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February 29, 2016 | Volume 91 Number 9

COLUMNS

Believe as you Pray »

In Light of Faith »

photo: Genevieve McQuade

believe as you pray

4th Sunday of Lent
March 6, 2016

Joshua 5:9a,10-12
Psalm 34:2-7
2 Corinthians 5:17-21
Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Is food an obsession for you? Do you think about it a lot, what to buy, its cost, preparation, nutrition? Do you have enough?

Personally, I at least attempt to eat healthy foods. Yet, far too often I succumb to what looks delicious and is staring me in the face (especially at parish functions). Oh, the temptation! The result can be anything such as weight gain or feeling ill.

In Luke’s gospel, we hear the powerful story of the prodigal son and his forgiving father, imaging God our Father, and all of us who desire to return to God for reconciliation.

When the Pharisees and scribes complain to Jesus that he eats with sinners, Jesus tells them this beautiful parable packed with significance about forgiveness, generosity, love, mercy, casual repentance, and a welcoming hospitality and food.

I’d like to zero in on the lesser ingredient, food. Some form of nourishment is mentioned in each scripture reading.

In the book of Joshua, when the Israelites ended their forty years in the wilderness, they finally entered the land of Canaan. Then, on the day after the Passover, no longer was there manna for the Israelites. They had survived on a kind of bread from heaven. Now they were to eat of the yield of the land of Canaan. It was certainly good enough but it wasn’t that bread from heaven.

In second Corinthians, we hear that in Christ “the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” What is among these new things? We have the heavenly food of the Eucharist, every day, throughout time. Even more is the fact that Jesus sat down with sinners. That’s us as we feast on the Eucharist.

In Luke’s parable, the younger, prodigal son , squandered his inheritance, was bereft of food, and ‘in dire need.” “He longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed.” Coming to this point of desperation, his store of pride was devoured.

Chastised by his circumstances, he journeyed home to ask his father to take him back as a lowly servant. Upon seeing his willful son, the father embraced him without hesitation, even though the son had less than perfect humility and was not without sin. There was no need for his prepared confession.

The father ordered a feast! The older brother balked at his perceived injustice, yet his father stood by him too, in love. “Everything I have is yours,” the father told him.

Doesn’t our Father do the same for us in Christ? Waiting for us, embracing us, forgiving and feeding us, clothing us with his power?

What kind of “food” do you eat? What do you consume day by day for spiritual nourishment? Is it prayer? Scripture? Sacraments? Good spiritual literature?

Is it like heavenly manna or the produce of the land of Canaan that looks delicious? Does it sustain you? Which one “fills” you?

Does a worldly produce consume you instead? And what is the fruit of your life resulting from your menu?

Lastly, when the psalmist exuberantly declares, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” he means exactly that! That is a sensed sweetness, a very special gift of the Lord that he experienced, but so can you. In this time of Lent, repent and believe. Come home and be satisfied.

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in light of faith

Necessary, but not Important

Every now and then I hear or come across pithy sayings that not only stay with me, but over time seem to take on a life of their own.

By that I mean that with each recall the meaning seems to expand to a wider appreciation and application within the context of my life.

Since a number of such pearls of wisdom have recently graced my path, I have decided to share a couple of them with you in this column. My hope is that you will find them as thought provoking as I have.

Last month while I was facilitating a weekend retreat in Alabama, the priest who presided at Mass Saturday morning told us, “As Christians we are necessary, but not important.”

It was the feast of one of the early Christian martyrs about whom we know almost nothing except that she died for her faith.

Consequently, the priest concluded that although she had a role to play in the life of the Church, her personal life was not all that important. He went on to compare her with the Apostles about whose lives we also know very little - other than the fact that they preached the Gospel and all but John died for their faith.

We assume almost all were married, but what about their wives? Did they have children and if so, what became of them?

The Apostles were companions of Jesus, but if we look at the Gospels, we learn mostly about their blunders and the fact is: they were necessary to the mission of the church, but the particularities of their lives were not important. Only after the coming of the Holy Spirit did they finally seem to understand what John the Baptist meant when he said, “I must decrease so he can increase.” (John 3:30 in which John is speaking to his own disciples, not Jesus’ disciples.)

The more I reflect on Father John’s theory that we are necessary, but not important, the more I feel a sense of relief and I wasn’t the only one.

As I met privately with retreatants during the weekend, I was impressed with how often that saying was quoted as a take-away phrase.

Perhaps it is because we place too much importance on what we do when all we really need to concern ourselves with is whether we are furthering the mission of Christ. Anything more or less than that is simply a case of ego having its way with us.

Valuing ourselves because of what we have, what we do, worrying about what others think of us or believing that we are indispensable are all part of what Thomas Merton called the false self.

It was the false self that Jesus was referring to when he said, “Those who lose their life will save it.”

The false self is that part of us that must die in order to bear fruit. We are necessary but not important, because it is in our dying with Christ that we will live life to its fullest.

During that same retreat, I met an 88-year-old nun who, in my estimation, characterized the epitome of death to the false self. During each presentation, she sat in the front row directly across from where I was standing, and if ever I saw the face of Christ, it was in her smile.

Later when she came to talk with me, she told me that she had spent 50 years working in Africa in the Cameroon. While there, she had established a hospital for disabled children where more than 3,000 children had been rehabilitated. Despite its success, her order called her back to the United States.

She was devastated and to this day she has never been given the reason for her recall. For the past 18 years, she has been working with the poorest of the poor in Selma, but her heart remains in Africa.

The theme of the retreat was based on Jesus’ question to the apostles, “Who do you say that I am” and my question to each person making the retreat was “How would you answer Jesus’ question?”

During the course of my conversation with this saintly nun, she shared with me that for her Jesus was “The Divine Absence.” Listening to her share her story was like reading the book, “Come Be My Light,” a collection of letters and journal entries written by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.

One of my favorite paragraphs in the book is the following journal entry written by the saint: “Lord, who am I that you should forsake me? The child of your love — and now becomes as the most hated one — the one you have thrown away as unwanted — unloved. I call, I cling, I want — and there is no One to answer. The darkness is so dark and I am alone.”

It seems it is the way of saints to experience the absence as one more purgation, not because they need it, but because their lives reflect ever more deeply the life of the One in whose footsteps they walk — the One who from the cross cried out, “My God my God why have you forsaken me?”

It is one more paradox that those most loved should often feel the most abandoned, but it is also in keeping with Jesus’ words, and even more importantly with his life.

Clearly, feelings about the closeness of God are not a good barometer for measuring our relationship with God. Rather it is about allowing ourselves to be part of the mission, because every person is necessary, though not important — at least not in the way the secular world measures importance.

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