20 February 2013

On Being a Ninevite in Lent

(Notes for the talk being presented tonight in South Boston)

Reading 1
The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time:
“Set out for the great city of Nineveh,
and announce to it the message that I will tell you.”
So Jonah made ready and went to Nineveh,
according to the LORD’s bidding.
Now Nineveh was an enormously large city;
it took three days to go through it.
Jonah began his journey through the city,
and had gone but a single day’s walk announcing,
“Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed,”
when the people of Nineveh believed God;
they proclaimed a fast
and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

When the news reached the king of Nineveh,
he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe,
covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes.
Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh,
by decree of the king and his nobles:
“Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep,
shall taste anything;
they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.
Man and beast shall be covered with sackcloth and call loudly to God;
every man shall turn from his evil way
and from the violence he has in hand.
Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath,
so that we shall not perish.”
When God saw by their actions how they turned from their evil way,
he repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them;
he did not carry it out.

Last Wednesday, you got the Cardinal.  Tonight, you get me.  Sorry.

We all know the story of Jonah well.

This particular piece of the story is from its middle: before this, Jonah is swallowed by the whale; after this the people’s repentance convinces God to spare their city and Jonah expresses his frustration.

We know it so well, in fact, that we may be complacent in our hearing it. The meaning of this retelling and the reason why it appears a week after Ash Wednesday is for at least two reasons:

1.      It reminds us that there are things in our own Nineveh that we must change;
2.      It makes the point that no matter how difficult we think changing making these certain changes may appear at first, it is possible.

This is the dynamic of Lent: this is the push and pull that we should be feeling.  Lent is a time of hope because we know that because of our baptisms, because of what happened to us, it is possible to be whole and entire. 

At time same time: all of these just sound like nice words, because we know that no matter who we are, wholeness is somewhat fleeting.

On one hand: we know we need to change; on the other, we know that if it were that easy to change, we would have done it by now.

It reminds us of that familiar line from Saint Paul in his Letter to the Roman:
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (7:19)

We all know this experience, I think.  I recall my two younger brothers doing something to make me react, getting me upset.  My father asked me: “are you going to let them outsmart you?”  And I’d groan: “But dad.”  It’s a clunky example, but I hope you see the point: I knew what my brothers were doing, but I couldn’t quite see to stop letting them do it…

But with all this on our backs, we may actually read the story of Ninevah as one of hope: it’s a story of a happy ending.  Upon being confronted with the realness of sin, the dwellers of the city change their hearts, their minds: they experience a true conversion.

We hope the same thing happens to us: and this is Lent!  Our failures during Lent may, in fact, do more good when we fail than when we succeed.

That is the fundamental goal of Lent, the fundamental reason for the Sacrament of Confession: the problem with sin is not that it offends God, but rather that it makes us unhappy and that is what offends God.  Sin operates on the sinner, just as much as the person treated poorly!

This is the grace of confession – what we “get” from confession, the value of this entire sacrament, is the forgiveness of our own failings.  Forgiveness in this sense, isn’t at all about what God is “getting” – no, forgiveness from God is about us, it is forgiveness for us!

And so in all this, there is a clear question to be asked: will we focus our energy this Lent on telling other people what they’re doing wrong, or upon hearing the Lord telling us what it is that we must change – to change for ourselves.

Please don’t misunderstand: this is not easy.  The really extraordinary thing about this past Sunday’s Gospel, the temptations of Jesus, is not that he was tempted.  No, it was that he didn’t give in!

Thus, when reflecting upon our lives, we are called to realize, just like the people of Ninevah, our own failings, our own troubles.  Lent then becomes not what we are doing to ourselves or even to others; no it is what God is doing to us!

I remember meeting a friar who was going to be my novice master, which is a fancy way of saying that this friar was going to decide, after a year, whether or not I could make vows with the friars.  Needless to say, I felt the need to walk on egg shells when I first met him.  But he put me at ease soon after we met.  I recall him saying, “Matt, you don’t need to be perfect or change everything in your life at once.  The Holy Spirit will help you figure out the right time and place.”

Let us let Lent be a time for the Holy Spirit to help us figure out what we really need, what we really must do: and let us do this by listening. 

But, of course, brothers and sisters, we must also recall this evening that in forty days, our city will be overthrown again, no matter what we do!

 No, it won’t be fire and brimstone from the sky as prophesized by Jonah.  Our world will be overthrown by something much greater: the Lord, the God of heaven and earth, will die and rise from the dead.  And the best part of this: if we listen closely, if we allow our old selves to die with him this Lent, we can be assured that we too will rise with him!

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