Lent


First Sunday of Lent
Year A
As Lent approaches and begins, an essential task of the preacher is to exhort all - the preacher included - to seize the day. Are preachers themselves, year by year, discovering and articulating the need for Lent and its vitality in our communities? Someone has to summon the church! February 6, 2005 is the final Sunday before Ash Wednesday. That day, or Ash Wednesday itself in some communities, or the First Sunday of Lent can be the time to attempt such an exhortation, a mystagogy of Lent, a summons to Lent based on our experiences, good and bad, with Lent in the past. What follows is cast as a homily for the First Sunday of Lent.
Gabe Huck

Where are our ashes? Where are the ashes you and I put on last Wednesday? Where is that dust of the earth that was rubbed into our heads? "Ashes, ashes, all fall down!" children used to sing, perhaps still do. A cute game, a strange truth. Ashes, ashes, we are all falling down. Falling down on our knees, falling flat on our faces - our faces on the ground, on the earth from which we were taken and to which we will return. Ashes, ashes.

The church that was smeared with ashes just a few days ago now gathers for the first of six Sundays within the forty-day time of Lent, days that will take us to Holy Thursday night and the three days of our Passover in Christ. These six Sundays in Lent are like and not like all other Sundays of the year. As on all Sundays, we assemble and we attend to God's word in scripture and preaching and we intercede for the whole world; we gather at table to give thanks and praise and then come hungry and thirsty to share the meager banquet of the body and blood of Christ.

But how are these six Sundays different from all others? More than any other time of our year, on Lent's Sundays we may be so thankful to be embraced within the assembly. We are needful of knowing that Lent is not my own private task, doesn't depend on me alone, but is the doing of this assembly, this congregation, and beyond that the doing of all the baptized and the about-to-be-baptized over all the world. Here together each Sunday we sense that in song and sight and prayer and peace.

However we may have kept or not kept other Lents, this one is here right now and just beginning. We have time to submit to it, time to take it on with gusto, time to put aside certain things - each of us knows or can find out which ones - and help each other keep this Lent together. Perhaps in our lifetimes it has never been so clear: Here, right here, in every assembled church, is where the body of Christ must be built up and must learn to love the world as God has loved the world. Here, right here and in small groups and praying households, is where we can open the scriptures to one another and at the same time and the same breath open the world to one another.

Where are our ashes, then? They were not intended only for a brief moment last Wednesday. If we have washed them off or rubbed them in, let it be for appearances, but the truth is that those ashes are here on our faces, on our hands and feet, on the outside and on the inside. The ashes are not simply one single thing. Their Lenten work is to tell us about ourselves and our church and our world. We don't get to Easter just by staying alive for forty days. We get to Easter again and again by keeping Lent again and again, marked with the ashes.

So today and for the next five Sundays we come here clothed a bit differently in our hearts, spirits, minds. Today the church reads from Genesis about the tree and the banishment. Look what happens, the scripture says. Look what we have done and do now. Blessed with much, we grab for a little more. Does any one of us doubt it? It's a story with ten thousand thousand variations, an ancient story that goes fiercely on today. We who keep Lent have to know this: It is not tragedy that is being told; it is the mystery of human freedom. The poet John Milton began his "Paradise Lost" by saying that he would sing:

Of Man's first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree, whose mortal taste
Brought death into the world, and all our woe. …

But he said it with such delight! And when at last he tells of Eve and Adam expelled from Paradise, he imagines the couple taking their first steps:

They, looking back, all the eastern side beheld
Of Paradise, so late their happy seat,
Waved over by that flaming brand; the gate
With dreadful faces thronged and fiery arms.
Some natural tears they dropped, but wiped them soon;
The world was all before them. …

Milton knew us well! Yes, they cried a little, he says, but then they wiped their tears, blew their noses and looked about, no doubt full of amazement and wonder: The world was all before them! The poet knows what we are like, what we can be like. The wonder and the ashes are all part of us. These days of Lenten discipline bring on the time of testing, training for the race, struggling for the prize. The whole story will get turned upside down. Adam and Eve, naked in Paradise and sewing up leafy garments, will bring us to Jesus, stripped of all garments and naked on the cross. The hunger for more of this or more of that, more of everything, the deep hunger that brought Adam and Eve to taste the tree's forbidden fruit, brings their descendant Jesus to go fasting into the wilderness for forty days - and then refuse to turn hunger on its head: Not by bread alone are we to live, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

We don't go sad into Lent, even in these sad times. We go with some speck of hope, some sense that together we can make a modest try, or maybe this year a bold try, at getting ourselves into the fray. We don't go gloomy; we go with some glimmer that, as is whispered today, another world is possible. We don't have to grind this world into global warming. We don't have to keep food on our tables at the expense of hungry people. We don't have to live constrained and afraid, behind walls. We don't have to find joy in fads and all sorts of frenzied entertainments. We don't have to do what we're told by the powers that be. Beginnings can be made. What else is Lent for in our lives and in our church's life together? Like mother Eve and father Adam, we can rejoice to be together facing whatever beauty and whatever terror. Like Jesus, we can be led by the Spirit and, being simple as doves and wise as that serpent, we can enter this Lent. Simple as doves, so we don't agonize endlessly over the odds of success. Wise as serpents, so we go out eyes wide open when we confront all the harm and suffering around us, all the harm and suffering we inflict by what we do and what we do not do as a church or a neighborhood or a nation.

How do we do this Lenten turning round, we the ashes-wearing children of Eve and Adam, the sisters and brothers of Jesus? Always we do it together, members of Christ whether within the household or the parish or the larger church. And always we start by reinventing those disciplines that for centuries have been the marks of Lent: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.

What is Lent's fasting? Let's use our common sense and our imaginations. What if we ate only food that was good for us? What if we ate in rhythms that allowed us, most of us so far from hunger, to know bodily hunger? What if we ate simply and adequately from the basic foods and seasonal foods only? (After all, is it necessary for apples to travel thousands of miles so you can have fresh apples any time of year?) If we are to know the joy of giving thanks over the simplest food, we need to renew our senses of taste and beauty and our sense, too, of justice. Baptized people mean to come here to the table every Sunday hungry: hungry to be with one another, hungry to hear the word of God, hungry for the great thanksgiving and hungry for the holy Communion. But what do we know of hunger?

In our place and time, it would be absurd to think of fasting as only about food. We are all wooed hour by hour to indulge, to take our eyes off the needs and beauty of the world and instead to stuff ourselves like good consumers. We need Lent's fasting discipline in many areas.

So with the disciplines of prayer and almsgiving. What is a simple rhythm of prayer we could make our own - as basic as morning and night prayers - that would give measure and proportion to our lives, that would make us daily praise God for all the good and intercede with God for all the hurt? And so with the giving of alms: What direction should we be starting on with the way we spend our possessions, our money, our time, our energy, our learning, our experience? How can we use these to bring health or joy or hope or solidarity to some who are needful of it? How can Lent be a sort of experiment in daring acts of justice? All our stuff really isn't ours anyway, and we can thank God for that. Can we find smart ways to keep it circulating?

Are we only after the reality that could be ours if tomorrow we became truly poor and hungry people? Not at all! We are after what the ashes proclaim: Repent and believe the good news. We are after the freedom of the children of God. That is finally what prayer and fasting and almsgiving work in our hearts and bodies, such a freedom as Jesus knew and preached. Now there are great powers on this earth set against such freedom. These powers dealt with Jesus and they'll deal with us, though more subtly. We know these powers firsthand because we have our stake there also. Again, we go simple as doves but wise as serpents. The good habits we acquire this Lent are not necessary only for the forty days. We want to reach the Easter/Passover days with hearts made new. Together.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Third Sunday of Lent
Year B
This series of homilies strives to "unfold the mysteries" where liturgy and life meet. One understanding is this: Though the homily may well begin in the day's scriptures, it wants to reach beyond. It wants to engage more of the whole ritual of the church and, even regarding scripture, it wants to work from an understanding that the scriptures of a liturgical season are a whole. This Third Sunday of Lent has texts that need to be heard in light of what has gone before and as preparation for what will come the next weeks. And the scriptures of this Year B of the cycle need to be heard as part of a larger Lenten scripture that embraces all the years. The preacher needs to be mindful of this whether it is ever directly mentioned or not. Note that the Lectionary offers the option of a much shorter first reading on this Sunday, no doubt the work of the same hand that allowed most of the Easter Vigil's readings never to be heard. There are perhaps two or three places in the entire Lectionary when the "shorter" reading makes sense. This is not one of them (and the homily below needs the full reading from Exodus).
Gabe Huck

This is our third time to gather on Sunday since Lent began on March 1, and it is something of a turning point. The texts of scripture assigned to be read at the Sunday liturgy are arranged in a three-year cycle. What we heard this morning we heard three years ago and we will hear again three years from now. But Lent's first two Sundays can make us forget this because every year on those first two Sundays we read the same two Gospel stories. On the First Sunday in Lent we always tell of how Jesus fasted and struggled against the power of evil in the wilderness. Two weeks ago today we heard about this from the Gospel of Mark who tells it in just four or five intense sentences. A year ago we heard it at greater length from the Gospel of Matthew and next year from the Gospel of Luke. Every year this fasting-in-the-wilderness story summons us to keep Lent, to engage in this contest, to make these forty days an intense training to be what we were baptized to be. Then a week ago, on the Second Sunday of Lent, the Gospel was that story of Jesus with Moses and Elijah on a mountain, talking about the Passover of Jesus that was to happen in Jerusalem. We heard Mark's telling of the transfiguration this year, but a year ago it was Matthew and next year Luke: same story as it had come to be told in different communities.

But on this Third Sunday in Lent, in each of the three years we hear a different Gospel. Now 2006 is a year when Mark's Gospel is read year-round on almost every Sunday, but beginning today we have three Sundays of not reading Mark. Instead, the Gospel comes from John. So that is one way to see this Sunday taking us round a corner, deeper into Lent. It is also the first of those Sundays when those to be baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil come before the community for the scrutiny. That word "scrutiny" should be taken to heart by all of us for Lent intends scrutiny for all of us. For the catechumens it means what it says: They are to undergo a certain scrutiny. What do those who are helping you toward baptism have to say about your readiness? Baptism is nothing to trifle with. We take it seriously here. Today and on the next two Sundays the catechumens need testimony of their efforts, and we pray over them that with God's grace they will recognize and choose what is good and reject what is evil. We who are already baptized witness this. Though baptized, we are still in that struggle, still striving to accomplish what was promised in those waters.

This year, with the lateness of Lent, this Third Sunday comes a day before the equinox. When spring begins tomorrow, in the northern hemisphere light gains the upper hand. Only then does the Christian calendar start to wait for the next full moon and only after that first full moon of spring can our Lent time come to an end because on the very next Sunday we can celebrate the Easter Passover of the Lord around the font and the table. What might it mean that the center of our year depends not on the return of some date on a human calendar, but on the earth circling around the sun, and on the moon circling around the earth, leaning on its axis so that we have seasons?

So Lent today grows a bit and we see how it is woven of many materials, many colors. The first readings of these Sundays are as vital as the Gospels, but the first readings in Lent are not chosen for some relation to the Gospel as is the case through much of the year. Rather, on these first three Sundays of Lent the first readings seem to summon the whole long procession in which we stand. We read two weeks ago of Noah, the flood, the rainbow to seal God's covenant. And last Sunday we read of Abraham and Isaac in one of the hardest stories in scripture. In other years on these Sundays we read of Adam and Eve or of Abraham and Sarah, of Moses before the burning bush or later bringing water from a rock in the wilderness. So far away, so long ago all these stories and characters, but here we are, reading them again to discover not some moral or some history, but rather to discover what is the meaning of this assembly, of ourselves, of this church that is so woebegone yet no stranger to suffering and death and promise. As Paul wrote to that church at Corinth: The foolishness of God - we've all experienced it - is wiser than all our human wisdom. And the weakness of God - can you doubt it when you have known Christ crucified and when you have witnessed the betrayals even within this church - the very weakness of God is stronger than all our human strength.

Amid all this, a few moments ago we read from the book of Exodus what we know as the Ten Commandments. This is one more story of covenant between heaven and earth, between God and humankind - like the covenant with Eve and Adam, with Abraham and Sarah. But in the story of Moses, the terms of the covenant between God and the people are spelled out. Perhaps we have in the past thought of these commandments as "laws" or "rules." They are not. They are terms of an agreement, a covenant. As such, they were seen by Israel as a gift, a wonder, something to delight in.

These ten terms of the covenant bring together on the same tablets what seem to us very different kinds of things. There are those things that are done or not done day by day between human beings in their various communities: killing or not killing, stealing or not stealing, lying or not lying, adultery or no adultery. And there are those things that seem to be about one's religious life: bowing down only to the one God, honoring God's name, keeping holy the Sabbath day. It used to be that illustrations of Moses and the tablets of the Law put these about God on one side, and those about killing and lying on the other side. But the scripture makes no such distinction. It seems all of one piece. How we behave, how we place ourselves and conduct ourselves in every dimension of life on earth, all that is woven in a single fabric with the ways we manifest our bond to the God who loves us. Not killing rather than killing, seeking and holding to truth rather than carelessness or harshness toward truth: in so many day-by-day ways we make our lives' basic choices not in moments of crisis but in what we learn to do by heart: morning by morning, Sunday by Sunday, Lent by Lent. Living in these rhythms allows us to rehearse over and over exactly who we are, whose we are. Scripture does not imply that three commandments are about religious responsibilities and seven are about social responsibilities. They are all religious. They are all social. They come together, these ten, as a powerful and compact way of proclaiming a way of life. What are the habits of this community's heart? How are we known to each other and to the world? We are to be the people who refuse all the false gods - and who name them publicly in the choices we make and the paths we take.

Hearing today the full scripture text of the commandments we may be struck by how long those first three are and how short the last seven. We may only have heard these first three reduced to: 1. I am the Lord your God, you shall not have other gods before me. 2. You shall not take the name of the Lord in vain. 3. Remember to keep holy the Sabbath day. But that is not the way scripture writes it, and the full text opens up the meaning. What is all this about the Sabbath? "Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord, your God." Days are to be arranged in sevens and one day in seven is to be unlike the others. A rhythm is created between the six days and the seventh and the stuff of the difference between the one and the six is work and don't work. Work is what human beings do if they can. Work puts food in mouths and roofs over heads and, for some, brings satisfaction and for others ill health and humiliation. In the commandment it is the prohibition of work that sets the one day off against the six. Leave things alone! Leave creation alone! The reason for the rhythm of work and rest is given: "For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, but on the seventh day God rested."

Why should this arbitrary way to mark time matter? We need that answer. We need to know that what matters is that we are part of God's rhythm. We live and move and have our being in that rhythm. Work and no work make such a rhythm. There are others certainly. The point is not about work but about our human need to find our place in some great dance.

The truth of this need is the same truth that brings us to Lent and to Easter each year. Little by little, week by week, Sunday by Sunday, Lent by Lent we learn the steps of this dance. We learn the rhythms not only of work and rest but of rejoicing and lamentation, of repentance and forgiveness, of giving and receiving. This is not done by some magic but by the disciplined effort to keep these days and seasons, to keep them first as a church, a parish, this very assembly here today, and then as the persons and households who together are the body of Christ in this world. It is not catechisms and fund raisers that make the church, it is the way we together enter into these rhythms and disciplines and find ways for body and soul, muscles and spirits.

Whatever we have or have not made of this Lent, we can begin today to enter into its rhythm of fasting from whatever is distracting us from our covenant. We can figure a few things out about how we make poor use of time and God's other gifts. We can make bold efforts to find the freedom of the Gospel instead of the compulsions of the consumers. We can, like Jesus, take strong action against the money-changers that have set up shop in the temple of our own lives. And we can dare to look those commandments up and down in all their raw power, recognizing - for example - that "You shall not kill" had no subsections about "except convicted murderers," or "except when the government says to." Yes, it seems foolish but it is the foolishness of God.

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Year C
What follows is cast as a homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C, March 21, 2004. As a homily in a mystagogical mode, it draws on the scriptures of this Sunday as well as other words and gestures of the assembly's liturgy to unfold something of the gospel sense for reconciliation.
Gabe Huck

Halfway through the forty days of Lent and there is still time to start if we haven't yet been ready. Halfway through, still time to find the ways that we need to fast, the ways we best can pray, the alms we most need to give. Halfway through and the invitation, the call, the summons is right there for all of us: Come and wrestle with what the Gospel says to us, come and know that our whole selves are caught up in that baptism we received, drowned in those waters but alive in Christ Jesus. Halfway through the forty days of Lent and it is the Lord's Day today and so we are assembled here and we have read the scriptures and we have to talk about Lent's hardest work. What else can we talk about when we are confronted with that parable of a parent's outrageous love for a selfish loser of a child who's coming home only out of desperation? Lent's hardest work, what is it? Paul gives it away in the letter to the Corinthians: God in Christ has done the reconciling and has made us reconcilers. God was in Christ doing the reconciling of the world. God was in Christ not counting our sins against us but instead making us be what Christ is, the gospel of reconciliation.


Many who grew up Catholic have expressed dismay at the understanding they remember from childhood of what sin is, of what repentance means, of what it is to be forgiven, of the reality of reconciliation in human life. They express dismay because - unlike many other things we first began to grasp as children - we probably still think about sin and repentance and forgiveness the way we did as children. These very real parts of human life - sin, repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation - came across as something totally private. "Sin" is something I commit. It's my business. If I have done something sinful, well, then I have to deal with it, perhaps confessing my sin to God before the church's minister, and asking forgiveness. It is thus not only personal but very, very private. We may then go through life never thinking how such things as sin and repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation, have some relation to how the society distributes wealth or education or health care. Never thinking how sin and repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation have some relation to how a family or a city or a corporation or a nation raises and spends money. Never thinking how sin and repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation have some relation to why there are so few in the world who are adequately cared for, so many who are not. But listen to Paul in the middle of this Lent: God was reconciling the world and of that reconciliation we have become the ministers, as strange in the society's eyes as that forgiving parent, as hungry for peaceful ways on this earth as that wayward child was hungry.

So we have to do some growing up this Lent. We have to put aside those notions of sin as private, notions of confession as private, notions of forgiveness and reconciliation as private. Lent's fasting should so clear our sight that we can see what sin is and does day by day in this whole world. Our prayer should find us practicing how to intercede for all the sinners and the sinned against. Our almsgiving should so turn our priorities upside down that we can imagine what we are meant to be - not some of us but this whole baptized assembly - makers of reconciliation, makers of peace, examples of those who lay down the weapons of all kinds to find a different way. The thing that makes Lent vital to this church is that here in Lent we do the training. We are again apprentice Christians learning the trade of reconciliation. Don't think of Lent as forty days to do something a little hard, then it's over. Think about Lent as the forty days each year when we move on. In forty days we explore the way we mean to be all the days after.

Some vital part of that we practice together here every Sunday. At the threshold of the liturgy, before the book is opened and we begin to read, we repeat: "Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy." This is the ancient Kyrie eleison in Greek, a cry for mercy and a praise of God's mercy. Muslims begin their days and deeds saying: "In the name of God, the All-merciful." We begin in a similar way, placing ourselves within the Lord's mercy, a mercy Jesus was trying to understand and explain when he told that story of the wayward child and the ecstatic parent. That's mercy. Preparing for this liturgy, preparing for every day of life, we clamor for that contagious mercy, as contagious as sin is contagious. As the poet Hoskins wrote, "I say that we are wound / With mercy round and round / As if with air." How deep is that in our Catholic hearts? How would those around us know that we believe we are "wound with mercy round and round"? What does a church so wound in mercy look like? A household? A person? Isn't mercy some soft, sentimental sort of thing, hardly what's needed to deal with real problems? Real problems are dealt with through prisons and wars and buyouts and layoffs. But is that the truth? Or is that the cycle of violence and unforgiveness?

Sometimes we join this cry for mercy to the confession of sin, another way of preparing to do this liturgy. We have sinned in thoughts and in words, we say, in what we have done - and in what we have failed to do. Some Sundays we rush through this, in common, and it is lost unless in preparation we have looked hard at what we have done and most especially at what we have failed to do. The tradition would have us rehearse this prayer every night at bedside, the examination of our conscience it has been called. Before we sleep, we recall and place before the merciful Lord all that went wrong today. This is the habit of living in God's mercy, the habit of calling ourselves to account for what we have made of the daily gifts of God. What we have done. What we have failed to do. It isn't a tally: five wrong today down from eight yesterday. It isn't a tally. It is a life on the way, a life slowly learning that what I do and what I fail to do matters. It matters before God and it matters before those the Gospel says matter: the hungry, the prisoners, the sick, those who are being left out of all we think of as our rights. The mercy of God, it turns out, is hard to bear, but we come here to bear it together.

The liturgy of the Maronite church expands on the Kyrie and Confession with words like these: "Come, you who are angry, and make peace with your enemies. Bow your head before them and embrace them. Engrave in yourself the sign of the Son of God as he humbled himself before others. So humble yourself!" Sounds fine, we think, but let someone else go first. It won't work. Bow my head? Embrace my enemy? But such is the way we rehearse life here together. The story Jesus tells in this Gospel today is told in response to some remarks made about the way Jesus was conducting himself: "This man," people were whispering, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Yes, Jesus says, I am practicing ways to act as God acts.

If Lent is for facing the hard stuff, then Lent is for facing how hard it is to act as God acts. How hard to take the prayer of confession and the praise of God's mercy and let them shape what I will do tomorrow and how I will do it. Martin Luther King Jr., like anyone who has been treated with scorn, with sneers, with brutal physical and psychological weapons, had more reason than most of us to put forgiveness off, but he read his Gospel and he knew he couldn't put it off. Once he referred to the passage where Jesus says to forgive seven times seventy times. King said: "A man cannot forgive up to four hundred and ninety times without forgiveness becoming a part of the habit structure of his being. Forgiveness is not an occasional act; it is a permanent attitude." And that attitude is the gospel truth, and that is the truth of what we are rehearsing here every Sunday. To look to Martin Luther King or to others like him is to know that to forgive is not to shrug and say things will never change. To forgive is to change things.

But these Sunday deeds are also about seeking forgiveness, something a good deal harder than forgiving. "Forgive us our trespasses," we say before we come to the holy table and make the holy communion. Easily we say it to God, though we should tremble at those words and the words that follow. But how hard it is to say to one another.

In some Christian churches at the beginning of Lent, people come forward one by one. And each one first kneels then is prostrate on the floor and each says to the priest, "Forgive me, a sinner." But the priest also makes this prostration before each one of the assembly and says, "Forgive me, a sinner." We may not have this beautiful gesture, but in the Lord's Prayer and the sign of peace, we have something like it. And what are we rehearsing here except a heart courageous enough to ask forgiveness?

If we are baptized for the work of reconciling the world to God, then we are baptized into thinking about how the forgiveness we ask of one another here and in our households and places of work must be extended. More than anywhere else today, that must be thought about by us as citizens of the United States. That is hard. We have as a nation talked as if we never have anything to apologize for. It seems might makes us right. We sit atop more than half the world's wealth with only one in twenty of the world's people. We spend more on preparations for war than all the rest of the world together. We loose sanctions and military strikes without any concern for the lives destroyed. We refuse our own children the education and health care we could easily afford. In thousands of ways we refuse to care for the earth and so become agents of sickness and death into the far future.

We must ponder how to ask forgiveness. But to ask forgiveness of the poor, the earth, our children, to bow our heads or bend our knees and cry for our sins - we know that such a thing would be so terrifying. We would feel naked before the world. Besides, aren't we getting religion and politics mixed up here? Yes, we are. So finally let us listen to Archbishop Romero, twenty-four years after his murder. He said this about the work of the church: "[The church] says to the rich: Do not sin by misusing your money. It says to the powerful: Do not misuse your political influence. Do not misuse your weaponry. Do not misuse your power. It says to sinful torturers: Do not torture. You are sinning. You are doing wrong. You are establishing the reign of hell on earth."

We are the rich, the powerful. We here are also the church. How then do we speak as church to ourselves as nation? What does this eucharist prepare us to do? What will this Lent prepare us to be?

Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Year C
Over the past few years these homilies for a Sunday in Lent, usually the March issue of Celebration and coming from one starting point or another, have tried to explore how Lent itself is a way that the church is formed. To adapt (from the Jewish tradition) the most compact way to put it: It is not so much that Christians keep Lent, but Lent keeps Christians. The homilies in this column last month (for the Sunday before Lent and for Ash Wednesday) might also be helpful. The homily that follows is for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in 2007 but some of it could be used on any of the Lenten Sundays in March this year. The song verses used are from a collection of ritual songs: By Heart: Seasonal Songs for Gathering, Interceding, and Communion (Tony Alonso and Gabe Huck, GIA Publications: Chicago, 2005 at www.giamusic.com or call 800-442-1358).
Gabe Huck

When we hear the first few words of today's Gospel we likely have no idea where it's going: Early one morning Jesus goes to the temple area, people come to him and he sits down to teach them. But when we hear the first words of the next line, we know at once what story this will be. Some men arrive and with them a woman "caught in the very act of committing adultery." They haul her into the midst of the people gathered around Jesus. It is a strange and memorable story. Likely we all know how it will end even as we listen to that beginning line. But the drama still holds us. This story, like none other in the Gospel, describes the postures of Jesus: Jesus sitting, bending down, straightening up again. It makes for drama as it takes us to the conclusion we know but still wait to hear again: Neither do I condemn you. (How these words are a promise to us all!) In the end, everyone has gone away, including those who came to hear Jesus teach, everyone except the woman and Jesus. He tells her to go also. Jesus is left alone, perhaps still bending down to write with his finger on the ground.

So with just twelve of Lent's forty days remaining, what are we to make of this? It might be a call for the church, for us, to look together at what sort of balance we are striking between being on the one hand a sort of police state, and on the other a very vague sort of club where each of us does pretty much that he or she pleases, believes pretty much what he or she is comfortable with. Every human institution, and the church is certainly that at any level from our assembly this morning to the Vatican, every human institution faces temptations. One such temptation is this: When it seems that things are falling apart, those who hold titles and offices are all too liable to become afraid. They are likely to dust off old rules and make new rules. They are likely to try to nail down what's right and what's wrong. They are likely to think that safeguarding the church means just leave it all to them: Father knows best. At such times, the leadership may confuse the church with themselves.

What then do we make of this tiny story of the hubbub caused when some perhaps well-meaning men brought before Jesus and his listeners a woman who, in their minds, had broken God's law? We should not miss something rather amazing in the story. It is this: These men listen to what Jesus tells them: "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." They listen, and they must glimpse in Jesus' words some bit of a vision that there is another way to do things, another way to be faithful members of the community. They have the honesty and the courage to face the truth and give up the righteousness that sent them out looking for a sinner. Jesus challenged the ground on which they were standing, the way they were telling people it had to be, the sort of things they thought it would take to maintain the faithful community.

What we have in this story is a rare instance of leadership listening to another vision of the community. And not just listening, but open to a truth not recognized before, a truth that shakes the foundations on which this leadership has been standing. So they went away, one by one. They didn't ask more questions, they didn't argue. This is amazing given what we all experience of human nature and human institutions. Of course we have no idea what came next for them. Maybe some of them fell back to games of power, deciding who's a sinner, who's messing up the precious institution, what burdens to put on others. But for this moment they give us a breath-taking example of how a clear and honest word can turn us around.

Whether we have been hard at our Lenten disciplines, our Lenten work, since Ash Wednesday, or whether we haven't really given Lent a half-serious thought, let's turn this morning to those dozen days that remain, and think about them in light of this story.

Lent is about one thing: the deed we are going to do when Lent is over. When Lent has ended on Holy Thursday afternoon, we enter into three days - Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday - that are the very heart of our year and of our lives. Through Good Friday and Holy Saturday we help each other to prepare well for what this church, ourselves ready or not, will do in the night between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. Together and alone we all do the praying and the fasting to make these days different from any other of the year. And then we come to spend that Saturday night here together keeping vigil, listening to scripture, singing psalms, calling on all the saints, returning the lovely alleluia to our lips, until we are as ready as we can be to approach the font with those who will die in the waters of baptism to live new in Christ.

All of Lent exists to get us to that font. For forty days the church struggles with the gospel it believes, struggles to become what we are: We are those who renounced evil, accepted the way of the gospel, and then in those baptism waters were embraced by God and became what ever since we have struggled to be, the body of Christ, the church. In a way, once we are in that baptism water, we stay there. It isn't like some sort of entrance examination: once we pass, we never have to think about such things again. Instead, ready or not we are plunged into waters that forever define who we are, still swirl around us. Each year we gather our strength and for forty days, or maybe just twelve if we start today, we do some things that renew us as the church that is ever being created at the font.

Through the years of many Lents little by little we put on Christ, we learn the way of the baptized, we fast and pray and simplify our lives so that we may see more clearly what we are doing here in this world, we who are the church, we who are the world. A Lenten song puts it this way:

Marked by ashes we have come,
we, the world so troublesome,
we, the members: Christ, our sum.

Now we pray by day and night,
Keep the fast to clear our sight,
Share our goods to set things right.

What is this "fast to clear our sight"? Certainly it can't be doing without something that is superfluous anyway, something we'll just start again on Easter. It may not even be about food or drink or cigarettes and such. What fast do we need that will "clear our sight"? What things, what deeds, what habits? We have to think about our time, for example, and the stuff around us, about our bodies, about each other. How will a baptized person see these in relation to all the earth, all the world? Can we examine how we use up time, use up the earth, use up our bodies and those of others, use up so much stuff that there's little or none left for most folks on this planet? Now we're talking about a fast that clears our sight: to free ourselves with some hard effort these Lenten days and so have the time and space to see clearly. To see this world with eyes of baptism, with gospel eyes. How will it look? What will we find urgent? What must we pay attention to? Where must we have an impact?

And what of "share our goods to set things right"? When we do what we must to gain clear sight of this world around us, then baptized people like us are going to find a thousand thousand ways to make some justice happen in a world more and more unjust, in a world where more and more we privileged live behind expensive walls. And to make some justice happen in a world where the greed of one generation threatens the very existence of future generations.

We are not just scattered souls each working alone on Lent. We're the church. Listen to another of these little verses:

Strong and weak, be here at home.
Bold or shy, here laugh, here groan.
Gospel weighs too much alone.

So it does. Gospel weighs too much alone. Who could bear it alone? We must do this together. Around this table we make that pledge every time we share a common bread and drink from a common cup, eating and drinking what in truth we are, the body of Christ.

And so we return to that story about how Jesus challenged those men on that morning when they presumed to speak with authority. The Lent we strive to keep, forty days or twelve, wants this church of ours to be as faithful and as free as Jesus was when he answered the question about putting the woman to death.

Right now this cumbersome structure, the bishops and the various bureaucracies, have not had such a good decade or two. Lots of wrong brought into the light. Lots of folks going elsewhere. The respect of outsiders gone. Lots of blaming. In such a time those who have authority grow afraid, like the men in the story. Rules. Control. As if the discipline of the gospel were not enough. As if we the church are to be defined and bound by anything other than the immense discipline of this table, this gospel. And we all can get pulled in by the fear. It becomes more important to keep some people from the table than to ask: Why am I carrying this stone in my hand? Am I building a community or a wall?

Lent is a deadly serious matter for us, for us the church. One last verse:

Hear, O God, a servant's wail:
You, Almighty, now so frail,
Shall the power of death prevail?

This is the mystery in which we Christians begin and end: God almighty, frail and crushed, crushed like the grapes of our wine, like the grains of our bread. "You, Almighty, now so frail." And the question that the church works all Lent to answer: "Shall the power of death prevail?" Shall it prevail? In Iraq? In Haiti? In the church? Thanks be to God! Let us keep Lent and so be ready with an answer.
Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).
Palm Sunday of the Lord's Passion
Year A
In the April 2004 Celebration, I offered a homily for Passion (Palm Sunday) that reflected on how the church concludes Lent and enters the Triduum. The focus there was on the rituals of Holy Thursday and Good Friday and how we keep these days. What follows here is a homily for Passion Sunday, April 20, 2005. It begins by saying some of the same things that were said a year ago, but then moves on to pick up where that homily left off. The focus here is Holy Saturday, the Vigil, and Easter Sunday. Is there time for a homily on Palm Sunday when the full rite of the blessing of palms and the procession is celebrated? As I noted last year, if all is done well and the assembly is doing its liturgy, then people aren't looking at their watches. They know this day is different. The need to build participation in the central deeds of our year means that the "regular schedule" may have to bend. Given that this is part exhortation to take part in the Triduum, the homilist's own passion for these days is obviously important.
Gabe Huck

For a last time in this Lent of 2005 we gather in our Sunday assembly. During Lent's forty days we have pondered here some amazing scriptures starting with the ever-puzzling story of Eve and Adam and that lovely tree. We heard of Abraham and Sarah when they first set from their Mesopotamian home, we heard of the times when those who had escaped slavery in Egypt thought it might be better to go back rather than die in the wilderness, we heard of Samuel finding handsome young David and pouring the fragrant oil over him, and we heard of Ezekiel in that awful place filled with dry bones. We heard of Jesus in a series of encounters beginning with the wilderness and the tempter, then how he was once speaking with Moses and Elijah on a mountain. Next we heard about his conversation with a woman by a well in Samaria, and then of the time he used spit and soil to make mud that he rubbed on the eyes of a blind man, and last Sunday we heard of the siblings of Bethany: Mary, Martha and Lazarus. No lack of strong characters here! It all led to what we have just proclaimed, the passion and death on the cross.

Lent has immersed us in such stories, but Lent will end four days from now, this Holy Thursday evening. We, the baptized, together with the catechumens set aside for penance and preparation and purification these Forty Days. Thursday evening this Lent will slip away quietly. Ready or not, we will enter the Three Days, the Triduum of the Passover, the Easter Triduum. Ready or not, that will happen. Some of us may only today, Palm Sunday, be ready to get serious about Lent. That's good! It's good for all of us. Even those who have earnestly tried all 40 days to keep Lent with prayer and almsgiving and fasting know this: None of us ever really does it right. The only way we can walk into the Three Days is to walk in together, humbled by what has become of us in our efforts to pray and read scripture, our efforts to fast from all the stuff in our lives that does no real good for us or the world, our efforts by alms to bring some tiny bit of justice to the ailing world.

With scarcely one hundred hours of Lent before us this morning, we have strong words from Matthew's telling of the passion to ponder. On that day of palms, the evangelist tells us, the whole city was asking, "Who is this?" Still the question today. Peter not only had no answer, he said what may often be our own fearful response, "I do not know the man." Peter said this just hours after Jesus had told him and other drowsy disciples, "Watch and pray." It was a normal day for the occupying army in Jerusalem; we're told they had two revolutionaries to crucify, and they made Jesus the third for that afternoon. Matthew says that even these two anti-Roman insurgents , themselves near death, reviled Jesus. Matthew knows nothing about John or Mary being at the foot of the cross. The only friends of Jesus Matthew has heard about were standing far off and all of them were women, "many women" Matthew tells us. Then, late, that one man named Joseph shows up to take the dead body, wrap it in linen, and place it quickly in a tomb.

This assembly, all of us, this church, lives its life baptized into the death of Jesus. We have put on Christ, in Christ we have been baptized. This Lent has been and still is the Forty Days when we strive to conform our whole self and our communal self to God's saving deed in Christ. We strive to become a strange contradiction, those whose glory is the cross. Thursday night when we have finished Lent, we will begin three days when we try to let that glory fill us. Thursday night here we will do the once-a-year deed of washing one another's feet, that unsettling gesture that overturns all our shabby hierarchies. Doing that, we come into the Three Days and we begin 48 hours that should be totally unlike any other time all year. On Friday and Saturday we don't work, we don't watch TV or listen to music or read our usual reading, we eat almost nothing, we delve into the scripture and we take walks and join in times of ritual and prayer. We strive for ways that life in our homes is caught up in the mystery of the cross. It has everything to do with what we make of this world, but for these days we keep trying to experience just how Christians love and embrace the world. We are at the core of the whole cycle of our year.

By Saturday night the church is three things: tired, hungry, and exhilarated. But instead of going to eat supper or going to bed, we come together here. This is called the Easter Vigil, and it is the night that all of Lent and the first 48 hours of Triduum have made us ready for. Sadly, much of the church never feels invited. We only do this Vigil once in the year, and our room here should be filled to capacity and beyond. We are all needed: not invited, needed!

The work Saturday night is long and there's no rushing it. We don't begin until dark. The work we do is entirely for the nighttime. It is what many women in many cities have said these last decades: Take back the night. That is what our Christian communities do all over the world next Saturday night: We take back the night. Or rather, Saturday night we come and we witness how God has taken back the night, the blessed night. In the darkness we huddle outside around a fire and do other once-a-year things: bless that fire, throw incense on it, celebrate a huge Easter candle and finally light that candle and follow it into this room, proclaiming that Christ is our light. When everyone is here the great Exsultet is sung. Angels, earth, church, everyone: Rejoice! This is the night when slaves are delivered to freedom, the night God breaks the chains of death, the night the mighty are brought low and the poor lifted up, the night when evil is driven out and peace takes hold at last.

Then we do in abundance what we do briefly here each Sunday: we open our book and we read page after page. Yes, it takes a while. It is a long story that has brought us to this place and we need to hear it and we need to tell it to our children. The story tells that God is creator of all the world's beauty and diversity. It tells that God is a maker of promises to ancestors like Abraham and Sarah. It tells that God guides the captive people to freedom through the waters of the sea. It tells of strong poetry by our prophets and at last, after we have once again let Alleluias resound in this room, the story tells of those women who had witnessed the death of Jesus on the cross now coming early on Sunday morning to anoint the body of Jesus. They are greeted by earthquakes and angels and then by Jesus himself who tells them what we need to know again and again: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of earthquakes and angels, do not be afraid of how they executed me on that cross, do not be afraid of all the troubles and harm people do to one another.

When all these stories have been told we turn to the main works we have to do this holy night. Calling on all our ancestors in the faith, from Adam and Eve and Mary and Joseph to Elizabeth Seton and John the Twenty-third, we go in procession to the baptismal font with those who have been chosen for baptism. By the side of the font they are asked to do what we once did and now do again: To proclaim before all of us that they are turning their backs on greed and hatred and all the works of evil, and they are believing in the God who is Creator and Savior and Holy Spirit. Then in the name of God they are baptized in the waters, passing over from death to life in Christ Jesus, to life in this church, to life as brother or sister to us.

All through this Lent in our various ways we have been truly, truly coming to grips with the death that dwells in all the ways we humans devise: wars and exploitation, harm done to human beings because of their race, because of their sex, because of their age, because of their religion or their nationality. We have been coming to grips with death as it dwells in our abundance at the expense of others' hunger and sickness. We have been coming to grips with death and now we witness the struggle of life and death in these waters by which we claim for Christ our newly baptized sisters and brothers.

Coming out of the waters the newly baptized are anointed with the very fragrance of Christ, that fragrance we are meant to be in the world, and then we go with them for the first time to the holy table here, and at that table we prepare the bread and wine so that all together we can give God thanks and praise for all creation, for all the saving deeds we have heard and seen this night. Then at the table new Christians and veteran Christians partake of the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. Amen.

Amen. Where else can we be on that holy night?
Copyright © Gabe Huck. Used by permission.

Originally written for Celebration, the worship and preaching resource of the National Catholic Reporter (visit their Web site at www.celebrationpublications.org).