23 February 2013

Dark clouds over Lent

2nd Sunday of Lent 2013
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church, NOLA

Cloud, shadow, and darkness. On this second Sunday in Lent, we are confronted by our ignorance. Just two weeks into our desert pilgrimage and already we are being driven deeper into the truth and the beauty of what we do not know about our God, our incomplete understanding of who God is and what He wills for us. Maybe ignorance isn't the right word here. Maybe we should call our inability to fully experience and know God something like “seeing with one eye closed,” or “touching with a gloved hand,” or “hearing with muffled ears.” We can see, touch, and hear the divine, sure; but it's all done imperfectly, dulled somehow by merely being human; imperfect sensations, giving us imperfect knowledge b/c we are not God. Abram speaks with God. And afterward, “a trance [falls] upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness envelope[s] him.” Peter, James, and John speak with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. And afterward, “a cloud came and cast a shadow over [the disciples], and they became frightened when they entered the cloud.” Lent is our time to enter the cloud, to walk in the dark, and grow in the shadow. Before we come to know God, even imperfectly, we must know and accept—in all humility—that we are not God. 

That we can grow in the shadows or live in the darkness seems to run counter to everything we've ever been taught about being followers of Christ. We share his light; we thrive under his sun; we harvest the fruits of his sacrifice with the fire of the Spirit. It's the wicked who prosper away from the light, while Christians seek it out. All true. But what is the light we seek? On the mountain, Jesus is transfigured in the presence of Peter, James, and John. He is shown to them shining in God's glory beside Moses and Elijah—the Law and the Prophets. With Moses the Law and Elijah the Prophet, Jesus the Christ stands before his disciples wholly changed, brilliantly radiating a glory that only God Himself can impart. The disciples—as they usually do—misunderstand this moment and offer to build shrines for worship on the mountain. Their ignorance manifests as a dark cloud and from that cloud a voice rings out, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” The light we seek is the Chosen Son. And our ignorance is relieved when we listen to the Word he speaks. But before we can listen, we must come to accept that we are not listening. Lent is our time before Easter to enter the dark cloud and confess our disobedience, our failure to listen. 

For centuries, the image of the dark cloud, the menacing shadow has stood as a sign of human ignorance of the divine. Traditional monastic spirituality—the three-fold path of purgation, illumination, and unification—is designed to lead the willing soul through obstacles and temptations and on to the purity that union with God promises. More than anything, however, the dark cloud expresses the individual's view of his/her spiritual condition. Bereft of light, solitary, struggling with sin, abandoned by God, and despairing of hope. This is the Dark Night that St John of the Cross says we must spend before the enlightenment. This is the desert—stripped of all consolation and exposed to the Enemy—the 40 day surrender of Christ to his wilderness. It is silence. With no one to listen to but the Enemy lying to us, tempting us away from the light with treasures that have never been his to give. No one who has ever called on the name of Jesus has failed to fall into darkness, failed to enter a cloud, a shadow. Once you have seen the light, its absence is just that much brighter and your longing to see it again just that much stronger. So, your Lenten cloud is not the enemy; your Lenten shadow is not a hiding place for temptation. They prepare you for the Great Light of Easter! 

When Abram emerges from the “terrifying darkness [that] envelope[s] him,” God seals the first covenant with fire and grants to him descendents as countless as the stars. When Peter, James, and John emerge from their dark cloud on the mountain, a voice from heaven declares, “This is my chosen Son; listen to him.” Having emerged from the other side of their darkness, these faithful men find waiting for them revelations of the divine beyond their imagining. Abram becomes the father of God's chosen people. The disciples become preachers of God's Good News to sinners. Beyond the dark clouds of their human ignorance, these men find their calling, their mission. They find in obedience to God their purpose, their holiness. They are gifted with all that they need to accomplish all that God has asked of them. And so are we. Holiness is not impossible. Living truly righteous lives as followers of Christ is not a ridiculous goal, nor some sort of improbable dream. Abram and the disciples emerge from their darkness by God's will, freely receive their gifts, and then work furiously to finish the job God has given them to do. Their holiness would be impossible if they labored alone in pride, alone in ignorance and disobedience. But they don't.

And neither can we. Can you put a name to your shadow, your dark cloud? What don't you know about your faith that's keeping you from growing in holiness? What or who is holding you back, submerged in darkness, away from Christ's light? Just like Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days to be tempted by the Enemy, so we too enter our 40 days in the desert to expose ourselves to the worst the Enemy has to offer us. Fasting, praying, giving alms—all of these highlight in turn a portion of our ignorance. Do you know and accept that you are completely dependent on God for everything you have and everything you are? Do you know and accept that God has no need of your prayer and that prayer is meant to bring you humility in gratitude? Do you know and accept that nothing you have and nothing you are belongs to you, and that your generosity (or lack thereof) is a sign of your fidelity to the baptism that made you an heir to the Kingdom? Do you know and accept that all that you know of God and His will for you is a gift, wholly, freely given to you so that you might use this gift to grow closer and closer to Him? If you can name your shadow, your cloud, name what it is that holds you back, do so. And see yourself freed. 

Is it right to think of Lent as a 40 day long darkness? A 40 day long shadow looming over our efforts to grow in holiness? Yes, it is; if we think of the darkness as a wake up call to examine our ignorance of God and His will for us. On this second Sunday of Lent, we are confronted by cloud, shadow, and darkness but there is nothing for us to fear. Abram and the disciples emerge from their dark clouds to receive a revelation. And will we. Why is Lent dark; why is it cast in shadow? Because the future light Easter shines back on us, exposing our flaws and failures and urging us to name them, confess them, and see them dispelled for Christ's sake. We are not God. So all that we know about Him and His will for us is His gift to us. That truth is the foundation stone for a beautiful life built with the tools of sacrificial love and unconditional mercy. We have another few weeks to examine our darkness before the Easter light dawns. Prepare yourself to step up to Christ's empty tomb and receive a revelation; prepare yourself to receive every good gift you will need to flourish as a servant for the least among his children. When Christ speaks to you, listen to him and be freed. 

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  1. If I could figure out a way to close my eyes and read your homilies (I guess that would be called Listening), I would do it...just to get the full effect of the sound of the words and phrases.

    Third paragraph 'bout did me in. You could have easily written "Dear Shelly" at the beginning.

    Good Lenten tone. Really encouraged me to do what I know I need to do, and then to stay there as long as necessary.

    I wish I could assist you in figuring out your various homiletic styles, but I can't seem to think that way right now. But your homilies are really helping me, and seem to be saying just what I need to be hearing right now. Thank you.

  2. "...I wish I could assist you in figuring out your various homiletic styles..."

    Easy: "Vintage" and "Non-Vintage" Fr. PNP... ;) Remember "When Harry Met Sally" ( High and Low Maintenance women...)

    "...your homilies are really helping me, and seem to be saying just what I need to be hearing right now. Thank you."

    Ditto for me...