On Palm Sunday, we are privileged to listen to one of the great Passion narratives. In Matthew’s account, we see Jesus as a still-point in the maelstrom, as God’s fidelity amidst a cacophony of sin. In the course of the Passion, Jesus confronts betrayal, laziness, violence, untruth, abuse of power, self-destruction, and wanton cruelty—the whole panoply of human dysfunction. And he takes away this sin precisely by his obedience and his mercy.
The great Lenten readings for Cycle A move in a kind of crescendo from thirst, to blindness, to death—all metaphors for spiritual dysfunction. This Sunday’s Gospel deals with death through the story of Lazarus who, after four days in his tomb, represents someone who is totally sunk in sin, totally dead spiritually. The voice of Jesus calls Lazarus, and all of us, back to life—no matter what we've done, and no matter how dead we are.
Our first reading for this weekend gives us a glimpse of one of the most powerful texts in the Bible—indeed, one of the truly great literary works that has come down to us from the ancient world. I’m talking about the story that we refer to as first and second Samuel. At the heart of this narrative—rich in theology, psychology, history, politics, human relationships—is the figure of David, who along with Abraham and Moses is one of the most important characters in the Old Testament. And as we look at this passage and meditate upon his story, a number of very important Lenten spiritual themes emerge.
Our first reading for today is the famous quarreling of Israel by the waters of Meribah in the book of Exodus. We find the chosen people in the midst of the desert—which is to say, in the process of conversion, on the way from the slavery of sin to the freedom of God. But all conversion takes time; those on the way always tend to look back. And so we hear: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” Here in the very middle of Lent—our own season of conversion—are we finding it hard, annoying, frustrating? Would we rather go back? Probably. But this is the decisive moment: Do we head back to Egypt, to slavery? Or do we trust that the Lord is guiding us?
Last week, we looked at the familiar material from the third chapter of Genesis. God’s human creatures fell, precisely in the measure that they stopped listening to the voice of God and listened to the voices of the tempter and their own desires. This week, in chapter twelve, we see the beginning of God’s great rescue operation. And just as the trouble began when God’s human creatures refused to listen to the divine command, the solution began when one human being—a kind of new Adam—listened.
We enter once more into the very holy season of Lent: a time of preparation; a desert time; a time of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving; a time to return to the basics. And so how wonderful that the Church gives us, for this first Sunday of Lent, a passage from the very beginning of the Bible, a story of universal and enduring significance. We hear of the creation and fall of mankind. But we will not properly understand this epic tale until we see that it has to do with us.
As we continue our focus on the Old Testament texts, we turn this week to the nineteenth chapter of the book of Leviticus. As the name suggests, the book has a good deal to do with the Levites, who were the priests of ancient Israel. Accordingly, there is much talk of ritual, sacrifice, taboo, the clean and the unclean, etc. In a word, the book of Leviticus was laying out the practices by which Israel set itself apart from the other nations. But the holiness of Israel was only a function of the supreme holiness of the God of Israel. Israel was meant to be different, because God is different.
Our first reading for this weekend is taken from a book that we don’t consult that frequently in the course of the liturgical year—namely, the book of Sirach. It is presented as a series of sayings of Jeshua ben Sira, a wise Jewish elder. Our reading is taken from the fifteenth chapter of Sirach, and it has to do with the awful fact of our freedom.
I would like to concentrate on the marvelous passage from chapter 58 of the prophet Isaiah, which is our first reading for this weekend. This final section of Isaiah was written, the scholars tell us, after the return of the captives from Babylon, when Israel was trying once again to find its way. And so we find some very practical spiritual advice about engaging in concrete acts of love.
There is a tendency, I’m afraid, to flatten out and sentimentalize the meaning of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple. We see it as just a charming tale of a little child being entrusted to the protection of God at the beginning of his life. But there is more going on here—a lot more. To understand it, the Church gives us the somewhat enigmatic reading from the book of the prophet Malachi.