At the beginning of Lent, those to be received into the Catholic Church at Easter are elected by the bishop for the Easter sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist. These Elect, as they are now called, begin their final period of “purification and enlightenment” before Easter. On the third, fourth, and fifth Sundays of Lent we celebrate these scrutinies, these special rites for them. They are part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and meant to remind us of our where we have come from and the ONE who lifts us up—Christ Jesus!
In the centuries following the death and resurrection of Jesus—and the death of the last Apostle (John), there were many misunderstandings or heresies regarding the humanity and divinity of Jesus. Of the 21 ecumenical councils of the Church, it was the Council of Chalcedon (October-November 451 A.D.), however, that formally defined the two natures of Jesus; namely that Our Lord is fully divine and fully human. In the following centuries, it became clear that the Church Fathers were successful in clarifying these controversies as Christian artists began painting portraits of Jesus holding up His right hand while not separating his first two fingers. Through such portraits, one might say that Christ was working through the genius of artistic creativity, to remind us that He is not only our God, but that He, through His own humanity, knows us and understands us in the most intimate of ways.
Regarding our ways, Fr. James Martin, S.J., in his book, The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything, quotes another Jesuit priest who had been provided advice by another priest when he was a novice: “First, you’re not God. And second, this isn’t heaven.” In recalling those pointed words spoken to him many years ago, the now much older priest-theologian laments that: “Had I followed those guidelines earlier, I could have saved myself years of self-induced heartache.”
And isn’t it heartache—-self-induced heartache—-that is especially present in our Old Testament passages from the second Book of Chronicles (36:14-16, 19-23) and the 37th Psalm? These scriptures echo the wisdom provided the young, Jesuit novice; namely, that none of us creatures are God and that this isn’t heaven! And unlike Jesus, who is fully divine and fully human, we creatures have been born with a different sort of nature—-a fallen one. In the second Book of Chronicles, we are reminded of how the fall of Jerusalem had come about and the ways that God’s people had added infidelity to infidelity. With the psalmist’s lament over the destruction of Jerusalem, our fallen nature seemed to get the best of us. And so, all seemed lost.
As some of you know, for the past 20 years, I have been employed as the finance officer for a private school. This past week, in preparation for a business trip, I spent some time tidying up my office and came across a letter that I have kept near my phone—a letter that has remained near and dear to me. In looking at it, I was moved to tears.
Several years ago, I received a phone call from the principal of our elementary school who informed me that a very “special” second-grade boy had been named “principal for the day.” In his conversation with him, the boy told the principal that one of the things he would like to do is speak to the person in charge of the money. I guess that was me.
Upon their arrival in my office, the principal introduced the “new” principal and allowed the two of us to have a conversation. For the next 15 minutes, this seven-year-old boy rattled off a list of improvements he and his classmates would like to see. They were mostly playground items that needed to be added or replaced. With care, I wrote each of them down, had him sign his name, and promised that I would do my best to accomplish the list which he had dictated to me.
Later, I called the principal and asked him about the boy. I asked him why he emphasized that he was “special.” He told me that during the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, this boy was barely a year old and that sadly, on that fateful September morning, his father was working in one of the towers. Like thousands of others, he never made it out.
For those among us who remember that day, we’ll always know it as senseless and an example of a “world out of control.” For on that day, our fallen nature was on display for all to see. And, in truth, we needn’t study history very intensely to see the pattern of our fallen nature repeat in our world and in each of our lives.
A Franciscan priest friend once described to me what he perceived to be the mission of his ministry: “Each of us is born with clay feet. Each day, we fall. So, my mission (as one also born with clay feet) has been to help lift others up after they have fallen.” Listen again to my friend’s last few words: that he helps lift others up. Logically, we may deduce that if we, God’s creatures, are performing our rightful duty to assist, help, and lift others up in their time of need, just who is it that really does the lifting?
The answer is quite clear: Jesus Christ is the lifter!!! Jesus Christ is the raiser!!!! Jesus Christ is the saver!!!!!
In his Letter to the Ephesians (2:4-10), St. Paul says it best:
“Brothers and sisters: God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ—by grace you have been saved—, raised us up with him, and seated us with him in Christ Jesus, that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
This Lent, and for that matter, each day of our lives, we are called to make a choice. Do we throw off our fallen nature and walk the road of the redeemed—with our eyes focused upon heaven? Or, do we continue to walk the plank that leads to earthly success despite knowing that the here-and-now is not our final destination? That is our choice.