Living the readings: A midwinter retreat

Ten weeks of Scripture meditation will prepare you for Easter

By Father Joseph Brando

In this issue we will be looking at all the Sunday Scripture readings in February and March. This period of time starts in Ordinary Time following Epiphany and continues until the day before Holy Week. One might think that these Sundays may be disconnected. However, the contrary is true. There is a distinctive continuity throughout the Sunday readings of February and March that can have a strong impact on your spiritual life and on your understanding of Jesus’ mission in the world. So, what may be mistaken as a season of fill-in biblical readings becomes a textbook carefully leading us to become much more aware of our Christianity and more close to our savior, Jesus Christ. By the time Holy Week arrives, if you meditated deeply on each of the Scriptures for these two months, you will be focused and ready for Easter like you haven’t been in previous years. Make the next 10 weeks a personal retreat presented by the Sunday Scripture readings.

We begin on Feb. 5 with the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time. There, Isaiah introduces the retreat telling us we are to become, by the end of the course, Light. We can do so by living the corporal works of mercy. You wouldn’t think that feeding the hungry and other such activities would make us powerful. Isaiah writes that these actions make you so close to God that He would come to you whenever you call. You will put gloom behind you and replace it with the power of light.

The Gospel each Sunday in February is from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This Sunday the Lord calls us to be a lamp that provides light to all in the house. In Matthew’s Gospel when he writes about being “in the house,” that usually means that Jesus is together with his closest followers. So our works of light must be performed to be seen so that the Father might be properly glorified and our fellow Christians may be edified.

Paul, in the second reading, reminds the Corinthian Christians that he did not win them over to Christ by sublime words. He had recently been ridiculed in Athens and was still trembling from that experience when he arrived in Corinth. So in Corinth, Paul evangelized not by words but by his actions. He moved his audience to come to Christ by means of actions that could only be explained by God’s Spirit and power. What they did for Paul they can do for us.

The Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time continues the theme of light and power. First off, Sirach presents a sample of his wisdom. You can choose between two methods of living your life. You can meticulously keep the commandments, or you could live a life of radical trust in God. Either way is good as long as it keeps you in touch with God.

Jesus provides insight on Sirach’s teaching. Regarding the commandments, Jesus says he has come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. Then he gives examples of what he means. One example uses the commandment, you shall not kill. You have not fulfilled that command by not taking anyone’s life. Rather, you have ceased to fulfill the law when you brought anger into the world. Or even if you mock someone, calling that person a blockhead (Raqa), you have hurt someone and broken God’s intent when He issued that commandment. So if we want to be Light for the world we need to look into each commandment to ascertain what kind of a world God wants to create by it.

To make that kind of call we need what Paul calls “God’s wisdom.” He modifies this wisdom, saying it is not of this world. But he tells us how to receive it. Quite simply, this divine wisdom is given to those who love God. And those who possess this wisdom lovingly bring God’s plan to fruition here and now.

The Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time introduces us to another concept by which we can judge if we have fulfilled a commandment of God. Paul asked the question of the Corinthians, “Do you not know that you are the Temple of God and that the Holy Spirit dwells in you?” Then Paul tells them they are holy. Here holy means separated, out of the ordinary and made special for God. To choose the ordinary, or the worldly, or the popular is to choose against God. So, if a person seeks to be considered “wise” in this world, then they have chosen against God.

God told Moses that the Israelite community was “holy.” That widens the definition to include an entire people. The whole people can lose their status with God if the mindset of that community loses its relationship with God. That would happen if individuals looking at other countries envied them for their military might, or their wealth, or their culture. None of those things brings people to God. To lead people to value things that diminish their absolute dependence on God would endanger their status of being “holy.”

The Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time challenges us to deepen our relationship with God. There is a tendency to apply our worldly experiences to the divine. Most everyone has felt the devastating pain of having a close friend hurt him or her in some way. After a while, such hurts lead us to distrust friends. Some would then apply this “earthly wisdom” to all our relationships, including those that involve God. For example, after a succession of good things happen to us and we judge God is with us, then a bad event devastates us. We often blame God. We claim He has forsaken us.

That is exactly the type of event Isaiah warns us about. “Can a mother forget her infant? Even if she should forget, I will never forget you.” Those words are a quote from God. We need to emblazon those words on our hearts.

Jesus also warns us against serving two masters. The right way to live is by choosing one master to govern our lives. That one master should be our heavenly Father. If we ever get to worrying about anything, then it is a sure thing that God is not our master.

The next liturgy we will explore is not a Sunday. Rather, it is the halfway point of our “retreat,” namely Ash Wednesday. What we’ve already done over the last four weeks has been a perfect preparation for Lent. And Lent is the perfect finish for our winter retreat. It begins with the Prophet Joel crying out, “Return to me with all your heart…for gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness.” He has to cry this out because even very good people have a fear of looking for problem areas in our spiritual lives. For them, Joel has a suggestion. “Perhaps He (God) will again relent and leave behind Him a blessing.” That would be a great conclusion for Lent. But the worst any introspective soul can accomplish during Lent is freeing itself from what is causing its anxiety. This is a time for improvement and blessing.

Lent changes us. Jesus, in today’s Gospel, urges us to look deeper into our souls to find the person we really are. Too often we settle for a surface change, which affects only how others see us. That makes us hypocrites. Rather, it is worth the effort to go down deep, and the joy of making a change that radically changes us will break through, showing a new and improved us to God and the world.

The change will make a difference. We become a person we had not been. Paul tells the Corinthians that we become “ambassadors for Christ.” An ambassador travels to a foreign country to represent his or her native land. As ambassadors of Christ, we represent heaven. It is a job, a happy job, of being Christ to others. And, it will be better and happier the deeper we go in our self-investigation.

The next Sunday comes up fast. It’s the First Sunday of Lent. The very first reading tells the story of the fall of Adam and Eve. The story ends here with Adam and Eve realizing they were naked and sewed fig leaves together to cover their nakedness. That is, they discovered they were different. In the bliss of Eden, Adam and Eve had seen themselves as one. Their love made them so. One of the most punishing effects of sin (disobeying God) is that we lose true love, becoming separate from God and from those we love.

Paul writes to the Romans that Jesus Christ brings us eternal life in heaven as well as the supernatural life of grace here on earth. We all become one in Christ. Jesus’ obedience (as was demonstrated in the desert temptations) made many people righteous. Adam’s disobedience bequeaths us death along with a tendency toward sinfulness.

The next week starting with the Second Sunday of Lent challenges us to get out of our comfort zone. God speaks to Abram telling him to move away from your family to a land I will show you. Often the message of God to us is to change from wherever we are in life to some other place, job, attitude, and friends among things. The changes are always difficult; but if the message is from God it will (like Abram’s) be filled with blessings.

Paul writes to a protégé of his, Timothy, to “bear your share of hardship for the Gospel with the strength that comes from God.” It’s amazing to see the results to what were undeniably tough moves. Jesus had to make the decision to accept his Father’s will to undergo death by crucifixion. He demonstrates the divine wisdom of this action to Peter, James, and John on the high mountain. Moses and Elijah both accepted very difficult trials in their work for God. But, they succeeded in bringing Israel closer to God.

So far we have discovered a few images that can fit people who follow Christ. There have been Light, Salt, Temple, Holy, and Ambassador among others. Now, on the Third Sunday of Lent we confront one of the basic biblical images, that of water. In the desert, the Israelites complained to God and threatened Moses until he, too, pleaded to the Lord for water, which God gave. It is such a basic need. In the Gospel, Jesus has a much more pleasant interplay with the woman at the well. He asked her for water. She drew it. He offered her, in return, living water, which she accepted and, in turn, invited all the townspeople to meet Jesus. In Moses’ case, water was an occasion for quarreling with God. At Jacob’s Well, it was a major breakthrough for the faith. Water is necessary for human life on earth. Faith is necessary for human life in heaven. We need to pray for both.

The Fourth Sunday of Lent presents still another basic theme in the Scriptures, that of sight and blindness. People can be blind to realities that are obvious to God. For example, there is the story of the selection of David as the King of Israel. Saul had flunked his test as king. The prophet Samuel now had to find and crown the next king. He went through seven of Jesse’s sons until he got to David. The message is God sees what humans can’t.

In the Gospel, John tells us the story of the man born blind. Jesus cured him on a Sabbath. That unsettled the Pharisees, leading them to expel him from the synagogue. So the situation resulted in the blind man gaining sight and worshiping Jesus while the Pharisees ended up blindly denying Christ.

Finally, we come to the last week, the Fifth Sunday of Lent. It has the most basic dichotomy anywhere, namely that of life and death. Like all the rich symbols in sacred Scripture, it leads us to Christ. Jesus raised people from death back to life. Here, in the Gospel, he returns Lazarus to life after four days in his grave. Such an action is a sure proof of Jesus’ divinity and of his love for humanity and, in particular, for Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. It is God’s response to Ezekiel’s prophecy that Israel “shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and have you rise from them.”

The next week is Holy Week. I hope you can enjoy it taking part in Palm Sunday, Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday liturgies. It will assure you that your midwinter retreat was worthwhile.

Father Brando is retired from the active priesthood in the Diocese of Knoxville.

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