Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Lent 2020: The Journey Begins

This Lenten season, I'm spending some time with a few devotionals and companions to help me reflect on the meaning of the season and to draw closer to Christ. My resources include Remember Your Death: Memento Mori Lenten Devotional, by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble; A Lenten Journal With Mother Mary, by Father Edward Looney; the One Bread, One Body companion from Presentation Ministries; my monthly Magnificat; and the Magnificat Lenten Companion.

What struck me in today's readings was the idea that God is always with us and never abandons us.

My parents were the first Catholic converts in their families, and sometimes their evangelical backgrounds seeped through in the things they taught me -- in particular, the notion that God was always angry with us. Fed up. Disgusted. At his wits' end. That idea was only reinforced as I got older and heard Protestant friends promote the view that God couldn't even look upon us because he couldn't look upon sin, so he had to cover us in the sacrificial blood of his Son. Because of our incurable depravity, rooted in the Fall in the Garden, we could only be imputed righteousness through Christ's sacrifice. Our own sinfulness could never be blotted out, only covered over with God's grace. That was the only way God could bear to look at us.

And yet a supplemental reading from today's Magnificat challenges that notion. Perhaps notably, it comes from the Book of Wisdom, one of the seven deuterocanonical books that today appear only in Catholic and Orthodox Bibles. An expanded reading of the passage, incorporating verses 23, 24, and 26 of Chapter 11, reads as follows:

"You are merciful to all, for you can do all things, and you overlook men's sins, that they may repent. For you love all things that exist, and you loathe none of the things which you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord who love the living."

This is the God I looked for and could never find when I was growing up. I was taught a punitive and short-tempered God. But the Gospel of John reminds us that God so loved the world that he gave us his Son. He didn't do it because he hated us. He did it because he loved us. He wanted to mend the broken bond between man and God, heaven and earth. And he gave us a vehicle for repentance and renewal to make that happen.

Moreover, our reading today from the Book of Joel (2:13) reminds us that God is "gracious and merciful ... slow to anger, rich in kindness." That is the same God that Christ revealed to us -- the Father who welcomed his Prodigal Son back home, because no matter how much his son may have screwed up, the father still loved him unconditionally. All he ever wanted was for his child to return to him with a contrite heart. If God is love, as the Apostle John tells us, then how could it be otherwise? 

We might distance ourselves from God, but God never leaves us. Moreover, if God couldn't look upon sin, then Jesus wasn't God, because Jesus sought out the sinners. They were the ones who needed him. As written in today's Magnificat Lenten Companion entry: 
After Jesus initiated a miraculous catch of fish from Peter's boat, the fisherman responded, 'Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.' But Jesus told him not to fear, for he would become a fisher of men. ... We sometimes imagine Jesus backing away from our sinfulness in anger or disgust. But Peter discovered that he comes close to us, fearless of our sin. Jesus' gaze sees past our sins to the image of his Father, to the son or daughter we are created to be.
"I am with you always," Jesus promised, "until the end of the age."

We couldn't be separated from God if we wanted to. As Sister Theresa Aletheia expresses in Remember Your Death, "God is not some being in the universe that comes into existence, but Existence itself.  Every person has life only because God is life." It would be impossible to separate ourselves from the source of our own life.

How do we draw closer? By having faith and following in his ways. By acting justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with him (Micah 6:8). Another supplemental reading from today's Magnificat, this one also from a deuterocanonical book -- Tobit 4:5, 7, 16, and 19 -- spells it out thus:
Perform good works all the days of your life, and do not tread the paths of wrongdoing. Do not turn your face away from the poor, and God's face will not be turned away from you. Give to the hungry some of your bread, and to the naked some of your clothing. Whatever you have left over, give away as alms, and do not begrudge the alms you give. At all times bless the Lord God, and ask him to make all your paths straight and to grant success to all your endeavors and plans.
Here we see a foreshadowing of Jesus' embrace of the poor and marginalized, as seen in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 25, and elsewhere. And it's not that we earn our salvation through good works; it's more that a mindset of compassion, forgiveness, and generosity is what's expected of those who wish to be saved. You can't turn your back on those in need and expect a heavenly reward, for as Jesus said, "Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my brethren, you do for me." 

If we follow in his ways, he will draw near and we will find the Kingdom of God dwelling within us.

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