Thursday, March 6, 2014

Lent: Faith Journey to Joy By Sister Pia Portmann

Dear Sisters,
As we begin this Lenten Journey, we ask ourselves – What should I give up for Lent?
I have chosen the theme “Faith Journey to Joy”. Our whole life is a journey and St. Benedict reminds us again, that our life should be a continuous Lent. And he also tells us, that we are going on this journey to offer to God something with the joy of the Holy Spirit.  And why are we doing this? We do it, because we are looking forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.

I like to invite you to look with me at one of the most beautiful passages in the whole prophetic literature from the prophet Micah.

Now listen to what Yahweh says;

Stand up, state your case to the mountains and let the hills hear what you have to say!

Listen, mountains, to the case as Yahweh puts it,

Give ear, you foundations of the earth, for Yahweh has a case against his people and he will argue it with Israel.

My people, what have I done to you, how have I made you tired of me? Answer me!

For I brought you up from Egypt, I ransomed you from the place of slave-labor and sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead you.

My people please remember…..

With what shall I enter Yahweh’s presence and bow down before God All-high?

Shall I enter with burnt offerings, with calves one year old?

Will he be pleased with rams by the thousand, with ten thousand streams of oil?

Shall I offer my eldest son for my wrong-doing, the child of my own body for my sin?

You have already been told what is right and what Yahweh wants of you.

Only this,

to do what is right,

to love loyalty

and to walk humbly with your God.” ( Micah 6:1-8)

The text opens with a double “Listen”. God debates with his people in an open trial before the mountains and hills. The whole universe with Yahweh brings the people to law. Yahweh is both – judge and accuser, while Israel is the criminal and the defendant. Yahweh calls Israel “my people” and we are reminded of the covenant.

Verse 3-4: “My people, what have I done to you, how have I made you tired of me? Answer me!

For I brought you up from Egypt, I ransomed you from the place of slave-labor and sent Moses, Aaron and Miriam to lead you.

My people please remember….”.

These verses we know very well from the Good Friday liturgy – in the song during the Veneration of the Cross. The lamentation is based on the mighty deeds of Yahweh, the salvific act of the OT, the Exodus, and the deliverance from the slavery in Egypt, the conquest and entry into the Promised Land.

What more could Yahweh have done?

Verses 6 – 7: To this evidence of God’s loving care, the people respond with a question. In fact we read 4 questions:

With what? ...

Shall I come?…

Will Yahweh’s desire be pleased?

Shall I give an offering? And it goes on even ‘shall I offer my firstborn?’

Before we go to the answer of the prophet who denies all the cult offerings, let us look what message this text has for us.

Lent is a period of purification and enlightenment, a time of renewing our love for God, a time of offering to God something with the joy of the Holy Spirit as St. Benedict encourages us.

Purification: during this time it is good to remember all the mighty deeds God has done in my life. It is good to look into my salvation history. It is good to remember how God led me from the bondage and slavery of sins into his Promised Land, into the freedom of the people of God. It is also good during this Lenten season to remember in a special way the graces of baptism, confirmation, the sacrament of reconciliation and the daily Eucharist, the grace of my covenant made in baptism and renewed in profession. Looking at all the graces we also have to look at our response and

  • We remember our fidelity and infidelity
  • We remember the times when we were tired, exhausted and discouraged,
  • We remember the times of graces and the times of sin,
  • We remember the time of faithfulness and unfaithfulness,
  • We remember the time when we were full of gratitude and of ingratitude,
  • We remember the time of experiencing God’s overwhelming love…

Listen, says God, “I call the mountains and hills to bring you to the case. My people, please, remember! My people what have I done to you, how have I made you tired of me? Answer me!”

Often we want to please God with our sacrifices, with our prayer, our liturgy, with our monastic practices and observances etc… Does this please God?

In Micah all the offering, even the firstborn can’t please Yahweh. The answer is definitely negative. Yahweh requires an internal conversion, recognition of his unlimited love for us and a proper attitude of the spirit.

With other words God requires a change of heart, a change of lifestyle, and of disposition toward both God and neighbor. God requires us to be faithful stewards of the resources we are entrusted with, including our money, possessions, and the earth on which we live. God wants our hearts, our lives, and despite the good deeds we might do we partake in, any offering that falls short of this is simply insufficient.

Verse 8 gives us the answer, when we read:

“You have already been told what is right and what Yahweh wants of you.

  • Do/love justice – (do act justly)
  • Love “hesed” i.e. kindness and faithfulness – (do love tenderly)
  • Walk humbly with your God”.

These few verses contain in a very simple way a real spirituality, a spirituality that is rooted in the Bible and is also Benedictine Spirituality.

Do/love justice – it is to love what is good and hate what is evil. To make the right decision and do not judge others.

To love “hesed” – implies fidelity, goodness and kindness. We can speak of the fidelity to the way of life I have chosen; goodness and kindness to others and to me, as an expression of my response to God’s love to us.

To walk humbly with your God - The Hebrew word for humble is related to the word earth/dirt. To walk humbly is to be close to the ground, to be a person down to earth, who lives in the earthy reality and walks in humble obedience to the divine will.

With other words we can say, what God asks of us as people of faith, what the Lord requires, is to “do justice,” that is, to act in the world; to “love kindness,” that is, to care responsibly for those around us (community, working place); and “to walk humbly with our God,” that is, to discover the presence of God in our lives. The public, the inter-personal, and the personal are all woven together at once to describe the faithful life.

My dear Sisters, let us respond during this Lenten Season to God with our whole being, to what he requires:

  • Do/love justice
  • Love “hesed” i.e. kindness and faithfulness
  • Walk humbly with your God,

so that we can await and desire with the joy of the Holy Spirit the Pascal mystery.

With what shall I come to God’s presence?

            With my love for justice

Micah’s words have deep echoes throughout the Old Testament that add meaning to these verses. To do justice is one of the central calls of the prophets. Micah, like the other prophets before and after, decried the hypocrisy of public leaders who enter the temple to make sacrifices to God while ignoring the poor on the temple steps. What God asks for is not sacrifices to atone for sins, but the repentance of the sinner. We cannot make things alright with God without making things alright with our neighbor.

With what will I please God’s desire?

            With my love for “hesed”, my fidelity, my goodness and kindness expressed in my chosen life in this specific community.

 I would like to elaborate a bit the expression to “love kindness”. It employs a central Hebrew term we have difficulty translating into English. The Hebrew term is hesed. Hesed is alternately translated as loyalty, kindness, loving kindness, caring, compassion, tenderness, mercy. It is something that God shows toward us and that we show toward one another. In the Hebrew Bible, hesed is the highest attribute of both human and divine behavior. Unlike justice, hesed is an individual act. It has to do with helping another person in need, often when you are the only person who can do so. It doesn’t mean acting kindly in general, but doing what you can do to help another in the particular circumstances in which you find yourself. The place where it is best expressed is in stories. So in the Old Testament, God shows hesed toward the people of Israel by bringing them out of Egypt and accompanying them through the wilderness. David shows hesed to Jonathan when he saves his life. Ruth shows hesed to Naomi when she accompanies her to Israel. And the prophets demand hesed of the people as an essential aspect of their relationship with God. Sometimes the word is translated as “covenant loyalty,” or “responsible caring.” Hesed is never an obligation. It’s always something that you choose to do. It’s the quality of caring that we show to one another in our community. We choose to care for one another. This is the meaning of hesed.

What shall I offer God?

            My humble walk with him, my seeking him alone; my humble walk in obedience to fulfill his divine will.

Finally, the prophet exhorts us to “walk humbly with God.” This should especially resonate with us when Benedict calls us “to set out on this way, with the Gospel for our guide. We are pilgrims, always on the journey. In the Jewish faith, walking is one of the central metaphors for the life of faith, particularly for ethics. I am struck that Jesus’ most characteristic invitation to his disciples was not “believe in me,” but, “follow me.” Certainly that is why the early Christians were not called followers of doctrine, but followers of “the way,” that is, people who are on a pathway or on a journey. As Biblical people we are called to have a faith that walks. It’s such a wonderful metaphor for the life of faith. First of all, walking is for common, ordinary people. It is not just for athletes or runners or extraordinary people. It is an every day action, like faith itself. Second of all, walking is something no one else can do for you. Like the old spiritual, “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley; you have to walk it by yourself.” Faith is like that. Ultimately, we have to live out our faith with our own two feet. No one can do it for us. We can have companions along the way, but we have to do it for ourselves. Moreover, to walk humbly with God suggests an intimacy with God that extends well beyond our daily liturgy. God is to be a constant companion in the journey of life. Humility adds yet another dimension. To walk humbly indicates that we are to be led by God, not simply finding our own way.

My dear sisters, God's case against the people still stands. We have done all we are supposed to do: to live our life as Missionary Benedictine Sisters, to pray daily the Divine Office, celebrate Eucharist, talk about God to others, witness to our faith, but still God has a case against us. We are reminded that God seeks our justice, mercy and that we walk humbly with God. Yes, we are to do all the other things we are called as Christians and as religious to do, but we must come to God not just with our rites and sacrifices, but with our whole hearts and minds focused solely on God. We should prefer nothing whatever to Christ (RB 72:11).

This Lent let us be instruments of God’s justice, love and mercy in this world. Weak though our efforts may be, they are precious in God’s sight if we do it with love and start every morning anew knowing that we have to walk the faith and continue the journey begun with our baptism and profession until we will be united with the glory and joy of Christ. Let us free ourselves from all that hinders us to care and act responsible and to walk humbly with our God. Let us recognize the presence of Christ in our midst, in one another, the hungry, the poor, the sick, the elder, the younger…..

For this our faith journey to Joy I have prepared for each of you a “tool for good work” from RB Chapter 4 that will help you to walk your walk during this Lent. With it you also will receive a little poem that elaborates this tool for you. I also assigned again a book from the Bible for your Lectio. In addition each will get the little booklet from Henri Nouwen “God’s Abiding Love” for daily meditation during this Holy Season. Armed with God’s grace, the Word of God and the wisdom of St. Benedict let us then walk our way. Let us await and desire the Pascal mystery with the joy of the Holy Spirit.