Living the readings: From strength to strength

God creates us and renews us in power

For some reason many people fear the number 13. Those folks are facing a serious problem this year as we navigate the uncharted waters of the 13th year of the 21st century.

One of the first problems it presents to the Christian community is the early date for Easter. No sooner have we celebrated Christmas and Epiphany than we are faced with Ash Wednesday (which happens to be Feb. 13).

In fact, this event virtually slices the month in half. The first two Sundays are in Ordinary Time and the last two are in Lent. You would think that such a change in points of view would make quite a mess. Magically, the Sundays of the month along with Ash Wednesday form a seamless garment connecting Christmas to Easter.

And so February’s Scripture readings turn out to be brilliantly coherent and illuminating.

The Sundays of February begin with the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time. It hints at the Christmas enigma. How can so beautiful a moment as the birth of the Messiah occur in conjunction with the slaughter of the Holy Innocents and the Flight into Egypt? By answering that question, this Sunday’s readings let us enter into God’s paradoxical workings.

It begins with God speaking to Jeremiah. He was the prophet who lived with so many powerful adversaries that he complained to God that he was born. In return, God revealed that he formed him in his mother’s womb to be a strong fortified city. He had been prepared for his adversaries. He was created strong and should live boldly proclaiming God’s Word. Judah’s kings and princes will fight against him but they will not prevail. Jeremiah is only one of many lowly people that God used to confound the mighty.

The day’s Gospel recalls Jesus’ first face-to-face opposition. It came from his own kinsfolk and neighbors in his hometown. He counters their criticism with biblical references to times that God strangely helped gentiles instead of Israelites.  God does work in strange ways. Jesus knew that he had the power of God. With that strength he could overcome any resistance including the shame of being thrown out of Nazareth.

We need this same assurance. We are shaped before our birth by God and reborn in baptism. We, like Jeremiah, Elijah and Elisha, have divine power. Paul defines that power for the Corinthians in the second reading. What explains the enigma is simply the love of God, the only power that never fails. It is the greatest of all the spiritual gifts. With it we have the strength of God.

It is of immense interest to note that this “greatest spiritual gift” is not a function of the mind. It is not an intellectual insight into the ineffable. No. It is rather a matter of the heart. We are bound to God by emotional ties of love that unite us to God in a relationship that is stronger than any worldly reality. That is what Christmas accomplished and that no action of King Herod or anyone else could overcome. That is the strength we have in Christ.

The next Sunday, the Fifth of Ordinary Time, answers an objection one might make after reading the previous Sunday’s readings. Sure, God can make us perfect, but we can mess things up. Then, what happens? Well, the short answer is that God can clean up whatever mess we make.

In reply to Isaiah, in that very special sixth chapter when the prophet recollects his prophetic call, God does not let him get away with proclaiming himself “a man of unclean lips.” Rather, God sends an angel with an ember to touch his lips and clean them. God might have asked Isaiah if there were any other places on his body that were unclean. Surely, he got the message. When God wills to use us, he will see to it that we are properly empowered for the job.

Paul reminds the Corinthians that the risen Christ had already prepared the Church to spread the good news of the resurrection by appearing to the apostles and many other believers. Paul adds his own personal testimony that he also saw the risen Christ. That and similar moments of grace can surpass and replace any negative aspect of our personality.

One example of God’s grace overcoming a personal problem is given to us in the Gospel. There, we meditate on a confrontation Jesus had with Peter. One of Peter’s assets was his boldness in regard to any person with whom he disagrees. That also was one of his main shortcomings.

The Gospel relates a time, early in Jesus’ public ministry, when Jesus preached from Peter’s boat. After Jesus finished, Peter (presumably very tired and needing to finish cleaning up) refused to pull out and fish a little bit longer. Jesus, however, prevailed.

When they caught a great number of fish, Peter knew two things. First, this was not something natural; second, he was a sinful man having spoken rashly to the Lord. In the process, Peter was made aware of his problem and very willingly made to atone for it. What Jesus did for Peter, he can and does for us. Our strength, even when we sin, can be renewed.

Three days after the previous Sunday, the year bumps in the night into Ash Wednesday. Nevertheless, the train of thought carried over from Ordinary Time stays right on track. The only shift is that we are spoken to directly.

In the first reading, Joel has God speak to us, begging us to “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning.” Notice, once again, that religion is a function of the heart. The problem God wants to rectify involves Israel being ruled by foreign nations. That was a direct result of their disloyalty to God. The remedy God proposed was a rending of hearts and a realization that God is slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.

God wanted his love relationship with Israel renewed. For that purpose, God speaks to us in the language of love. Crying is an important part of that vocabulary. That is why the Lent we are beginning should lead us to discover we are taking God for granted. That realization leads us to sorrow and atonement. Our return to God is an emotional experience driving us again to tears; but these tears are of joy, the joy of reconciliation.

Paul presents an added reason to be reconciled with God. We are not only his beloved; we are his ambassadors, too. Our becoming one again with God affects every person on earth. Therefore, we must do it as soon as possible. “Now is the acceptable time.” This is not an arena where we can practice brinksmanship. Beg forgiveness now before we go over the proverbial cliff. In matters of love and in dealing with God, time is of the essence. The time is always “right now.”

Ash Wednesday’s Gospel reminds us of another mistake we shouldn’t make in our relationship with God. We must avoid being hypercritical. The word “hypocrite” now means one who says one thing but does another. In Jesus’ time it meant one who judges too critically, that is a nitpicker. When we judge too critically, we are making a mistake. In fact, we shouldn’t judge at all. An early saint warned that the second most painful thing we do is judging others. The most painful thing we do is judging ourselves. Both are wrong. We can bring joy back to our hearts by letting the all-merciful God do all the judging. That’s difficult but well worth spending the time on this Lent.

The readings for the First Sunday of Lent make us realize the power of our spiritual life. The lesson begins with the experience of Israel leaving Egypt and journeying to the promised land. Moses reminds his people as they are finally ready to enter Canaan that when they entered Egypt they were merely a small group of poor wanderers. But they became great. How? They cried to the Lord and he saw their affliction and made them strong.

At the bottom of it all was a relationship between a people and its gracious God. That is to say, Israel’s loyalty to God led to Israel’s being blessed by God. It is all loyalty.

Paul’s Letter to the Romans, the second reading, brings this concept of loyalty to the New Testament. It is the result of being in relationship with someone powerful who rewards you. Paul tells the Romans that Christian loyalty to Jesus Christ is shown in confessing with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and in believing—in your heart—that God raised him from the dead. That is where we get our strength. Such a loyalty becomes faith and with it we will never be put to shame.

The Gospel points to a case that proves Paul’s point. Jesus is in the desert for 40 days, reminiscent of the 40 years the people of Israel were in the desert. He is tempted by the devil. In resisting all of the temptations, Jesus’ demonstrates his divine strength. It is the result of Jesus’ relationship to the Father and to the Spirit who led him to the desert. It was heartfelt loyalty. That is the kind of faith we need to become just as strong.

The final Sunday of February this year is the Second Sunday of Lent. It answers what would logically be an appropriate question to end this month-long dialogue on strength. How do we maintain and grow in divine strength? The answer is extraordinary. It is to keep looking at the source of this strength. Be a visionary.

In the Old Testament reading Abram is gifted with a special vision of God.  He is the first man in recorded history to talk with God. This leads to a vision.  After gathering several items that God told Abram to fetch, God put him into a trance “and a deep terrifying darkness enveloped him.” In the darkness Abram envisioned a covenant ceremony uniting him with God. His descendants were to inherit the land of Israel. At the time, he had no children. Yet, the vision empowered Abram to keep faith. He remained strong.

Paul, in the second reading, urges the Christians in Philippi to look to heaven for their moral imperatives. Philippi was a city in Macedonia (Northern Greece) that was founded by Romans. They were proud of their nationality and kept all the Roman customs even though they were in the middle of Greece. They would then realize what Paul was teaching them. Just as when the Macedonians would enter Philippi, they would witness Roman customs and morals being followed and know they were among Romans; so if the pagan Greeks saw Philippian Christians following divine laws and customs, they would be among people of heaven.

The Gospel takes us to the top of Mount Tabor where Peter, James, and John see Jesus transfigured before them and with him Moses and Elijah. It was a vision that strengthened their faith in anticipation of Jesus’ crucifixion. Surely, the three disciples gained tremendous strength of faith. So can we. Perhaps, we may not ever have such an experience as the three disciples. Yet, we can meditate on the mysteries of our faith and find we have grown in strength of faith beyond what the world can offer.

We end February on the mountaintop. How appropriate. It is from the vantage of the Transfiguration that we can begin to understand the paradoxes of our faith. The weak will wield true strength. Christ’s suffering redeems the world. The poor will receive the Kingdom of God. Almighty God has given us life and rebirth in the power of his divinity. We can live in confidence.

WEEKDAY READINGS

Sunday, Feb. 3: Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; Psalm 71:1-6, 15-17; 1 Corinthians 12:31–13:13; Luke 4:21-30
Monday, Feb. 4: Hebrews 11:32-40; Psalm 31:20-24; Mark 5:1-20
Tuesday, Feb. 5: Memorial, St. Agatha, virgin, martyr, Hebrews 12:1-4; Psalm 22:26-28, 30-32; Mark 5:21-43
Wednesday, Feb. 6: Memorial, St. Paul Miki and companions, martyrs, Hebrews 12:4-7, 11-15; Psalm 103:1-2, 13-14, 17-18; Mark 6:1-6
Thursday, Feb. 7: Hebrews 12:18-19, 21-24; Psalm 48:2-4, 9-11; Mark 6:7-13
Friday, Feb. 8: Hebrews 13:1-8; Psalm 27:1, 3, 5, 8-9; Mark 6:14-29
Saturday, Feb. 9: Hebrews 13:15-17, 20-21; Psalm 23:1-6; Mark 6:30-34
Sunday, Feb. 10: Isaiah 6:1-8; Psalm 138:1-5, 7-8; 1 Corinthians 15:1-11; Luke 5:1-11
Monday, Feb. 11: Genesis 1:1-19; Psalm 104:1-2, 5-6, 10, 12, 24, 35; Mark 6:53-56
Tuesday, Feb. 12: Genesis 1:20–2:4; Psalm 8:4-9; Mark 7:1-13
Wednesday, Feb. 13: Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:12-18; Psalm 51:3-6, 12-14, 17; 2 Corinthians 5:20–6:2; Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18
Thursday, Feb. 14: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Psalm 1:1-4, 6; Luke 9:22-25
Friday, Feb. 15: Isaiah 58:1-9; Psalm 51:3-6, 18-19; Matthew 9:14-15
Saturday, Feb. 16: Isaiah 58:9-14; Psalm 86:1-6; Luke 5:27-32
Sunday, Feb. 17: Deuteronomy 26:4-10; Psalm 91:1-2, 10-15; Romans 10:8-13; Luke 4:1-13
Monday, Feb. 18: Leviticus 19:1-2, 11-18; Psalm 19:8-10, 15; Matthew 25:31-46
Tuesday, Feb. 19: Isaiah 55:10-11; Psalm 34:4-7, 16-19; Matthew 6:7-15
Wednesday, Feb. 20: Jonah 3:1-10; Psalm 51:3-4, 12-13, 18-19; Luke 11:29-32
Thursday, Feb. 21: Esther C:12, 14-16, 23-25; Psalm 138:1-3, 7-8; Matthew 7:7-12
Friday, Feb. 22: Feast, the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle, 1 Peter 5:1-4; Psalm 23:1-6; Matthew 16:13-19
Saturday, Feb. 23: Deuteronomy 26:16-19; Psalm 119:1-2, 4-5, 7-8; Matthew 5:43-48
Sunday, Feb. 24: Genesis 15:5-12, 17-18; Psalm 27:1, 7-9, 13-14; Philippians 3:17–4:1; Luke 9:28-36
Monday, Feb. 25: Daniel 9:4-10; Psalm 79:8-9, 11, 13; Luke 6:36-38
Tuesday, Feb. 26: Isaiah 1:10, 16-20; Psalm 50:8-9, 16-17, 21, 23; Matthew 23:1-12
Wednesday, Feb. 27: Jeremiah 18:18-20; Psalm 31:5-6, 14-16; Matthew 20:17-28
Thursday, Feb. 28: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1:1-4, 6; Luke 16:19-31
Friday, March 1: Genesis 37:3-4, 12-13, 17-28; Psalm 105:16-21; Matthew 21:33-43, 45-46
Saturday, March 2: Micah 7:14-15, 18-20; Psalm 103:1-4, 9-12; Luke 15:1-3, 11-32

Father Brando is pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg.

 

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