Do we notice them? 

But Jesus says this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is like these small seeds. He tells the people that some of the seed fell on the byway, and the birds came and ate it. Some of the seed fell upon the rocks and sprouted immediately in the shallow soil there; but because the soil there was shallow, the sprout had no depth of root, and so it withered when the heat of the sun came. Some of the seed fell among the thorns and brambles, and these choked it after it sprouted and had grown a little bit. 

But — and here, here at last is the seed that will not return void to the Creator — some of the seed fell on good, deep, rich soil. And it formed deep, strong roots in that good, deep soil. And maybe it grew a little bit slower than the seed that had sprouted in the shallow soil. Maybe it was more deliberate and unhurried about it all, taking its time to grow toward the light. But as it took its time it grew steadily, and quietly, and became strong as it slowly but inexorably felt itself pulled toward that light. It knew it would get there in good time, because it knew where it belonged. It belonged in the light, but only after it had been able to form good, strong roots in that fertile soil. 

One day it arrives in the light, and it’s too firmly established for the birds to eat it, and it has deep enough roots to withstand all the heat, nourished by water and nutrients from the cool and stable earth that is the ground of its being. And it is too grounded in the soil and too drawn to the light to be choked off by any thorns. And this seed, Jesus tells the crowd, grows to maturity and bears its good fruit a hundred or sixty or thirty fold. My word shall not return to me void, says the Lord. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

His Eye is On the Sparrow (Matthew 10:26-33)

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time

This Sunday we finally move away from John’s Gospel, where we’ve been for the majority of the fifty-day Easter season and the special Sundays immediately following it, and settle back into Matthew for the majority of this Year A of the lectionary. Here, Jesus is speaking to his disciples’ fears and worries in a time and place when life was lived close to the edge, and proclaiming your faith in Christ and his message could easily lead not only to rejection but arrest, torture, and death. This is still the case today in many places in the world, as the United Nations lists Christians as the most persecuted religious group across the globe today. 

But you don’t need to be persecuted for your faith in Christ, as so many Christians now are, in order to be deeply reassured by Jesus’ message in this reading. He says, “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s knowledge. Even the hairs of your heads are all counted. So do not be afraid.”

Sometimes, we can wonder where God is. Horrible things happen in the world. Sometimes horrible things happen to us or those we love. Sometimes the daily, unremarkable challenges of life simply leave us feeling worn down, or inadequate, or weak and unable. But if we are open to the small signs in our lives, the gentle whispers of life, the simple gestures of love in the world, the call of a bird and the rustling of the wind, the delicate beauty of a flower and the time it takes for the sun to rise over the horizon, we can feel God’s presence within us and around us. We can know that, as the scripture says, God was there “in the still, small voice,” the whisper of sound. 

Last night I was reading about the remarkable story of Walter Ciszek, S. J. A Jesuit priest who had been sent to minister to Byzantine/Eastern rite Catholics in Poland in the late 1930s, he was arrested by the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, at some point after the Russians overran Poland in 1939. He spent eighteen years as a Soviet prisoner. Fifteen of those years he endured under a sentence of hard labor in the Siberian salt mines, living in the same gulag that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made famous with his book The Gulag Archipelago, until the U.S. government finally secured his return home. 

To lose one’s faith and connection with God in those circumstances would have been understandable — even, perhaps, expected. Instead, as he wrote about in his books With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me, his inner life of spiritual contemplation with God became his only constant and the one thing that sustained him. He sensed God abiding with him and his fellow prisoners in the labor camp, and he chose to offer up his life and his hard labor there to God. He also risked his life to minister as a priest to his fellow prisoners, leading secret Masses, hearing their confessions and offering them sacramental absolution. At any time, any one of them could have reported on him for their own gain and turned him in to meet his death. He returned home to America in 1962. 

As I look out my window and I watch the birds gathering food, building nests, and living quiet simple lives of Creator-endowed grace from moment to moment, I can think of Jesus’ words about the sparrows to his disciples. And I can know that just as he watches them in the fields and trees, and just as he watched Walter Ciszek in the gulag, and just as he watches all of us — I know he watches me, too.

“Why should I feel discouraged

Why should the shadows come

Why should my heart be lonely —

When Jesus is my portion

A constant friend is he

His eye is on the sparrow

And I know he watches me” 

(lyrics Civilla D. Martin)

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

Living Bread, Flesh and Blood (John 6:51-58)

Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ (Corpus Christi), Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

The content of this Gospel reading would have been thoroughly shocking to its original hearers in its original context. To be candid, it can even sound shocking to us today, and we have the benefit of two thousand years of theology, eucharistic and otherwise, to interpret it. Here is the crux of it in excerpts: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world… Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you… Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.”

If it sounds jarring, it was meant to be. Jesus knew his audience and knew his context, and sure enough, many in the crowd of listeners deserted him after this one. But the thing that made these words so hard to grasp also happens to be the very key to interpreting them. Leviticus 17:11-14 prohibits the Israelites from drinking the blood of any creature that they eat. They are to pour the blood out onto the earth, for it represents the life of the creature, stands for atonement in the case of sacrifice, and may not be consumed. “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your lives; for it is the blood that makes atonement by means of the life” (Lev 17:11). Continuing in verse 14, “For the life of all flesh is its blood. Thus I said to the Israelites, You shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Whoever consumes it shall be cut off.”

This was the cultural and religious context that Jesus’ listeners knew very well. The Gospel tells us that some of them, therefore, could simply not accept his words on any level, and dispersed. Jesus understood that. But with these words, he is really talking about two central things: his coming into this world from heaven for our sake, and the giving of his life in a definitive sacrifice that demonstrated his love for the very creatures whose dark and murderous impulses led to that sacrifice. It is this divine sacrificial love, culminating in Resurrection, that “makes atonement” for our lives and redeems them from sin and death. 

It is in this way that Jesus’ “blood” is the life that we need to consume. When he says, “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do not have life in you,” and “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” he knows exactly the background context that is Leviticus 17:11-14. He knows it is written that the life of the flesh is in the blood, and he knows it is written that the blood, by means of its life, makes atonement. So he tells his followers that he gives his body and blood in the definitive sacrifice, fulfilling the first Covenant yet also inaugurating “the new Covenant in my blood” — as he says during the Last Supper, the institution of the first Eucharist. 

The reading from Paul for today, 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, speaks of this Eucharistic meal that Christ instituted for us: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The Eucharist as the Lord’s Supper was celebrated and practiced even by the earliest Christian community, beginning immediately following Jesus’ death and Resurrection, as his disciples began to carry out the teaching he gave them about the life that comes from his body and blood. 

Atonement and redemption through self-sacrificial love are his divine gifts to us. But we must, he says, “feed on him” — that is to say, we must rely on him, turn to him, get our nourishment from him. We must draw from him and remain in him, and he will remain in us, giving us the gift of eternal life, which is nothing less than to abide in the glory of God’s love forever. 

Redeemer, help us to draw on you, the “living bread from heaven,” for our true sustenance. Help us to open our minds to what your self-sacrifice of redemptive, atoning love means individually for each one of us, and help us to accept that gift of your love. Inspire our hearts to drink in your life, which you want to give in abundance, so that your life may remain in us, and we may dwell with you eternally. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

Softening the Hard Heart (John 3:16-18)

Most Holy Trinity (Tenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

The Gospel for this Sunday — Holy Trinity Sunday, commemorating the Trinity a week after Pentecost’s great celebration of the Holy Spirit — contains a saying so well known that it’s easy to skim over it, and hard to plumb its depths with new eyes. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.”

Primarily this verse touches us with its emphasis on God’s radical love for the world and love for us, despite all the suffering the human species inflicts upon itself and on other species. That love means that God is not enthusiastic about condemning. God is enthusiastic about redeeming and forgiving, when the hard heart becomes consumed with remorse and looks to its Creator for forgiveness and love. But God’s respect for our autonomy is such that this is not forced upon us. It is a gift freely offered, and can be freely turned down. Our hearts can soften in the face of God’s love, causing us to follow in the divine way of compassionate kindness; or they can remain hard and intractable, continuing to cause pain to others. 

If “perish” in this passage stands as the opposite of “have eternal life,” then looking more closely at what Jesus means by “eternal life” will help us better understand its opposite. In another passage in John, Jesus asks the Father to give eternal life to all whom the Father has given him. He then says, “And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Jesus reassures his disciples that simply to know God in an intimate way — and as he told them elsewhere, just to know him is a direct way to know God — leads to eternal life. This is because it is impossible to know God in our depths person-to-Person and yet refuse to love him. And it is that love, which is the greatest transformative force in the world, that brings eternal life. 

It is that gentle yet most powerful-in-its-gentleness force of love that softens our hearts and causes us to see others and all of Creation in the way that God sees. This, in itself, changes our actions and our disposition and leads into the eternal life of which Jesus speaks. We do not need to perform superhuman spiritual acrobatics, he tells us, to inherit eternal life. We do not need to wear ourselves out trying to “earn” it somehow, or prove that we are worthy of it. We will never achieve that. But neither should we relinquish all responsibility to seek and find God, pat ourselves on the back, and say, “well, I’m all good just the way I am, no need to seek God to improve me!” Both such approaches are nonsense. 

When Jesus says, “Seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door will be opened to you,” he is not telling us to ask for the latest hot consumer item, a more luxurious car, or a bigger house. When he encourages us to “seek,” he means seek God, and seek him in earnest, and God will not hide himself but let you find him. When he says “knock,” he means knock on God’s door, and it will always be opened to you.  

Those who are a part of other faiths can truly seek and know God in their own way, for the spark of the Creator dwells deep within each of his creations. The Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) made this, in fact, a part of doctrine when it wrote that those who are not familiar with Christ and his revelation of God “but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience — those too may achieve eternal salvation” (Lumen Gentium 16). 

As the Trappist monk Thomas Merton reminds us: “It is the will to pray that is the essence of prayer, and the desire to find God, and to see him, and to love him, is the one thing that matters.”

Holy Trinity, triune God, help us always first and foremost to seek you, to knock on your door, to invite you to come and stay with us. By doing so let us open our hearts to be softened and changed by the transformative knowledge of you and your love. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

“Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:19-23)

Pentecost Sunday

The day of Pentecost, which Christians commemorate as the day the Holy Spirit came to abide permanently within the community of the new church after Jesus’ ascension, marks the fulfillment of his promise not to leave his disciples alone. Now the Holy Spirit, the Paraklētos, has arrived and is here to stay. The Spirit is the worker here on Earth — the “Spirit of truth,” the advocate, summoner, encourager, comforter, helper, counselor, and teacher. The Spirit dwells within us and around us and works to help us discover our true identity in God who is Love, and lead us to grow into that identity. 

The first two readings speak to us about the unifying character of the Holy Spirit. But the unity that the Spirit brings is not a whitewashing of our individual uniqueness; it does not subsume us into any amorphous sameness that takes no account of our unique experiences, personalities, and gifts. No, this is a unity in which each person’s individuality is not only acknowledged, but honored, celebrated, and put to good use.

The first reading, Acts 2:1-11, paints a picture of a large crowd of devout Jewish folk from many nations who had gathered in Jerusalem for the annual religious festival of Shavu‘ot (“Weeks”), which commemorates the revelation of God at Sinai, the covenant with Israel that happened there and the giving of the Ten Commandments. Greek-speaking Jews who hailed from outside Judea called it the Fiftieth (Pentēkostē) Day, so the word Pentecost made its way into the mostly Greek-speaking early Christian community. It was to be on this day that the Holy Spirit would be revealed in a spectacular way. 

Now the Holy Spirit, according to Acts, had just come to the disciples like “a strong driving wind.” The pilgrimage crowd began to hear the disciples proclaiming their message, but they were astounded because “each one heard them speaking in his own language… They asked, ‘Are not all these people who are speaking Galileans? Then how does each of us hear them in his native language? We are Parthians, Medes, and Elamites, inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya near Cyrene, as well as travelers from Rome, both Jews and converts to Judaism, Cretans and Arabs, yet we hear them speaking in our own tongues of the mighty acts of God.’”

In this first demonstration of the Holy Spirit, this unique Pentecost event that grew the fledgling church by great numbers, the Spirit proves to be a unifier. But the Spirit speaks to each person in a way that he or she can hear, within the context of his or her own language, nation, culture, and disposition. The Spirit is an equal opportunity teacher, who speaks to us where we are. And this is true as much today, every day, as it was that first Pentecost day. God’s Spirit does not change. 

The second reading, from 1 Corinthians 12, reveals the same idea: unity in diversity, oneness in all our individuality. I have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from me, and you have something to give that can only come in its uniqueness from you. Paul says it best: 

There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit; there are different forms of service but the same Lord; there are different workings but the same God who produces all of them in everyone. To each individual the manifestation of the Spirit is given for some benefit. As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.

In the Gospel reading for this Pentecost, Jesus speaks of peace and of sending forth. The scene from John’s Gospel is the first post-Resurrection appearance of Jesus to the apostles who were hidden in the upper room in Jerusalem. Although the Gospel for today takes us back in time nearly fifty days before Pentecost, it also reveals the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Jesus appears in the flesh in the middle of the room, though the doors were locked, and says, “‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.’” 

With this gesture, Jesus gave to his fledgling church the commission to continue to carry out through the Holy Spirit what he saw as his greatest ministry: releasing each of us from the inner bondage of our own sin, when we respond to the awareness of it with a humble and repentant heart. When manifested in what Pope Francis calls the great sacrament of mercy — the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation (Confession) — the priest as the minister of Christ gives these words of absolution to the penitent:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Absolution is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, granted to a contrite heart. As the minister of Christ’s mercy, a priest cannot withhold absolution (“retain” the sin) unless the person truly has no contrition and humility in the face of their wrong, and professedly has no intention to attempt to do better, or has no grasp of what the entire process is for. It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where a person would come to Reconciliation at all under such conditions!

But personal confession in the sacrament isn’t the only way the church mediates Christ’s forgiveness of sins. It happens in a general sense at the beginning of all Catholic masses and at the beginning of many Protestant worship services with the corporate declaration of sin, spoken by the whole congregation. The people acknowledge wrongdoing and ask for God’s forgiveness. This too is the work of the Spirit. 

Holy Spirit, this Pentecost day and always, help us to remember that the unity you seek to bring honors and relies on the individual gifts you have given to each one of us as participants in your works of love. Help us be open to what you offer to teach us. Help us be open to the ways you seek to soften our hearts, and help us always be humble enough to seek God’s forgiveness — the greatest gift of all. 

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck 

Where We Belong (John 17:1-11)

Seventh Sunday of Easter

We all need to belong. We need to belong somewhere, and the sense of belonging that is ours when we do truly belong brings with it a corresponding sense of peace, of happiness, of security. The need to feel that we truly belong reflects the truth that we are relational beings. We are not created to be individuals in a vacuum; we did not evolve to exist on our own in atomistic self-sufficiency. Our need for belonging springs from an awareness in our depths that we are meant to be part of a larger whole.

So when Jesus tells his disciples that they (and his disciples today) “belong” to him, this is music to the world-buffeted soul; eternal warmth to the lonely, misunderstood, or rejected. Whether we feel we belong anywhere here in this world, we always, he tells us, belong to him. In this passage in John, Jesus is praying to the Father before his arrest. These lengthy monologues in John often serve to help reveal the nature of the relationship between Christ and the Father, two Persons of the triune God. In this prayer Jesus speaks about the “belonging” of the disciples to himself and to the Father: “I revealed your name to those whom you gave me out of the world. They belonged to you, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word… I made known to them your name and I will make it known, that the love with which you loved me may be in them and I in them” (17:6, 26).

So the disciples then and now belonged first to the Father, their Creator, who has now given them into the care of the Son, who is the Logos of the Creator become human. Jesus speaks about his disciples belonging to him in many other passages in John as well — being joined to him, being one with him, and therefore being joined to the Father too, because he says to the Father that “everything of mine is yours and everything of yours is mine” (17:10). It means that we share in the eternal life of God; and it means that if we ask him he will work with us so that we can be transformed in our depths to become more like him; and it means that our true home is in him.

As Thomas Merton reflects, “To say that I am made in the image of God is to say that love is the reason for my existence, for God is love. Love is my true identity. Selflessness is my true self. Love is my true character. Love is my name” (New Seeds of Contemplation).

Jesus continues in his prayer before his arrest: “Consecrate them in truth. Your word (logos) is truth… And I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth” (17:17, 19). By his holiness, we are made holy, because we belong to him. By his consecration of himself, he consecrates us, and we are freed from our own darkness, because we belong to him. By his power over death, we are freed from its power over us, and we share in his eternal life, because we belong to him. He embraces us with his encompassing, radically generous acceptance. This is what it means to belong to him who is Love.

Creator and Redeemer God, help us always remember that you are our home; that our place of eternal belonging is in you; and that your love is imprinted on all your creations forever.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

The Way to the Father’s House (John 14:1-12)

Fifth Sunday of Easter

“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” With this metaphor, Jesus begins to tell his disciples that he will be going ahead of them to the Father, and he will prepare a place there for each one of them. He will come back, he tells them, and take them to himself, “so that where I am you also may be.” He intended this as a very reassuring statement. Yes, he must go in a little while; but he will bring each of them there someday, so that they will never be separated from him again. They will be with him in the Father’s house eternally, because he has prepared their place. As his disciples, joined to him in baptism, they are joined to him forever. “Where I am, you also may be.”

To his disciples, however, this was not particularly reassuring. At least not until they could have some time to understand the meaning of who he really was. What did he mean, he was going to the Father’s house? That could mean only one thing: he was going to depart this world. And if he were going to do that, how could he become the great political ruler that they had been expecting — that they assumed the Messiah would be? Wasn’t he going to take hold of his kingdom and rule from Jerusalem, and finally kick out all these foreign empires and put them in their place? Wasn’t that how he was going to fulfill God’s covenant and bring salvation to Israel, and cause the Gentiles to know the God that Israel had known for so long? If not with a political kingdom like the one David had ruled, then how would he redeem the world?

It would not be until later that they would hear him say to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world.” It would not be until they saw him resurrected that they would understand he had come to save them not from political powers, but from something much more important and dangerous. He had come to save them, and us, from the darkness that exists in each one of us as part of our human nature. The salvation he offers is to save us from ourselves, and the redemption he offers is to redeem us from ourselves, and in so doing show us the reality of Resurrection and bring us into the eternal light of God.

As Thomas Merton writes, “salvation” in Christianity “reflects God’s own infinite concern for man, God’s love and care for man’s inmost being, God’s love for all that is His own in man. It is not only human nature that is ‘saved’ by the divine mercy, but above all the human person. The object of salvation is that which is unique, irreplaceable, incommunicable — that which is myself alone. This true inner self must be drawn up like a jewel from the bottom of the sea… To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God” (New Seeds of Contemplation). This is one of the most exquisite explanations of the Christian concept of salvation that I have ever read.

But for now, for the disciples, there are only questions. In the midst of their confusion they then hear him say, “Where I am going you know the way.” Thomas asks what they all must have been thinking. “Master, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” It would be like telling a friend that you’re going to lunch, and then telling them to meet you there without saying what the restaurant is. But Jesus lets Thomas know it’s a lot more straightforward than they thought. “I am the way,” he answers. The way to the Father’s house is Jesus himself, because “If you know me, then you will also know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Now it is Philip’s turn to prove his confusion. “Master, show us the Father, and that will be enough for us.” We can imagine the gentleness in Jesus’ voice as he looks at Philip and answers, “Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” There lies the heart of the truth that Jesus wants them to know. He is the mind, the self of God, God’s idea of Godself, now become embodied in a discrete human being, the Son of God. “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1-3). The Logos of God had chosen the humble Mary as a human mother and become a corporeal Person for our sakes.

So there is no need, Jesus tells his disciples, to be mystified about who the Father is or how to find him. Who Jesus is, he tells his disciples, is who his Father is. They are of the same nature, one in being, Christ begotten from the Father, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” in the words of the Nicene Creed.

Redeemer, help us to seek and find you who are the Way, and by coming to know you, know the mind of our Creator. Lead us to your Father’s house, to the place you have prepared for each of us.

Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth Keck

Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

Loosening the Padlock on My Compassion

This year, Lent begins on February 13. During Lent, practicing Christians undertake certain disciplines to achieve spiritual purification and growth. Lent is the unavoidable annual reminder to Christians that Jesus didn’t teach us the easy, feel-good spirituality of self-fulfillment that we find all around us in pop culture. A Christian spirituality that assimilates itself to this ignores the primary commandment that Christ taught, which is that we practice unconditional love, compassion, and non-judgment. Even when it doesn’t suit us, and even when we feel we shouldn’t have to. 

Sure. Love and compassion and non-judgment are easy to say, and are frequently said; but what does it mean to practice them in a real way, in a way that doesn’t lead to all of us making hypocrites out of ourselves? This is the question we often want to steer clear of, because it requires us to step outside our self-focused worlds and our grievances and the things we feel we deserve. The hard reality is that Christ calls everyone who says they want to follow him to walk down a road that our natural instincts would prefer not to know about.  What does this road entail, that we want to avoid it so much? 

Well, it certainly doesn’t entail drawing careful demarcation lines around those who we feel deserve the love and compassion Christ is always talking about: people we already love because they are family, or people we already like because they are nice to us and give us the consideration we feel we’re entitled to. As Jesus says: “What credit is that to you? Even the sinners and tax collectors do the same.” The reality is that most of the time, we expect the divine call to love, compassion, and non-judgment to be meticulously carried out when it is we ourselves who would be on the receiving end of it. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re not nearly so generous when it comes to extending those things to other people — especially people who are outside our boundary of those we love and those we like. 

The next category — people who have actively wronged us or our loved ones — are even farther outside our guarded boundary. They, we righteously feel, will never be the objects of our compassion because they simply don’t deserve it. So what if Christ still expects that I release my compassion from the fenced-in area in which it dwells, and extend it not just to myself but also to them? Well, I’m not Christ. I’m not able. It’s too much to ask. I’m too angry. What they did was too unconscionable. They certainly don’t have compassion toward me, after all; they don’t give me a second thought, and if they did, it’s a nasty one. Anyone who asks me to do otherwise is naïve.

But this is, in fact, what Christ not only asks but requires of anyone who claims to follow him. His repeated instruction — not to mention his example — to “love your enemy” and not just your neighbor is an inconvenient truth at the center of all Christ said and did. Most of us give it lip service on a good day. We prefer to be on the receiving end of such a thing, not on the giving end. Even the suggestion that we have compassion (to say nothing of love!) for one who is our enemy feels like an offense to us. I believe the reason it is so difficult is that we have an inside view of our own minds, but not those of other people; so it’s far easier to see a whole person when we look at ourselves, but only a one or two dimensional person when we look at the other. 

Yet that other person is as three dimensional as I am, whether I actually see those dimensions or not. More important, I am forced to recognize the uncomfortable fact that the God who I know loves me, also loves them. And not just a little: every bit as much. Because God sees everything that went into making them who they became. Just as God sees everything that went into making me who I became. I have no privileged status because God feels their pain no less than God feels mine, and God loves them no less than God loves me. How, then, can I permit myself to hate what God loves? Before long, I can feel the heavy-duty padlock begin to loosen on that fence where my compassion and love dwell, and the one who is loosening it is God. And now I myself don’t feel so cramped up anymore. I feel freedom instead.

Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us…Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

 

Marias and Mysteries

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of genealogical research into my ancestry. Just over a hundred years ago, eight foreigners (six of them miserable for weeks in steerage) on different ships sailed past the Statue of Liberty and started the American branch of their family trees. Six of them were from southern Italy and two were from northern England. They were all my great-grandparents. Some of them brought over some of their siblings and cousins; many more family members forever remained in the Old Countries. In the course of my research, I’ve also managed to reach back a couple of generations into those Old Countries, and have been delighted to uncover the names of many of my ancestors. As I uncovered those names, I was astonished to see just how many of the Italian women – on both sides of the Atlantic – were named Maria. In one branch of the family, all the females carried Maria as their first name, but each was called by her middle name, to distinguish among them: Maria Francesca (the mother), Maria Giuseppa, Maria Concetta, Maria Letizia, and Maria Rosa (all her female children).

Of course, Maria is for Mary the mother of Jesus (Miriam in Hebrew), who is revered and emulated – but not worshiped – in Roman Catholicism, as well as in Eastern Orthodoxy. My survey of all the Marias in my family caused me to wonder about the source of widespread devotion to Mary, when we know so little about her. One aspect of it is surely that Mary offers a genuinely needed feminine presence in a religion that, from its origins, inherited male terminology for its triune God. The three manifestations or forms – or perhaps avatars is an effective word to use in this wired age – of the one Christian God are termed the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The first, even though Catholicism and many other branches of Christianity happily acknowledge that God has no real gender, is termed Father instead of Mother because he is Yahweh, who was male in the Hebrew Bible. The second became incarnate in the form of a male human being, Jesus, so there’s not much option for terminology there. The third, even though the term “Holy Spirit” conjures neither male nor female associations, assumed male pronouns out of convention, and probably also because Yahweh (as I mentioned already) was always thought of as male.

The need for a female presence in the religion is not a need felt by women alone, as evidenced by the large number of men who revere Mary. Pope John Paul II was famous for his Marian devotions. It stems, rather, from a sense of the balance in life that is experienced by men and women alike. A triune God with all male terms – even if that God’s intrinsic lack of gender is acknowledged in the theology – is not in balance. This, I believe, is one reason that Christians find themselves drawn to Mary, not as a type of goddess, but as the female balance that she is by nature as Jesus’ mother. It is this maternal aspect that draws mothers and women hoping to be mothers, men young and old alike, to the mother of Jesus in their religious lives. There is a sense that by virtue of being Jesus’ mother, Mary is in some way a symbolic mother to us all.

But it also seems to me that another source for the attraction to Mary is the very lack of information about her that I mentioned earlier – the reason I wondered about the reverence in the first place. She is a mystery. Beyond the birth narratives, especially the one in Luke, we hear almost nothing from her. Mystics, saints, clergy, and ordinary people across the ages have spoken of revelations of her or from her, but such things only increase the mystery surrounding Mary, rather than diminish it. This could be part of the reason that Mary finds herself with billions of people down through the ages thinking about her, sending prayers to her, turning to her for maternal help, and giving their children her name. Mysteries allow us to imagine, to dream, to search for what we need and find it. Beyond being Jesus’ mother, Mary is a page waiting to be filled in. Thus, those who have Mary as part of their religious lives invest in her their hopes, their sorrows – and perhaps, everything they need in a mother.

Copyright © 2011 Elizabeth Keck