Planning the Lenten Path, Or Not

Cambridge, MA. Cycle A in the Sunday Lectionary brings us some wonderful Lenten Gospels. In addition to the temptations of Jesus in the desert and the Transfiguration, we are given several of the great scenes from the Gospel of John: Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well; the healing of the man born blind; the raising of Lazarus. Powerful in themselves, these readings are all the more potent when read, visualized, prayed in sequence, as we work our way through the Sundays of Lent. Perhaps because, as I’ve noted before, I have been teaching the Yoga Sutras -- a quintessential text of spiritual understanding and practice -- along with the Spiritual Exercises, I have particularly sensitive this year to the formative, transformative possibilities latent in such texts: they are not merely about the Christian life, they are vehicles of our advancement along the path. First Sunday of Lent: Jesus is tempted after 40 days in the desert, not before -- and so we are reminded that in Lent we do well to face up to what we really desire, honorable or not, and reflect on the meaning of those desires. Second Sunday: abruptly, without any evident preparation or obvious follow-up, and amidst familiar symbols and words of their tradition, Peter, James, and John are suddenly blinded as it were by the overwhelming glory of the Jesus they thought they knew so well -- and so the question is posed to us, When in our lives did Christ come suddenly and unexpectedly, changing nothing and yet everything at the same time? Third Sunday: Jesus, sitting there at the well, is most deeply incarnate -- tired and thirsty, bereft of miracles, sermons and pronouncements, for a moment without his disciples, just an unnamed stranger; and to him comes this woman carrying the baggage of her whole tradition, belief, personal life -- so what is the baggage we need to let go of in Lent, if we are to be simply ourselves, meeting Jesus who was nothing but himself? Fourth Sunday: it is simple enough that Jesus cures the man born blind (though how could anyone have thought he was born blind due to his own sins, assuming that reincarnation was not an option?), but the story is filled with people who cannot see what is before their eyes, who deny what they see, who definitely do not want to see God’s hand at work in this unexpected act of this uncertain individual -- and so we are confronted yet again, Where has God been so obviously working in my life, right where I cannot admit this obvious, evident presence, and keep turning the other way? And of course there is still more to come, on the Fifth Sunday, Palm Sunday, and throughout Holy Week itself. Ideally, all of this provokes ever more intense reflection, as we are carried along from week to week in these ancient scenes that uncover who we are right now, how we create ourselves as we claim to be Christian. Lent is a season of spiritual exercise, acts of contemplating the Christ who tells us who we are; heard alertly, the Gospels invited a kind of yogic practice that unburdens our minds, that we might see more simply and clearly who we are, what we desire, where God is already touching our lives. This is the ideal, but of course our actual experience of life in Lent may fall short. Our attention spans are short; different preachers on different Sundays may draw the congregation’s attention in very different directions. And in any case, people may end up coming for different Masses with different themes, or turning for a Sunday to a different parish, or missing Mass altogether. Those of us who are clergy may not really understand how the Lenten Gospels touch -- or don’t touch -- the lives of individual Catholics, and the idea of Lent as a prolonged time of reflection may be at a remove from reality. Yet here too, the very same Gospel accounts may help, since none of them presumes a settled, predictable religious framework. The desert is almost by definition the place to be on one’s own; there was no predictable preparation for the Transfiguration, no planning; when Jesus met the woman at the well, it is best taken as a chance occurrence; when Jesus cured the blind man, no one could really have guessed how the good exposes the bad, in the peculiar set of angry reactions to follow. So perhaps the matter is simpler still: our Lenten Gospels not only give us food for thought and prayer, but shed light on the manner of our lives, and how God may be showing up over and again, in odd places, without preparation, and even when our least desires and darkest blindness seem to combine in dampening our expectations that anything might happen in our church or our hearts this year. Prepared or not, worthy or not, it can happen to us.
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9 years 7 months ago
My favorite lesson from the story at the well is that He is telling us our stories of our lives much like He tells the woman in the story hers, with love, gentleness and acceptance. Also, that He never asked her to change, she changed because He accepted her. So too, we are not asked to change. Sins and all, He wants us to give Him water, to ask questions, and He hopes we too will respond to His telling of the stories of our lives with joy.

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