Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lent Lite or Lenten Transformation? Lent 2

Life is full of challenges, big and small.

Anyone disagree with that?

Travelling with small children is one of life’s small challenges that can seem enormous. I had to fly down to Portland this week, and across the aisle was a couple with a baby who screamed almost non-stop.

At least the mother was a model of calm. She spoke very gently “Keep calm, Albert. No need to be upset, Albert. We’ll be home soon, Albert.”

As we were getting off the plane I gave the young parents an encouraging smile, and asked the husband how old little Albert was.

“Oh, no,” he said,“His name’s Michael. I’m Albert.”

On the surface, today's Gospel seems miles away from such daily challenges. That mountaintop is about as far away as you can get from my fears and my issues—obviously it’s about Jesus preparing his friends for the scandal of his crucifixion, arming them in advance with a preview of his glory.

But if that’s all it’s about, why does the Church present us with the transfiguration every year on the second Sunday of Lent? This year we read St. Luke’s account, next year St. Matthew’s, last year St. Mark. Obviously it’s important, but why? After all, we don’t need a preview of Christ’s resurrection; it has already happened.

I can suggest one good reason why: the transfiguration strengthens our hope that we will be transformed.

Let’s shift our focus for a moment from Jesus to ourselves. Do we believe that there’ll come a time when our faces will be changed, when our clothes will be dazzling and white?

There’s every reason to believe that: St. Paul writes “He will transform the body of our humiliation so that it may be conformed to the body of his glory...” (Phil 3:21a). We’re offered a personal share in that mountaintop experience.

Which leads to the big question: are we on our way up the mountain to share in Christ’s glory, or are we standing at the base of the hill scratching our heads? Are we expecting personal transformation during these days of Lent, or just ‘more of the same’?

Because the road to glory doesn’t start at the end of our days; it starts right now.

We all know how hard our Olympic athletes trained, and their discipline is an excellent reminder of the demands of Christian discipleship. In fact, in one of his most memorable passages, St. Paul uses running, and races, and even boxing to remind us that we need to train and discipline our bodies. (1 Cor 9.24-27)

But competitors know there’s more to winning than physical training: attitude and expectation are crucial. An athlete who expects to win has a much great chance of victory than one who doubts or fears.

What about us? Do we expect Lent to transform us? Are we really looking for visible changes in our daily lives? More patience, less selfishness; more insight, less anger; more generosity, less self-indulgence. Are we anticipating victories, large or small, over some of the things that enslave us or hold us back?

If we’re settling for “Lent lite,” today might be a day to think again. God offers real change and deep renewal to those who pick up the torch at Lent and run with it.

We’ve already talked about three ways to run the Lenten race—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. We do these things to please God, certainly, but each of these aims at transforming our hearts: in other words, if prayer, fasting and almsgiving don’t change us, we’re not getting them right.

Ask yourself: do I expect to be the same old me at Easter? Is the journey from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week a Sunday drive or a bold climb up the mountain?

Your answer won’t come in words. St. Josemaria Escriva said “Love is deeds, not sweet words and excuses.” So what are your deeds?

Last week I proposed a practical way we might approach prayer, fasting and almsgiving on the Fridays of Lent. It should work for most people, but it’s by no means the only way of taking Lent to heart. (By the way, in last Sunday's homily I promised something more on fasting this week; you’ll find some wise words on the subject from Matthew Kelly in the posting below.)

This week, I suggest a different kind of fast: fasting from our plans and over-scheduled lives, and making space for things of the spirit.

A week from Wednesday, we will have a parish mission. For three nights our community will gather to hear Father Dan Mahan preach on the topic “More than Silver or Gold,” which you have to agree is a pretty timely title! His talks aren’t about becoming a better parish, or about feeling good about ourselves, or even about feeling bad about ourselves: they’re about personal change, from the inside out.

Father Mahan will be talking about stewardship, one of the most transforming themes in the Church today. He’s asking: do I want my Catholic faith to drive everything I do? He’s asking: am I ready to be a full-time and full-out Christian? And he’s telling us one way that can happen, if we make stewardship a way of life.

The mission is offering something more precious than silver or gold, because it’s offering a way of living life in Christ.

I am as busy as the busiest parishioner, new parents excepted. I understand the reasons you have for missing the mission. Soccer practice. Tennis lessons. Homework. Business pressures. Kids.

But I also understand—as I know you do—that the disciples had to go up the mountain to see Christ’s glory and the promise of their glory. I’m sure when they came down the mountain their friends were full of stories of all the fish that got away while they were away being dazzled by the Lord.

A second way to make space for the spirit is to enter into the kind of personal prayer that can transform us. One of the most ancient forms of prayer is making a big comeback nowadays—it is called lectio divina, Latin words that mean “sacred reading.”

Lectio divina uses a text, usually from Scripture, as a doorway to a conversation with God. It’s a four-step approach to prayer: reading, meditating, praying, and contemplating.

In his Lenten letter, Archbishop Prendergast of Ottawa makes the great suggestion of using the Sunday readings of Lent—or even the daily ones—for this kind of prayer. He also offered a very helpful and uncomplicated guide to lectio divina, using last Sunday’s readings as an example; I have made copies of it that you can pick up as you leave church today.

We have it on good authority that sacred reading has the power to transform us: Not long after he was elected, Pope Benedict told a group of biblical experts that if lectio divina is effectively promoted, it will bring “a new spiritual springtime” to the Church. In fact, he added “I am convinced of it.”*

You don’t need to be any kind of an expert to know that a prayer that can change the Church must be able to change each member first. So give Lenten lectio a thought if you’re prepared to make the commitment.

In the end, it’s about expectations. Those who ask, receive. Those who seek, find. Our Lenten program, whatever we’ve chosen, should give us fresh hope of meaningful personal change here and now, the beginning of our glorious transformation in the life to come.

* Address to participants in the international congress on “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church,” September 16, 2005.

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