1st Sunday of Lent 2020
The first thing that I thought when I learned that I would be preaching on the First Sunday of Lent, was that this is now my 65th Lent. Is there a senior discount? And then, I thought, if I have had 64 Lents so far, why is there still SO MUCH work to do.
I mean, to be honest, I’ve usually taken Lent pretty seriously-forgoing for forty days, at various stages of life, beer, coffee, meat, sweets and even one Lent, swearing. I’m sure I’ve a hundred pounds and, over time, added almost everyone one of them back again.
If I tested myself with respect to Lent, the way teachers are now tested with regard to their teaching, how much value-added would I find? How much growth, change, holiness have all these Lents added beyond, you know, the baseline?
And in all honesty, I’m not sure it’s all that much. After all that work, I should really be a much better person than I am.
Slower to anger and resentment.
Faster to kindness and compassion.
Less distracted by the noise of our hateful politics.
More consistently mindful of the needs of others and of the presence of God in all that surrounds us.
I was finally pulled out of my own private “chapter of faults” when I came across a new consideration of the life of and spirituality Bernardino Ochino. In the early 1500’s he was a leading member of the Observant (or reformist) branch of the Franciscans. He became a renowned humanist preacher but, frustrated by the politics and worldliness of the Observants, he became instrumental in founding a new reform of the Franciscans-the Capuchins. He would eventually be elected as their Vicar-General.
So, at this point, our man Bernardino is a leader of the reformers of the reformist branch of a religious order founded to reform the Church, an institution dedicated to the reform of its adherents. And, that’s not the end of the story.
Ochino’s persistent humanism, his insistence on emphasizing the mercy and accessibility of God and his criticism of the Church for its worldliness and corruption would run afoul of the inquisition-causing him to flee to the first the Calvinists in Switzerland, then, the Anglicans in England and later to Poland, at that time, the most tolerant of the Kingdoms of Christendom. He and his family would die in poverty in exile in Bohemia.
What strikes me so much about Bernardino Ochino’s life story, is how it illustrates that reform, or perhaps repentance is the better word here, is not a task to be accomplished but a life to be lived. It is a constant striving, an endless thirst, to be ever more immersed in the love of God and to become more and more the image and likeness of her love in the lives we live every day.
In reflecting on the Temptations of Jesus presented in today’s Gospel I am struck by the contrast between the temptations of Satan, and the call that Jesus presents to us as disciples. The temptations all have to do with what Thomas Aquinas refers to as “hard miracles.” These are spectacular events that happen in an instant and seemingly break all the laws of physics and of ordinary life.
Stones become bread. The body thrown from the temple is gently lifted up by angels. All the riches of the world are given in exchange for a single act of worship. You have to give Satan his due, he knows marketing. We don’t refer to the “glamour of evil” for nothing.
Jesus, by contrast, is much less glitzy or glamorous. His call is simple, “follow me.” Or, more to the point, “take up your cross and follow me.” And, in rejecting the temptations offered to him, Jesus seems to be preparing us to expect that most of the miracles we experience along the journey will be of the kind Thomas calls “soft miracles.”
Soft miracles do not defy but are rooted in the laws of nature and everyday life: a chef from Syria who lives in a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos and scavenges ingredients to prepare a weekly meal to lift the spirits of his fellow refugees.
Soft miracles are seldom instantaneous. They take time and effort: a 25-year-old woman who has been struggling with addiction and this week celebrated six months of sobriety.
For most of us, most of the time, the real work of Lent is learning to be attentive the soft miracles in our own lives. Not that there is anything wrong with doing an honest moral inventory on a regular basis. But if Lent involves stepping more intentionally into the ongoing cycle of repentance and renewal, that according to today’s readings extends back to the very beginnings of human life, then we are going to need patience every bit as much as persistence.
In a letter to a group of Franciscans, St. Bonaventure put it this way:
“Therefore, servants of God…be humble because you have a humble master, our Lord Jesus Christ, and a humble mistress, the Virgin Mary, queen of the universe. Be humble because you have a humble father, St. Francis, a humble mother, St. Clare…Be humble however in such a way that patience bears witness to your humility. Humility reaches its perfection through patience, nor is humility genuine if not accompanied by patience. St. Augustine corroborates this…when he says ‘It is easy to put a veil in front of our eyes, to wear cheap and sorry-looking clothes and to go about with a bowed head, but patience is the touchstone of the truly humble…’”
May many soft miracles of patient persistence be granted to each of us as we begin our Lenten journey.