4th Sunday of Lent: Joshua 5.9, 10-12; 2 Cor 5.17-21; Luke 15.1-3, 11-32
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
St. Paul’s Hospital, Dallas, TX
Can you smell the wood of the cross from here? It’s still too far to see…just the smell of it is closer. Just about eighteen days more in this desert and we will be there to see him nailed to the wood. Then it will be the scent of wood and blood. Maybe vinegar and sweat as well. And some stinging smoke from the trash fires. And more caking dust. Will you run with the disciplines from Gethsemane? Will you walk with him along the sorrowful way and jeer with the other invisible bodies, adding your cowardly squeak to all the other taunts and cries from those he loved and fed and healed? Will you deny him to protect your safety, to conceal your once-professed love? Will you betray him? Of course you will. And so will I. It is what we do when given the choice to die for a friend or live for a cause. These moments of truth-telling make prudence easy and courage foolish. Praise God then that He does not wait for us to come to Him but rather comes to us first. His memory is holy and ours in need of sanctification.
Paul teaches the contentious Corinthians that “…God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to them the message of reconciliation.” So, we are forgiven and then given the ministry of forgiveness to spread in the world, the work of bringing together those split apart, broken under, distant and made alien. The first reconciliation is with God. No other bond of friendship or love makes the least bit of sense outside the bond of love that our Father has for us. That we love is His doing. We cannot love without Him. And without love we can know nothing of Him or His creation—nothing about ourselves, others, or the things of this world. Just beyond the moment of creation itself, to be reconciled to God through Christ Jesus is the primitive move of love. Nothing stands before His love and remains broken, sick, injured, lonely, or distant…nothing, that is, but the stubborn refusal to be loved.
And why would anyone refuse to be loved by Love Himself? To be loved by God is to be changed forever. Clenched fists, an obstinately set jaw, a cold-heart do not easily release control to airy promises of safety and bliss. Even divine promises of safety and bliss. This an anxiety so profound that the Legions of Hell are frightened for us—even they believe! But we are capable of choosing still whether or not we will be changed forever by our desire for God or left squalling helplessly in our mulish refusal at the door to eternal darkness. There are worse choices than betrayal. There is the decision against love. And then crippling despair.
Though reconciliation with God is first, it is not the only reconciliation required of us. To love God is something too easily left in the world of forms, the merely abstract gesture of good will toward divine being. Something more concrete, more worldly is required of our love. We must be reconciled to one another in Christ. The Prodigal Son returns to a party thrown in this name. His father welcomes him home without reservation because he is the father’s son. Despite the son’s gross irresponsibility and near criminal immorality, the father opens his arms to receive the wretch, drapes him in his finest robes, slaughters a fat calf, and celebrates the feckless life of this reprobate. Sorry. I’m with the obedient brother on this one. Why the celebration? The natural consequences of the son’s irresponsibility are absolutely just. He wasted his inheritance, scattering it like seed on sand, and reaped the bitter harvest. He deserves his fate. Yes, exactly, he deserves his fate and his father’s harsh judgment! But he receives mercy, forgiveness, and a welcome home party. He is reconciled in love b/c he was dead and now lives. B/c he was lost and now he is found. Our faith is about excess and waste, overflowing love and beautifully squandered gifts. There is nothing pretty or genteel about the cross. Nothing efficient about the empty tomb. Love reconciles like a thunderstorm soaks dry earth.
We will betray Christ before he reaches the cross. Despite our fervent fasting and pristine prayers, despite our honest intent and good will, despite everything we did, do, and will do during Lent, we will come to the decision that it is best to live for the cause than to die for our friend. And we will go on…to be reconciled to God, to one another, and to become the ambassadors for Christ that Paul urges us to be. We will remember our betrayal as a sign of weakness, anxiety, sin. We will recall again and again the exact moment we did not speak up for Christ, the exact moment we let some insult to his faith slide by, the exact moment we chose to be his enemy dressed as his friend. We will remember when we choose to blend in with the crowd, to throw a stone or two on the sorrowful way, to shout a curse at his stripped and bleeding back. We will remember our betrayal. But he won’t.
Can you smell the wood of the cross? There are many more steps between here and now and the foot of the tree. The hot sand blows stinging hard and everything and everyone you’ve left behind calls to you out of friendship to come back. What’s ahead after all? Blood, bits of flesh, spit, gall, deception, cruelty, violence…your betrayal of a friend. You can turn back now. Do it. Just for a second. Look back to Ash Wednesday. What do you see? Hot promises? Eager intentions? A hunger for holiness? I’m going to do it this time!? Sure. And will you? Not likely. You’ll make it to the cross alright. But you won’t make it there any holier than when you left on Ash Wednesday. Do you think the purpose of Lent is to make you holy? Holier? The purpose of Lent is to show you your need for God. You will make it to the cross b/c God wants you at the cross. Holy or not. Your dieting and fasting and fussing about prayer and alms are at best distractions if they don’t serve to clear up God’s will for you: smell the wood, then see the wood, then taste it. Then feel it against your skin, your hands, your back and feet, feel it—burning, wet, raw, sharp. You are Christ. Lent is not your time to flee from weakness and temptation. Run to them! Lent is your time to pray like the Prodigal Son, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and you, I no longer deserve to be called your son…” And then wait for God the Father to forget your sins and drape you in His finest robes and slaughter the fattest calf to welcome you home again.
Sniff the air. The cross is coming closer. The cup is full. Will you drink from it? Or will you pour it into the desert sand?
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