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Suffering and Sacrifice
Second Sunday of Lent 2021
While working on the renovation of the Motherhouse Chapel of the Ursuline Sisters in Maple Mount, Kentucky I learned about one of their members Sister Diana Ortiz who had worked in Guatemala. She went there to teach little children “to understand the Bible in their culture.” Ortiz knew her mission would be dangerous. The intentional killing of women or girls just because they are female continues in Guatemala even now.  Ortiz was gang-raped and tortured in 1989 prior to her escape.
Sister Diana, 62, died last week after a long battle with cancer. This human rights activist should be declared a saint right away. She is one of many admirable examples of a Christ-like person who suffered affliction while carrying out her Christian calling.
My religion tells me that suffering is one of the characteristics of our baptismal identity. It is the cost of our discipleship. Living up to this attribute is not at all like sacrificing movies, travel, or desserts during Lent. This season, instead, prompts us to give new energy to our baptismal covenant.
Primarily, we are called to build up the realm of God on earth, the mission Jesus did not finish. His primary objective, to save Israel from oppression, was thwarted. He was executed because he preached and practiced justice for all peoples regardless of tribal membership. The odds against fulfilling that mission are still overwhelming.
In today’s gospel (Mark 9:2-10) Jesus and some of his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem where he told them he had to die. However, what they experienced on Mount Moriah was not suffering and death but a “transfigured” Jesus. The theophany, the appearance of Jesus in glory, was unexpected. The three men were stunned and did not understand what the vision was all about.
Professor of religion and culture, Elizabeth Struthers Malbon, wrote: “The Markan Jesus tries to prepare his disciples for transitioning from witnessing the power of God’s realm in bringing food, health, and wholeness to the powerless, to risking participation in such community in the face of the powerful.”
Malbon added more about the dangers in this undertaking. “Jesus’ obedience to God entails both proclaiming and enacting God’s realm in this present age and risking the inevitable suffering that such service to the powerless may elicit from the powerful, who are threatened by any challenge to the status quo.” 
What do we risk in order to challenge corruption in church and state? Do we really have to suffer unwanted torture like Ortiz or all the martyrs named and unnamed in the history of society and religion? The apostle Paul understood that the suffering he endured served as a way to be like Christ. The Catholic Catechism reiterates: “suffering … becomes a participation in the saving work of Jesus.” 
The passage about Abraham and Isaac (Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18) suggests that God will take care of those who follow the commandments; they will be blessed abundantly. These blessings are not so apparent today.
Many people globally are wondering where are the abundant blessings from God for those who faithfully have followed the commandments? Why have over 500,000 died from Covid related issues in the United States? Why are so many people out of work, hungry and even homeless? They ask, “Has God abandoned us?”
Further, Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Iraq will remind us that Christians, Yazidis and others living in Baghdad, Mosul and the Nineveh Plains have been tortured and murdered just because of who they are. The history of slavery in this nation recalls the Black persons who were tortured and lynched because of their race. Anti-Semitism continues to plague Jews. Those helping immigrants along the Mexican border could be shot.
Sin and oppression will not go away. People will suffer and die because these are, undeniably, facets of human life. We live daily with suffering and death caused by failures, imperfections, diseases, loneliness, and accidents. Torture, killings, physical and psychological abuses, and other injustices happen because there are evil people living among us.
The challenge for the followers of Christ is to join people of other religious traditions to combat injustices. Kindness, empathy and sacrifice are key words. In every case showing gratitude for the blessings we do have is important. Sharing those blessings with others is our obligation. We cannot stand by and do nothing when bad things are happening to others.
1. In 2020 alone, nearly 500 femicides were reported in Guatemala, and at least 60 children were killed.
2. Women’s Bible Commentary, Newsome, Ringe, Lapsey, Editors, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 2012) 480, 486.
3. Catechism of the Catholic Church No. 1521
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First Sunday of Lent Year B
Lent is a good time for anyone affiliated with a Christian religion. Those who are prepping for Christian initiation at Easter will study, fast and pray. Those of us who are long time members will examine our consciences to recover what it means to be a Christian today.
Throughout the season there are some amazing and challenging biblical texts to keep us focused. Today’s gospel, for example, helps us think about the temptations in our lives.
In a biblical perspective the word “temptation” points to a trial that we might encounter. It requires making a free choice to be faithful to the Creator’s marvelous vision for the cosmos and its never ending evolution. Made in the image of God how do our actions help us develop and sustain a good relationship with God and creation? In other words, how can I cultivate “Godliness” in my life and for others?
On a daily basis we are faced with many decisions about life, time management, energy conservation, consumption of goods, caring for others, etc. We make some of these choices alone. Other issues are more societal where we join others to make the right decisions about issues that affect all of us: food inequity, the economy, health care, prison reform, human trafficking, immigration and the election of government officials.
And, let us not forget this is still Black History month. There are vital connections between acts of justice and our Lenten aspirations. Black History month honors the triumphs and struggles of African Americans throughout U.S. history, including the civil rights movement. It also celebrates Blacks’ artistic, cultural, political and athletic achievements. Black basketball players are now wearing uniforms that say “Built on Black History.”
Honoring Black lives does not eliminate the racial tensions caused by inequities and prejudice. Actor and playwright, Anna Deavere Smith, gave the apostle Paul’s teaching (1 Peter 3:18-22) about “appealing for a clear conscience” a keen perspective in her essay about Black identity and empowerment.
She wrote: “In our current moment of division, we cannot afford to go forward without looking back. We must excavate history to assess how we learned to restore human dignity that had been ripped away by plunder and slavery. How did we get this far? Not by being nice.”
“The journey of Lent,” Pope Francis said in his Ash Wednesday homily, “is an exodus from slavery to freedom.” We still have a long way to travel. Not everyone of us is being as nice as we should be toward those who are not like us.
Justice for all is an ambitious goal. Art critic Jason Farago offers this insight from the Enlightenment painter Francisco Goya.  “Goya saw, and depicted with unrivaled vision, that error or evil can never be purged entirely, not from your society, nor from your soul. A world of perfect justice will always be a mirage. Tyrants, idiots, swindlers, conspiracy theorists: They will always be with us.”
That unsettling commentary points to the momentous and imaginative story about Jesus in today’s gospel (Mark 1:12-15) who, while retreating in the desert, warded off the temptations of the devil. “Jesus invited everyone to metanoia, a conversion in which they would drop the myths that stifled their dreams and vision, freeing them to move in the future God desired for them.” 
Yielding to temptations is not helpful in this regard. In their collective history people of color offer us a model of strength, perseverance and bold action against all odds. It is a necessary foundation for pressing on, moving forward, in order to experience the peace and joy imagined by the God of all creation. 
Lent has traditionally been a season for purification, the intentional transformation of our lives. In its time, the idea of giving things up was a good one. Mostly it had to do with abstaining from whatever gave us delight in some way large or small. In reality, for many, it was an easy way to do penance.
Now, we are in a different place and period when we are challenged by the virus, home schooling, joblessness, economic constraints, and impatience. It is a good time to give up the temptation to ignore our bad habits. It is an opportune occasion to worry about those who are suffering more than we are and then to do something about it.
During Lent, like in any act of worship, we rehearse how to embrace the other, the stranger, to touch and nourish them with kindness. Lent is not an introspective occasion to improve only ourselves but also the lives of the people who are “other”, those yearning for justice. Forty days is not a long enough duration to completely correct our imperfections but it can provide a good start.
1. See “Goya: The Dreams, the Visions, the Nightmares” in The New York Times, February 11, 2021.
2. Mary McGlone, Commentary on the First Sunday of Lent, National Catholic Reporter, January 13, 2021.
3. See today’s first reading from the Book of Genesis (9:8-15) about God’s promise never to destroy us.
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Gotta Love Others Always
Sixth Sunday Ordinary Time Year B
Dare we mix Valentine’s Day with the upcoming season of Lent? Originally Valentine’s Day was a 3rd century pagan festival that took place in February, a word that is derived from the Latin word februa, meaning purification. The festival was Christianized in the 5th century and St. Valentine was added to the calendar.
According to legend, Valentine (there was also a Valentine of Terni) was beheaded because of his efforts to change an unjust law that decreed single men were better soldiers than married ones. To spite the law Valentine married couples in secret. One could say Valentine’s Day is a time for justice. Justice requires love.
Lent is usually considered a season of reconciliation and regeneration. It entails a certain amount of purification (februa) on our part. That cleansing is so important today. Societies everywhere are mired in hurtful injustices. We are part of those societies. The difference between right and wrong is muddled. Superstitions replace reason. How do we recover truth over fiction as a guidepost for living?
Although the length of the season of Lent varied in the beginning, it was a time of fasting and prayer leading up to Easter. Over time, it became a period of preparation for candidates for the sacraments of initiation. It was also a time of penance for grave sinners. Lent is a period of transformation.
The biblical texts today are familiar. Two of them remind us of the debilitating disease of leprosy. The obvious lesson is that we are called to embrace all people with love no matter what their condition, or race or ethnicity is. Think of all the health care workers treating sick and dying people in our hospitals regardless of age, ability, or comorbidity. They are models for the rest of us.
Jesus taught us to touch people who are outcasts living on the edge of society. To reach out to those who have no resources or hope is an important ministry for all of us. We are summoned to spread love where there is loathing, suspicion and harm. The second reading today is an early wake up call for the next forty days of Lent: “Avoid giving offense to the others who are not like you.”
With all the distractions in our lives these days it is easy to overlook what is taking place far away in the universe. Three rovers launched from different countries are approaching Mars. The names of the vehicles evoke a constructive message for us today as we deal with imperfections here on earth: The “Quest for Heavenly Truth” (Republic of China), “Hope” (UAE), and “Perseverance” (USA).
Three nation states are working in a united effort to explore and learn more about a planet about 35 million miles away. Here on this tiny planet the names of the rovers could serve as guideposts for our journeys forward. God’s realm is already here just not yet realized. There is work for us to do.
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SEARCHING FOR BEAUTY AND GRACE
5th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B
While being interviewed on the NPR program “On Being,” Mary Catherine Bateson, talked about “believing in the God of all things as they are.” She said, “Job lost a sense of wonder.” She continued … God invites us to just look around to experience the wonder of creation which then leads to praise.
This is something Job, in the first reading today, failed to do. He was so caught up in his own ambitions, possessions, and worries he failed to notice all the goodness around him.
Job's shaky encounter with God turned into a loving one once he figured out what he thought was his really did not belong to him even though he worked hard to get them. The never ending beauty of creation and all it encompasses is entrusted to us to protect and share for as long as we live on this fragile planet.
The woman in the gospel, Penthera, Peter’s mother-in-law, was hanging on for dear life. Whatever she may have yearned for or acquired in life no longer mattered. When she was healed by Jesus her experience of in exhaustible goodness transformed her. She then became Jesus’s disciple.
Do we expect God to relate to us the way we want God to treat us? Do we ask too much of the world we live in … sometimes only for our own benefit? Maybe a quiet patience beckons us to let beauty and grace come to us rather than chasing after them with our prayers and good deeds. What will it take for me to be open to whatever a holy Spirit will bring into my life? Then, will I share that blessing with others?