Matters of the Heart

ASH WEDNESDAY, February 14th, 2018
Isaiah 58:1-12, Matthew 6:1-6

I awoke one morning on February 14 from a dream. In the dream Jim was going to give me a pearl necklace for Valentine Day. I told Jim about the dream and asked, “What do you think this means?”  Jim replied, “You will know tonight.” Then he left the house. That night he gave me a small package. With great anticipation I unwrapped it, to find a book … entitled … The Meaning of Dreams. *

Roses are red, ashes are grey.
I’m giving up chocolate.
It’s better that way. *

Yes, Lent begins this year on Valentine Day. What a wonderfully absurd combination, don’t you think? We launch a season of renunciation and prayer on a day which celebrates passion, romantic love and sensual pleasure. Ironic, cause for ridicule and laughter? As in, look at those silly Christians – ashes instead of chocolate (or pearl necklaces!)!

Maybe, and maybe not … Is there really a collision of opposites on this day? What in fact is renunciation and losing ourselves about if not … love? What is self-denial, sacrifice and death really about if not … love? Not the fuzzy type of romantic love but the harsh, stubborn, persistent love that life presses from us in daily trials and challenges?

Love in action is a harsh and fearful thing compared to love in dreams. Love in dreams thirsts for immediate action, quickly performed, and with everyone watching. Indeed, it will go as far as the giving even of one’s life, provided it does not take too long and doesn’t hurt too much.

But love in action, sacrificial love … is indeed a different ball game. Every time I gave birth to one of our children, I was overwhelmed with love, even the romantic type of being a mom. And that’s good, that’s important. But after the first five minutes of fuzzy lovin’ feelings, it became clear that loving children pushes us into sacrificial loving. My own needs – for sleep, for leisure time, for reading, for thinking – were shoved to the sidelines while the new little one made demands 24/7. Flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, we often love our kids more than we love ourselves in ways we did not know possible.

Likewise, the first romantic feelings with our spouse are fundamental to sealing our relationship. However, when life rocks our romantic boat, a deeper loving is pressed from our marital commitment, a loving that requires sacrifice and self-denial, a loving that demands more than a pearl necklace or chocolates on Valentine Day.

All forms of love—friendship, romance, humanitarianism, the love that binds spouses, parents and children—have the capacity to draw us out of ourselves. True love frees us from the tight orbit of self-centredness. True love in its deepest sense grows our hearts ever larger, as a place where there is no longer me and you, and us and them, but only we.

But … such love is neither easy nor painless. Jesus did not lay down his life because suffering is a good thing, or because death and self-destruction are ends in themselves. No, he suffered these as consequences of his life of radical love, a love that baffles, threatens, and offends. The death of Jesus was not an isolated event. It was the culmination of an entire life of making room, welcoming the stranger, crossing boundaries, extending compassion and solidarity, and loving wholeheartedly, foolishly, dangerously.

We here in Saskatchewan, in Canada, have just been offered another painful opportunity to love in a sacrificial, Jesus-like manner, to reach beyond our own self-interest and gain to go beyond our own preconceived notions of those different from us. Regardless of our reaction to last week’s verdict in the murder trial of Colten Boushie, both the Stanley and the Boushie families deserve our compassion, our understanding and our love.

The racial divide in our province (in our country) has once again opened its gaping wound, a wound that still oozes the pain and injustice of colonization. And if we object by saying, “I didn’t do it, it doesn’t affect me,” we are fooling ourselves. There is such a thing as communal, collective behaviour. We who are baptized members of the church, of all people, should know this well and live this reality without hesitation. In the church we call this the Body of Christ and the Communion of Saints. Back in the Holy Land, from which I just returned, this notion of communal memory is very alive across past-present-future in ways that we in our individualistic society have largely lost. It is urgent that we recover this communal living and acting for the sake of the future of our children’s children in this beautiful land, Turtle Island. Above all, loving as one Body which includes all nations, all peoples, and all hurting sisters and brothers, is the fullest way to give glory to our God.

Heed the words of the prophet Isaiah today. He cautions us not to serve our own interests this Lenten season:

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high!
… Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Jesus calls us into the wilderness of Lent with him, the wilderness of our own imperfect humanity, the wilderness of racial tensions,the wilderness of alienation and betrayal that can damage even our most intimate relationships. Jesus calls us into places where we would rather not go. Love can hurt – often. A lot even. There are few things as risky as walking into new relational spaces of encounter and compassion. Loving comes with risks and at great cost, sometimes even opening ourselves up to misunderstanding or rejection or loss.

This kind of vulnerability can scare us to the core. But following Jesus leaves us little choice because deep down sacrificial love is the most real thing there is. It is love that transforms, heals, cleanses, restores, renews, reconciles, forgives, and binds together. Love gives meaning to that which otherwise seems meaningless. Love drags us beyond our little egos and narrow visions into becoming better versions of ourselves.

So maybe … maybe it’s not so strange and absurd that Lent begins on Valentine Day. In fact, it’s a refreshing reminder that the core of these forty days is not a gloomy spirit mired in rigid self-denial as an end in itself. But rather, the self-examination and sacrifice of the season is to be motivated by love, the divine love that drove Jesus’ entire life and mission; the universal Love of God that forms the rich soil from which our particular love sprouts and grows. Only God’s love has the capacity to transform our shriveled and hurting hearts, our broken and crying hearts, and gently bring healing and reconciliation and justice.

So here we are, setting off on this forty day journey through the wilderness of our lives. We set off individually, communally, and as a nation. We mark the start of this journey with the sign of ashes. But, maybe a really good box of chocolates is not out of place. Given the challenges of loving well, I have a hunch that we’re going to need the consolation and strength that can come from enjoying chocolate.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
AMEN

*  With special thanks to Saint Valentine’s Day by Gerry Turcotte, page 178, Living with Christ February 2018 (Novalis), and Laura Alary’s blog Chocolate and Ashes.

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My Body, my Blood (Part I)

One Sunday at Eucharist I was pondering once again the meaning of the Body and Blood of Christ. To say that it is a mystery is not to dismiss curious minds and inquisitive queries, but rather to point to something that transcends words or any human understanding. In fact it is only a mystery that can touch our deepest existential reality, because we too are a mystery even unto ourselves.

Anyway, this one particular Sunday I again allowed my spirit to encounter Holy Mystery in the Eucharist. And my thoughts wandered, as they tend to. This time thoughts turned to the Theology of the Body (TOB), a series of catechetical talks given over several years by Saint Pope John Paul II. Several questions have puzzled me over this magnum opus of the\is Holy Father. First of all, the first popular interpretations of the Pope’s TOB insights focused exclusively on marriage and sexuality, creating the impression that our bodies are only worth theologizing about when we become sexually active. Once I explored the TOB on my own (with the help of a dear friend) I discovered that it is about much more than what happens in the marriage bed. A second, way more urgent question, emerged: how come it has taken us 20 centuries to reclaim the sacramentality of the body, something so powerfully communicated in the Word made Flesh? Our human body was good enough for Jesus of nazareth. This very Lord who is the reason for our Church, whose bodily gift of self in the Eucharist is the source and summit of our faith, took on our flesh in the womb of a woman’s … body. How come we have so ignored the radical implications of this truth when it comes to our bodily comfort level? How come we now need the TOB to return us to this fundamental message in the Incarnation?MotherOfTheEucharist2

The sovereign God took on human flesh and redeemed us through the human flesh of Jesus Christ, thus revealing the capacity for the human body to make visible the invisible God. In Christ Jesus the physical and the spiritual were reunited as one. Despite this amazing Good News Christian history has had an abominable track-record in honouring the human body. At varying times we have degraded the body, chastised the body, dismissed the body, even blamed it as the source of all evil, in particular the female body. In light of the Incarnation, and despite St. Paul’s summons “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (I Cor. 3:16 & 6:19), such a track-record could be considered deeply heretical. Given this dubious legacy, it is refreshing to re-read Katrina Zeno’s presentation at a TOB conference in Rome a few years back in which she said:

As human persons we do indeed have a very specific nature, an embodied rational nature, which perhaps could even be called a sacramental nature. At all times and in all places our embodied human nature is created by God to point to something beyond just the material. We are not relative only to ourselves and to our acquired goods and pleasures. On the contrary, “the body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine” to cite one of the most frequently quoted passages from the theology of the body (Audience 19, section 4). Our bodies are created by God to be living sacraments, to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds. (Zenit, Nov. 14, 2011)

We speak of transubstantiation when referring to the ordinary food and drink of bread and wine being transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus at the Eucharist. I find it fascinating that women engage in a type of biological “transubstantiation” every time their bodies grow another human being, The new life generated by the marital union is literally fed by the mother’s own body and blood.

ElizabethMaryIn her yes, Mary became first in offering to the world God’s holy body and blood through the birth of her son Jesus, our Messiah and Lord. Through God’s gift of growing new life in her womb and nourishing it with her own body, every woman knows something about the mystery of transforming ordinary food and drink into new life – a profound Eucharistic transformation, culminating in the great Eucharistic Sacrament of the Incarnation of God’s own Son Jesus. Have we really tapped the sacramental significance of this glorious and mysterious wonder of biological transubstantiation called pregnancy? God deems both male and female bodies worthy sacramental vessels, capable of transforming ordinary food, ordinary events, and ordinary situations into the radiance of the risen Christ present and active in the world.

Without negating the reality of sin, our bodies are created to be living sacraments; both male and female bodies are created to make God physically present in the world through our words and deeds, in the same way as our Lord Jesus Christ revealed. According to the Theology of the Body, we make God in Christ present every day when we make giving ourselves to another a gift of love, mercy and beauty. Long before any of us end up in the marriage bed, and those who never do this in a marriage bed, we gift the world with our very selves in the quality of our love, our compassion, our forgiveness.

In one of his Lenten sermons a few years ago Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the papal household, urged all of us to offer our bodies and blood as a daily Eucharistic sacrifice and gift to the world, thereby transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary presence and action of God: “Let us try to imagine what would happen if also the laity, at the moment of the consecration, said silently: ‘Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood. A mother of a family thus celebrates Mass, then she goes home and begins her day made up of a thousand little things. But what she does is not nothing: It is a Eucharist together with Jesus! A [religious] sister also says in her heart at the moment of consecration: ‘Take, eat …’; then she goes to her daily work: children, the sick, the elderly. The Eucharist ‘invades’ their day which becomes … Eucharist.” (Zenit, March 12, 2010)

CupBlessingEvery time we drink the cup of blessing that we bless, we share in the Blood of Christ, thus committing ourselves to be poured out in love for others. Every time we eat the Body of Christ, we are called to offer our own bodies in sacrificial love for the healing of the world. Daily gifts of self to others redeem relationships between men and women, as well as with creation and with God, whether in the marriage bed, in school or workplace, at the recycling depot, in the dance recital or the communion procession. Our body is an integral expression of our personhood, thus affirming creation as male and female in the divine image as “very good.” It is thus that we glorify God in our bodies, male and female.

An earlier version of this reflection appeared in the Prairie Messenger, June 11, 2014

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