'Early and often did the LORD, the God of their fathers, send his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place. But they mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets, until the anger of the LORD against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.' ~~selection from Reading 1, 2 Chr 36:14-16, 19-23, for Lætare Sunday, Fourth Sunday of Lent
As I was listening to those words read during Saturday evening Vigil Mass, I thought they are as true today as when they were written over two thousand years ago. It seems the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Our book group, Benedict's Book Club is currently reading Death on a Friday Afternoon, Chapter 4, Dereliction. Each chapter is devoted to one of the Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross:
1. "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do." Luke 23:34
2. "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23:43
3. "Jesus said to his mother: "Woman, this is your son". Then he said to the disciple: "This is your mother." John 19:26-27
4. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Matthew 27:46 & Mark 15:34
5. "I thirst." John 19:28
6. "It is finished." John 19:30
7. "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit." Luke 23:46
In Chapter 1, Coming To Our Senses, Father Neuhaus focuses on the gravity of our sinfulness and His great love for us which consequentially led to Good Friday, and hopefully will bring us 'to our senses'.
The second chapter, Judge Not, is long and complicated; reading it often seemed like following a rabbit trail. Eventually however, after several readings, what I took away from it was the following, ‘It would seem to be the unanimous experience of Christian thinkers and mystics that, the farther they travel on the roads of thought and contemplation, the more they know that they do not know. The most rigorous thought and the most exalted spiritual adventure bring us, again and again, to exclaim with St. Paul, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgements and how inscrutable his ways!” Therefore it is rightly said that all theology is finally doxology. That is to say, all analysis and explanation finally dissolves into wonder and praise.’
Chapter 3, A Strange Glory, reflects on Mary, Christ's gift of her to us from the cross and (what is often forgotten) our gift to her.
Which brings us to Chapter 4, Dereliction. A 'derelict' is someone deserted by an owner or keeper; abandoned and/or run-down; dilapidated. That certainly describes Our Lord. Does it also refer to us?
'And about three o'clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"' Matthew 27:46
Have you ever prayed like that? Have you ever felt so abandoned, so deserted, especially by the very one you look to for support? I know I have. There are many times I've cried out to God, with far less provocation than Jesus, but still with great anguish. I suspect most people have.
However, what I appreciated most in this chapter was Fr. Neuhaus’s treatment of the complexity of sin, the struggle we all face in trying to fight it, how often we fail, why we fail, the futility of the struggle when we 'go it alone', and most of all, the fact that he refuses to compromise to the triteness of 'just do it' or 'be good', as if those remedies haven't been thought of (and tried) by almost every human being who ever lived.
Whereas the rest of the book thus far has been more informative, this chapter, for me, has been the most helpful as a reflection on humanity’s hardhearted sinfulness, as well as its helplessness without God. His observations about dualism fit perfectly with this Sunday’s readings. In the first reading from Second Chronicles, we learn how God loved His people and how He tried to help them. He loved every person He created then as He loves each of us now, but humanity was as sinful in days gone by as in the present. And they had prophets then as we do now: our own dear Pope is a living, breathing prophet; so was Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
And then there is that scary mindset so popular today of “feel good” religion, sometimes called New Age religion, referred to by Father Neuhaus as, “spirituality”, in quotes. True spirituality doesn’t need to be put in quotes. The type of spirituality Father Neuhaus is talking about, however, is the type found and heard everywhere and really thinly veiled self-aggrandizement. As he puts it on pages 129 through 130, ‘…dualism is today's dirty word in the view of many people. Consult those hundreds of books under the category of “spirituality” in your local bookstore and you will discover the preferred language is all about wholeness, unity, coherence, harmony, synchronicity and the good feelings of being “at one with All.” By way of the sharpest contrast, Paul speaks of the Christian life in terms of conflict, tension, antagonism and jarring dissonance.’ He goes on to talk about who is the true self, the “I of myself”. Is it the “I” who serves the law of God with my mind, or the “I” of the flesh who serves the law of sin? Paul believes both are the “I” of him. ‘There is no deliverance from the intolerable contradiction of this conflicted “I” unless there is another “I”. Which brings us back to Galatians. There is another “I”. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The complexity on the far side of which such simplicity is found might be described as the transposition of the ego.’ (p. 130) We can’t do it alone. We can’t overcome sin, or anything else for that matter, without Him Who is all-in-all, the Alpha and Omega, without this Cross, this Death on a Friday Afternoon.
The exclamation Jesus cries out from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is the opening words of the beautiful lamentation Psalm 22. Beautiful lament? Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? It would be if there was no one to hear, no one to answer, no one to respond. But just as everyone smiles at the first cries of a newborn, knowing that he (or she) lives, it truly is beautiful when we cry out to God, for only then do we truly LIVE in Him.
'God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ — by grace you have been saved —, raised us up with him, and seated us with him in the heavens in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come He might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.' ~~selection from Reading 2, Eph 2:4-10, for Lætare Sunday, Fourth Sunday of Lent
This is only the fourth chapter and the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Our journey continues...
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