An Astonishing Thing!

Fourth Sunday in Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9: 1-41

There were things I learned in my theological studies that really stood out for me, which I don’t have to return to my notes or books to remember. One of those is how 90% of the “you”s in the Bible are plural, referring to either Israel or the church (and the difficulty caused by a language that does not currently distinguish between the plural and singular forms of that pronoun—Canadians don’t have the “you all” found in parts of the United States—in a North American culture that is highly individualistic). Another is that the purpose of the four gospels is to convince the reader(s) of who Jesus is. This is particularly true for the gospel of John, for it is on this—belief that God is revealed in Jesus—that everything hangs. Read more

Desert Transformations

Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

During Lent, God calls us to the desert and we go. We become like the Israelites in today’s first reading from Exodus, called and saved by God from slavery in Egypt, brought safely through the Red Sea, and now wandering in the desert for forty years (although for us, it’s only forty days). Our salvation may not be from slavery, but we still claim that salvation as ours and we often use terms related to slavery to describe our salvation: freedom from addiction, from slavery to sin, from bondage to a world that wants us to worship money, power, and false gods.

Christians have loved deserts, real and symbolic. We have preserved sayings of various desert fathers and mothers from the early centuries of the church in Northern Africa. We want to follow in the footsteps of Jesus himself. So we manufacture our own deserts: giving up some sort of food here, contributing more money there, adding some prayer to the whole. Each of these becomes one way of paring our lives to essentials, so that we can see God.

Yet today’s scriptures suggest for us that the thing we think we are doing in the desert – the spiritual preparation we are doing to receive God – might not in fact be the thing we are doing. Read more

Securing Our Place

Second Sunday of Lent

Genesis 12:1-4a
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

The chief temptation of Lent is not that we will give in to our appetites but that we will enjoy seeing how right we can be. We set out a program of spiritual self-improvement, to fast and give alms, to skip the chocolate or alcohol or meat or TV, to make a few visits to someone who is lonely. Or we do none of those things, knowing that in this way we prove we are not the kind of people who go in for works-righteousness. Either way, we enjoy a chance to try to prove to ourselves that we are good, or at least better than some. We secure our place.

The life of faith is not like that. Read more

Reality Therapy

First Sunday in Lent
Genesis 2:15-17, 3:1-7
Psalm 32:1-11
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Lent is as much about seeing well as it is about doing good, which is to say it is about learning to see ourselves as we truly are. It is a kind of reality therapy for the self-deceived and morally apathetic, which is to say, most of us.

It begins on Ash Wednesday by disabusing us of our easy rejections of finitude, reminding us that our destiny, at least penultimately, is to return to the earth from which we have come. In the ensuing 40 days, Lent offers to reveal to us all of those idols that have captured our hearts and diverted our attention from the things that most matter. It confronts us not simply with our self-destructive habits, but with our abject inability to do anything about them. Most importantly, it reminds us that all of our brokenness has been taken up into the grace of the triune God, who through the cross of Jesus makes possible an infinitely better way. Read more

As We Watch

Transfiguration Sunday

Exodus 24:12-18
2 Peter 1:16-21
Matthew 17:1-9

“…for Christ plays in ten thousand places,
Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
To the Father through the features of men’s faces.”
– Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Feast of the Transfiguration is celebrated August 6, yet the gospel passage itself is closely associated with the beginning of Lent. The Revised Common Lectionary proclaims it on the Sunday before Lent while the Catholic Lectionary does so on the Second Sunday of Lent. Both lectionaries give the First Sunday of Lent over to the temptation of Jesus in the desert.

Why should the Transfiguration story – which each of the synoptic gospels places about midway in the course of things – mark our yearly return to the Lenten journey? Standard answers include that the association is already implicit in the synoptic accounts, which place the story near Jesus’ final turn towards Jerusalem; that the Taboric vision is a preview of Christ’s crucified, resurrected, and glorified body; or that the passage links the Old and New Covenants, with Moses and Elijah serving as metonyms for the Law and prophets.

Whatever the explanation, the Transfiguration, with its cryptic signs, wonders, and occasions for awe, has long proved a source for profound theological reflection, fascinating Christological speculation, or incisive literary analysis. It can also stand out from the rest of the gospel narrative as a baffling anomaly. Read more