For Ash Wednesday this year our campus ministry at Montclair State University gave out books to everyone who attended Mass. We’ve been getting something like this each year. A small what they call devotional that contains scripture verses, themes based on the readings for the week, and a short two-three page reflection for each day. When going through a variety of options for this year, this one title stood out “Give up worry for Lent.” A good friend who works with us shared that she had used this book a few years ago and gave it rave reviews. Which backed up the publisher’s claim that it was a “best-seller” and helped explain why it was more expensive than the other options.
Thanks so much for stopping by to read my homily for the the SECOND SUNDAY OF LENT – March 5, 2023, for sharing it on your social media posts and your feedback and comments… I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE. May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim
That shouldn’t be surprising. Who doesn’t worry? The list of things from war, economic woes, and angry and divisive rhetoric in the public square that seems different – more intense – with fewer signs of reconciliation on the horizon. The personal things that individuals experience like marital struggles, the health of loved ones, the loss of someone close to us and anxiety for children. Any of those things can make a person feel like they are the only ones going through this experience. Yet when you have genuine and sincere conversations with others you find how universal those things are. There’s plenty to worry about – so a small guide given out on Ash Wednesday inviting people to “Give up worry for Lent” was definitely a popular option as we gave out hundreds of copies.
What’s comical though is that you can never underestimate a college student’s ability to spin things. There was one student who when they saw the book thought that this was a far better alternative to making some other sacrificial act or penitential practice as they said “that sounds great… I can keep on drinking coffee every day and I won’t be anxious anymore.” Not exactly what we were going for, but… she was very excited to take a copy. Another student, a couple of days after Ash Wednesday was in the Newman Center going through a litany of things that were going wrong in his life and pointing to the book and saying “it’s not working.”
Of course, this raises a lot of questions like what were their expectations when they picked up a copy of the book; to something more practical like asking whether they are actually reading the book or not. Because sadly, some think that simply carrying a book, and agreeing with the premise should make it a reality. Call it the Amazon-effect of the nation – we order something and expect it to be delivered. That might work in ordering groceries or additional copies of this physical book. But the desired change doesn’t just land on our doorsteps. If we want to be free of “worry” – it requires a bit more effort on our part. For one they might have to read and consider the thoughts the author is presenting. Which spoiler alert is not anything groundbreaking, new, or different from what we can find in scripture already.
Some of which is what we encounter these first two Sundays of Lent. Every year, the Church presents us on the First and Second Sundays of Lent a pattern. Temptation followed by Transfiguration. The first Sunday will always feature one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus being tempted in the desert and the second Sunday always has one of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration. That’s intentional. Ash Wednesday we were invited to follow Jesus’ example of his entering 40 days in the desert where he fasted and prayed. He does that, He invites us to join Him spiritually as a way to be attentive to each of our hearts. To reflect on what is going on deep within ourselves. To recognize the conflicts we find there. How many things compete for our attention? We know the good things we are called to do. We know all too well how often in our weakness we fall into sins and make bad choices. We have these deep longings and aspirations that the Holy Spirit lays deep within our hearts for peace, for love. We hear all these opinions in our world, lots of voices trying to convince us they have the answer to those things. Which seems to convince people to ascribe to different philosophies, purchase more things, isolate, and leave people further from the fulfillment of peace and love that we seek than when we started. Lent invites us to enter into the desert, a spiritual desert, that we create with fasting, prayer, and giving – so we can have a few fewer distractions, we can have a bit more quiet and focus, and gently but honestly look at those things in each of our hearts – where so much of our worry comes from.
As we do that, the Church gives us these first two Sundays – temptation and transfiguration – to help us be clear about the two diametrically opposed options that exist. Last Sunday we focused on how the devil operates. We remembered with his temptation of Adam and Eve that he’s a liar, he is constantly manipulating the truth, like when he asked them “did God really tell you not to eat from any of the trees in the garden” when in fact we all knew, the truth – no it wasn’t any of the trees – God had been specificGOOD they could eat from every tree with exception of the one – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The devil then proposes a lack of trust in God, in His goodness. He tempts them with the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and pride. He is unoriginal so that’s the same playbook that he uses over and over throughout history. So we have this clarity about how the devil operates and what his voice sounds like.
Today we focus on the voice of God. That amazingly the eternal God the Creator of all that was, is, and ever will be – the great King of the Universe who by his providence continues to sustain life from the rising and setting of the sun to the breath in our lungs, the beat in our hearts wants to be in relationship with you and me… with the creatures He has made and fashioned in His own image. Despite the history of setbacks and failures where we have fallen for the voice of the tempter and given into the lusts of the flesh, of the eyes and pride that breaks His heart – what is of greater value to Him is when we turn back to Him. Run to Him, Trust Him. Over and over Jesus will re-iterate that point in the Gospels “The Prodigal Son” – “there’s more rejoicing in the heavens over one sinner who repents.”
In the first reading today, from the book of Genesis, we hear the beginnings of the story of the great Father in Faith, Abraham. It’s so early in the story that his name isn’t even Abraham yet it’s Abram. At this point in the story – Abram and his wife Sarai (her name hasn’t been changed to Sarah yet either) are dealing with some very relatable things. They’ve been married for decades. There’s been struggles and setbacks, most notably with their inability to have children of their own. That’s caused them heartache. That’s caused tension in the extended family. Especially over 3,000 years ago when things like family name and legacy had even greater meaning and importance. So much so that Abram’s father takes him and Sarai with him to establish a land, a home, and a legacy and takes another grandson who is Abram’s nephew, named Lot to be with them in this new enterprise. You can imagine the brokenness, the animosity, the disappointment, and the compromise that existed there. Into all that, God speaks to Abram in this scripture and invites him to “go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you.” The voice of God is calling Abram to let go of what was known and familiar. To step out in faith and begin this journey, and more importantly, enter into a deeper intimacy with the God that humanity had kept finding ways of rejecting.
In the Gospel of the transfiguration, our attention understandably often goes immediately to the dramatic events where we hear recounted how these three of Jesus’ closest apostles – Peter, James, and John – have a glimpse of the glory of Easter, of the Resurrection which is yet to come. None of which Jesus needed for himself. It’s not like He didn’t know who He was or what He was going to accomplish. He was fully God and fully Man so these realities weren’t new to Him. This is for Peter, James, and John. Throughout the Gospels, we see the struggle that these former fishermen-turned-apostles have in following Jesus. Just leaving their nets by the seashore, their families, and everything they knew to be his disciple was only the beginning. Their hearts and minds are constantly being blown and shattered and re-ordered. The stakes are constantly increasing. So here they are on the top of the mountain with Jesus and see a glimpse of the glory to be fulfilled in the Resurrection. And Peter’s reaction is “we’ve made it!” Let’s stay here… let’s build tents. Who can blame Peter? After so many promising starts and setbacks himself in following Jesus, when he gets this glimpse of glory, he doesn’t want it to end.
Yet God never offers a blessing simply for our own self-interests. He wants all humanity to know that the only way to end the struggles with sin… the only way to break through to a world that experiences war, and division… the only hope for genuine peace and fulfillment – not just in the here and now but for all eternity comes when we listen to God the Father’s voice inviting us to “listen to Him.”
For Abram – when he listens to God’s call to obey, calling him to trust, the seemingly impossible is made spectacularly real in a way that surpasses Abraham’s grandest of hopes. The childless couple will see Abraham become not just a biological father healing some of the deepest personal pains he and his wife had carried for decades- but how he would become the father to countless numbers. As he becomes the beloved earthly, human patriarch to the families of God. His obedience will begin to restore the chaos that disobedience and sin had unleashed. God’s Chosen People will have a new identity. No longer will they be seen as the lost, faithless – no they will be called a “great nation” – who are blessed by God. All by Abraham’s decision to heed God’s invitation to Listen to Him.
For Peter, James, and John, they are blessed with this vision to see past their own limitations, past their personal pasts with their sins and failures. To have this glimpse of the glory that God isn’t just offering to them, but to all humanity. Peter has to accept that no it’s not as simple as just making some accommodations up there on a mountain. God wants to draw all humanity to become His children once again. For that to happen they have to go down. They have to enter into the brokenness that humanity has made of God’s creation and tell them all is not lost. Those deep longings for peace, and love are possible. But that there is only way for them to be fulfilled – in Jesus the beloved Son, in whom the Father is well pleased and heeding the invitation to Listen to Him.
Because Abraham; Peter, James, and John did that, this message of salvation has come down to us here in 2023. But it was more than just hearing and agreeing with the premise. It involved responses on their parts. That meant change for them, that demanded shifts of priorities and most of all required that they put more faith and trust in God and His promises than in their feelings of fear. Where is God calling you to go? What is He asking you to do? Who does He want you to become? There’s an answer specific to each and every one of us that is as personal and unique and beautiful as each and every one of us are as God’s beloved sons and daughters. An answer that can in fact more than help us give up worry for lent, but even more enlist us in being a part of bringing His message of mercy and salvation to a hurting, waiting world.
Moving from temptation to transfiguration though requires that we reject the devils twists, lies, manipulations and temptations that want to keep us doubting and afraid. Turning away from those things. Repenting of them, making an examination of conscience and going to confession to be absolved of those things. Listening to where God is inviting us to move. Those things can be frightening but very movingly this account ends with, Peter, James, and John reminding us that when they experienced those very feelings, they raised their eyes to Jesus’ and heard him lovingly tell them “Rise and do not be afraid.” He would not abandon them. He will not abandon us. If we but heed the Father’s voice and listen to Him.