Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wednesday of Ember Week in Lent

Exodus 24:12-18 / 3 Kings 19:3-8 / Matthew 12:38-50

In today's Gospel, Jesus does not go out of his way to make himself and his teaching easily or happily received. In response to the request by the scribes and Pharisees for a sign, Jesus accuses them of belonging to an evil and adulterous generation. He assured them that the men of Nineveh, known in the past for their hardness of heart and cruelty, and the queen of the South, would arise in judgment and condemn them. He then tells of a man who, freed from an unclean spirit, seems to have gotten his life in order, his soul empty, swept, and garnished, only to fall victim to the first spirit and seven more besides — and the last state of that man is made worse than the first. Finally, upon hearing that his mother and brother are waiting for him, Jesus manifests no concern for their trouble, but asserts that those gathered around him, those attending to his word, who do the will of his Father are his brother, and sister, and mother.

It is at moments such as these, when the words of Jesus are hard to embrace, when we do not know what to make of them without effort, that discipleship seems hardest. Like Elijah at Beersheba, even fresh from his victory over the false prophets of Baal and Asherah, having witnessed the Lord's miraculous sending of fire from heaven, we can still discover the following of the Lord to be more than we can bear. We do not feel up to the task, and do not know if we can remain faithful to a God who asks what we know to be beyond our capacities to understand. And when he was there, and sat under a juniper tree, he requested for his soul that he might die, and said: It is enough for me, Lord, take away my soul: for I am no better than my fathers.

Of course, Elijah was in a certain way quite right; he was no better than his fathers. Moses, too, was altogether unworthy to proclaim liberty to Israel captive in Egypt, and even less worthy in himself to receive and deliver God's holy Law. Indeed, even the mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, was worthy to be mother only insofar as she, like any disciple, did the will of the Father in heaven. Even so, Elijah was one of the greatest of prophets, acting with power and truth in a time of great darkness when the faith of Israel seemed all but lost, and Moses was the greatest of all prophets of the Old Covenant, more blessed even in his being barred from entering the Land of Promise for having conversed with the Lord as men do face to face. The Virgin, the humble Maid of Nazareth, is characterized by her prompt and happy conformity to God's will — Ecce ancilla Domini. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. — and through her the Sun of Righteousness came in our flesh.

For each of these — the Lawgiver, the Prophet, the Virgin Mother — the Lord enabled them to do what they could never sustain on their own by drawing them to himself: Moses being summoned into the cloud of God's glory for forty days and forty nights, to receive the Law; Elijah given bread from an angel and sustained thereby for forty days and forty nights to travel to Horeb, there to encounter the Lord in the still small voice; Mary overshadowed by the Spirit, and made Mother of the Most High, the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. At no point was any of these able to say of God's grace that it was a permanent donation, made so much theirs that they had no more need to rely on God. Even the Virgin Immaculate always turned in Love to her Son and received him as Lord. They did not what they were able by any native effort, but acting with confidence to do the impossible through the strength of him in whom all things are possible.

Not only Lent, but our whole Christian life, calls us to do more, far more, than we have the strength or power to do, but which we must do nonetheless. This Ember Day reminds us, as we begin our forty day fast, that God can and will sustain us and draw us to glories we rightly know to be beyond us. He elevates us, lifts us up, draws us into the cloud of his glory, and feeding is with the supersubstantial bread of Christ's Body, gives us help and comfort along the way. We may fall, and we may stumble. Like Moses striking the rock we may even betray the trust we have been given. God, however, will not betray us, and in him we will have the grace to climb the heights of majesty.

As we begin our Lent, the Lord's words to Elijah apply as well to us before the Sacrament of the Altar: Arise, eat: for thou hast yet a great way to go.

We beseech Thee, O Lord, illumine our minds with the light of Thy brightness: that we may see what has to be done and have the strength to do it.

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