26 Feb 2017
“See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name …” (Isaiah 49:16)
In the name …
Sharon and I were sitting in the stands during Amanda’s basketball game this past Tuesday evening. Whenever there’s no play on the court, they fill the gymnasium with exceedingly loud music, and most of the time it’s rap music, and a lot of the times it’s my daughter Amanda who picks out the songs. Maybe it’s a good thing since I’ve heard mention of some of the lyrics in rap songs, but I can’t make out a word of what’s being said or sung or whatever it’s called. I’ll turn to Sharon at the games and ask what they’re saying, and a lot of the times even she doesn’t know. Just because sound is hitting our eardrums doesn’t mean that we’re hearing anything.
The same is true when the church starts talking about Lent, which begins in only three days. The message is simply not heard by too many Christians. I think most everyone hears the noise of Lent. Even supermarkets put cans of tuna fish on sale every Lent. Fast food chains start advertising their fish sandwiches every Lent. Even if a person is not attuned to the faith, Lent’s noise is noticeable, but that’s a long way away from Lent being heard.
Lent is the preparation for and the recounting of Jesus’ last days. I think we imagine Holy Week, which begins with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with excited people waving palms in honour of the Messiah-King, but then suddenly the shocking turn of events that leads to the Last Supper, the betrayal, the arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, the torture, crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus, I think we can sometimes imagine all of these sacred and solemn events at the end of Jesus’ life as somehow separated from and more holy than the rest of Jesus’ life. They’re not. They can only be understood as the climax of the entire Jesus story. If we try and separate the last days of Jesus’ life from the rest of the days of Jesus’ life, then it’s almost impossible to hear the message of Lent. Our crucified God is a powerful and provocative image, but Jesus is so very much more than His death. We need to try and come to grips with why He died, and that’s when we start to separate out the noise of Lent, and that’s when Lent can be heard.
Jesus wasn’t born to die; He died because of His life. Lent is also not a season preoccupied with sin. It is one filled with love. It’s not even so much about forgiveness as it is about assurance. And it begins with God, not with us. Let’s take a look at our reading this morning from Deutero-Isaiah, the second prophet found in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah. The prophet is writing during Israel’s exile. They are a devastated people. Most of the tribes of Israel have been assimilated into the surrounding nations, never more to appear again. The few who remain are defeated and dispersed. They have lost their land, their Temple and some even believe their God.
Deutero-Isaiah speaks in the name of this supposedly absent God. He repeats the voice of God who in turn quotes the voice of God’s people when He says, “‘The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’” (49:14) This is a version of the ageless refrain that God doesn’t care, that God isn’t a part of my life, that He doesn’t matter. This is the sentiment that Lent is up against, and reducing Lent to sin and forgiveness is never going to draw these people who feel isolated from God, or even worse, abandoned by God, back to a relationship with God. It’s going to come acorss as noise that no one’s going to hear.
But that’s not where God is anyway. Sometimes we hear the Old Testament God as characterized by anger and judgment, but then how do we reconcile that image with God’s response when He says, “‘Can a mother forget her child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb?’” (49:15) This is one of those biblical instances where the tenderness of God is so compelling that the imagery switches from God as father to God as mother. And even with this, God is not satisfied: “‘Even should [a mother] forget, I will never forget you.’” (49:15) This should be enough, but it’s not.
So what could be even more persuasive than a mother’s love? If it weren’t a part of the biblical text, if it weren’t sacred and inspired writ, then the imagery would be downright offensive, but God reveals Himself as our slave. We’re far removed from slavery today. We don’t bring up personal images of whippings and beatings. We don’t see people being bought and sold because of race, poverty or war. But slaves were owned human beings. They were branded like a rancher would brand the cattle they owned. And in the ancient world the slave was branded on their hand with the name of their owner. With this gruesome image part of their usual experience as a defeated people in a foreign land, God reveals through His prophet, “‘See, upon the palms of my hands I have written your name.’” (49:16) God is the slave; we are the owners. This is an upsetting image, but it is God’s choice for how to convey the image of His commitment to each of us so that we can begin to understand the “why” of Jesus’ cross.
During Lent, which again begins with Ash Wednesday in only three days, we are given the opportunity to confront the complex emotions and revelations that are summed-up in Jesus’ cross. What kind of God is this? How do we react to His complete commitment to us? How does Jesus fit into our lives? Does He fit in our lives? Can we make the time and find the will to get past the noise so that we can really hear the message of Lent? I hope and pray that we can, and may this be our prayer as we stand on the threshold of Lent, in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randy Calvo