There is much in store for us during the month Lent begins
Most every house or apartment has a store-all closet into which all sorts of memories are relegated.
Chances are that you recently put your Christmas items up in that same closet so they will be available next December. By then they will have gathered a great deal of meaning and, perhaps, remind us of wonderful times we didn’t quite appreciate when we first experienced them. Some items may fill us with nostalgia for Christmases past and old friends and relatives we won’t see again until we meet in heaven. We need these closets to keep us remembering and moving on at the same time.
February’s shortness makes it the ideal closet-month of the year. Look what it has in store as far as the liturgical year is concerned. It begins with the last three of the winter Sundays of Ordinary Time. In those three weeks for East Tennessee, February closes out winter. So, we can celebrate the preparation time for spring, namely Lent, starting in February, which includes the first Sunday of Lent. That’s February’s invitation for us to make Easter the greatest day of the year; if so, little February would have done its job well.
So let’s start by opening up the Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, which falls on Feb. 1. Along with the next two Sundays it reminds us of the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. And it gives us so much more. We will discover reasons for Jesus’ missionary method and what it all means to us.
The Gospel readings for each of the three first Sundays are taken from the first chapter of the Gospel according to Mark. In the first Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching at the Capernaum synagogue and is challenged by a troubled man who, Mark says, had an unclean spirit. So did many people in that very difficult time. Mark puts this scene at the beginning of his Gospel to give us a sense of why the Son of God chose the humble way to introduce himself to the world. An encounter with God directly could shatter the nerves of anyone unless you were the Virgin Mary. For the rest of us, we couldn’t take the shock of meeting God face to face very well.
Consider this Sunday’s first reading. Moses accedes to a complaint of the people in the desert. They suffered deep anxiety. God was overpoweringly present to them every minute of every day. Night was bright with the presence of God as a tower of fire. And during daylight it became a cloud. In both ways God’s presence was benevolent, keeping them safe from the desert sun at daytime and the dangers that lurk in the night. But, 40 years of this took a toll.
People became totally aware of being watched by God. It put them on edge and filled them with anxiety. So, Moses (speaking for God) acquiesces to the will of the people. In the future, God will come as a man like Moses himself. Remember, Moses described himself to God as “slow of speech.” He was somewhat timid and had a speech impediment. No one would be afraid of him. Nor would people have cause for anxiety on meeting the Lord. That explains Jesus’ manner of approaching his people.
Paul carries that same thought in his first letter to the Corinthians, which is this Sunday’s second reading. He admonishes the Corinthian Christians not to have anxieties. The spiritual life may become overly intense if we don’t watch out. We may become like that man at the synagogue in Capernaum. We become afraid of God. Rather, our religion should be joyous. Others should notice how we praise God and respond to our invitation to join us.
The next Sunday’s Gospel, the Fifth in Ordinary Time, is the very next scene from Mark’s first chapter. Jesus is leaving the synagogue and goes to Peter’s and Andrew’s house. There he meets Peter’s mother-in-law, who is severely sick. He does more than cure her. Jesus, when he cures, usually adds something extra. In this case, he lifts her up out of the bed and back to the life she loves. Now, she is returned to her own environment, freed from all the anxiety of being bedridden. She is free to be herself. So she cooks and provides hospitality, demonstrating that the Christian life is one of happy service.
In opposition to the joy of Peter’s mother-in-law is the drudgery that Job, in the first reading, describes as the human lot. People can consider their work in life to be a form of slavery as Job did. However, Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t see it that way. It is, rather, what she does best. She makes people happy through her cooking and her warmth. That’s what Jesus picked her up from the bed to do. I’m sure he enjoyed his dinner.
Paul, in the second reading, approaches the notion of seeing work as slavery. He distinguishes two types of work: that which we do unwillingly (someone is ordering us to do it) and that we do willingly. The latter is an exercise in freedom. Christ came to make us free. Paul considers himself doing a slave’s work, but he does it freely. That attitude can dissipate the anxiety that the world uses to defeat us.
The Gospel for the third Sunday of February, once again, follows immediately after the previous passage. Jesus heals a leper who goes on to spread the word of Jesus’ power. Mark also makes the point that Jesus performed the miracle because he was moved by pity. No wonder news of this event drew large crowds.
The first reading takes us back to Leviticus and the rules for lepers. They are to make no contact with non-lepers, calling out “unclean” to anyone coming close to them. I have a narrow knowledge of lepers, having visited only three or four leprosaria. But in all of them the lepers were very anxious to talk and show their wounds and have their pictures taken. They seem to crave attention. My guess is that the leper that Jesus cured had a personality similar to the lepers I met. If so, he disobeyed Jesus’ order not to tell anyone about his healing out of an enthusiasm that overshadowed even the explicit command of the Lord. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians in the second reading encourages us to have the same attitude as the leper. That is we should do everything we do for the glory of God trying to please everyone in every way for the sake of their salvation. That will keep a smile on our faces at all times.
February now takes a radical turn. We leave Ordinary Time to enter the season of Lent. Isn’t it amazing to see so many people coming to Mass on Ash Wednesday? Without the force of Church laws making attending Mass obligation, large crowds fill our parish churches; and they are anxious to receive ashes indicating their Catholicism to the world. They’ll also hear a message in the Liturgy of the Word that should deepen their joy at coming to Mass. The first reading, from the Book of Joel, will urge us to not just show up but to bring our hearts with us so we can be filled with a love for Christ that will welcome the Lord and his salvation into our lives. Perhaps, indeed, he will be merciful to us as he was to the leper. Like the leper, we can spread the good news to all we meet.
Then, all of us will comprehend Paul’s message to the Corinthians when he writes that we are ambassadors for Christ. To be so, Paul continues, we need to be reconciled to God. Indeed, we might even become the righteousness of God. Our attitude would be sky high. And, it would give us the power to make people listen. But, first, we need to hear the Gospel. It comes from the center of the Sermon on the Mount and presents the correct way to perform the actions of a holy person. The three actions are, of course, prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
All three must be done from deep in the heart. Prayer must be done inside a closet. We want the deepest recesses of our soul to touch God. That cannot be accomplished in public. Fasting must be done with a clean face so we will appear to others to enjoy what we’re doing. The real change takes place in our heart; and only God and ourselves can notice that. Almsgiving is also to be accomplished in secret. It’s a special undercover action that we accomplish as a secret agent of God. Keep it so secret that your left hand shouldn’t even know what the right hand is doing. The reason secrecy is so important in becoming truly religious is that the relationship we are working on in this effort is ours with God. The two of us come closer and we will be forever changed for the best. If we develop “rabbit ears” (a problem young athletes are prone to if they pay attention to the crowd), we might very well miss the essence of what we’re trying to do.
The last Sunday of February is the First Sunday of Lent. The Gospel narrates what Jesus did after his baptism in the Jordan. He went to the desert for 40 days, where he was tempted by the devil. As the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus had taken on humanity. As a human, he was baptized. That is, Jesus as true man went through the waters not merely to cleanse himself, but also to render all humanity clean from all our sins. So, the Church hearkens back to bring us the story of Noah in the first reading and St. Peter’s commentary on it in the second. Realize that, according to the account, Noah and his family and assorted animals were the only living beings left other than vegetation. Mankind began again, once more freed from sin. Since all of us stem from Noah’s family, it is appropriate to know that we also were freed from our sins by a water event. The evil that had pervaded mankind and even sank Noah has been definitively destroyed by Christ. As God established a new covenant with Noah; he did the same for us in Christ.
Christ’s first job after his baptism was to confront evil and defeat Satan and his temptations. For his baptism to be effective, Jesus knew that we, soon enough, would be beset by diabolical temptations. The Lord always does more for us than expected. And there is more than we can see fighting on our side. Peter writes to his readers that we do not come alone to our side of the battlefield in our war with Satan. We have the resurrected Lamb of God with us and the entire angelic force controlling the battle to make the battle turn out best for us.
So, if the February environment gets to be too much for us to bear, just remember to go into your tiny closet for a taste of Christmas leftover memories and Scripture passages geared to render you free from problems, empowered to take on the world and ready to meet God.
That was quite a lot to store up in the tiniest of months. May each of us strive to enter the kingdom and live it in joy!
Father Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.