“Gleanings” offers spiritual reflections from some of the Christian tradition’s most insightful and beloved authors. This time around, Madonna House founder Catherine Doherty and Jesuit James Martin offer thoughts about Lent; priest and author Henri Nouwen expresses the hope we all share for a fruitful Lent; and martyred Orthodox priest Alexander Men and British author Caryll Houselander speak to the joy of Easter Resurrection. We offer them to you for your Lenten/Easter meditations.
Lent: School of Love, Catherine Doherty
Lent is God’s lovemaking to man. But God’s lovemaking is strange. He knows, for instance, that a child is trained to jump by having first a little brick to jump over, for his feet are very tiny; then two bricks; then three; and finally the Olympic jump—whatever it is.
Why do we have to train children and ourselves? Because as we discipline ourselves, our road to God becomes more sure. My goal is Jesus Christ. At first I move like a baby, then a little faster, and finally I’m able to run. Lent is the time of re-learning how to run towards God instead of wandering about aimlessly.
When one is a runner or a skier, one has to discipline and train oneself. Lent is a training for love. And God brings obstacles so that we might become a little faster, a little more disciplined. For he is the Lover who is standing there waiting for us to come. He knows that he has to wait for us to grow in his love.
On Ash Wednesday we had ashes placed on our foreheads. What a curious Catholic custom! What does it mean, having ashes on your forehead? It means that you came from the earth and to the earth you will return. It means that you have only this life in which to prove that you love God….
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Remember, man, that you are but dust….” Ah, but what dust! You’re dust that is going to be one with God. Isn’t that enough to make you dance right in the middle of this ash business?
We’re not an ordinary dust, we’re a dust that is going to be eternal; a dust that is going to be glorified; a dust that’s going to be with God. So, we received those ashes with joy—a joy based on discipline—and entered the corridor of Lent. Then, even today, before we die, we can see his face, as through a veil.
(Source: Catherine Dougherty, Season of Mercy)
The Five Lessons of Good Friday, James Martin, S.J.
The sufferings and death of Jesus, which Christians commemorate on Good Friday, may seem far removed from our everyday lives. After all, it is almost impossible to imagine that anyone reading this essay will ever be crucified. (On the other hand, persecution of Christians continues in many parts of the world even today.) So what can the story of Jesus’s crucifixion, as recorded in the Gospels almost 2,000 years ago, teach us about our own lives?
1: Physical suffering is part of life
Unlike philosophies or belief systems that suggest that suffering is more or less an illusion, Jesus says this from the cross: suffering is real. As a fully human person, Jesus suffered. On Good Friday, he was beaten, tortured and then nailed to a cross, the most agonizing way the Roman authorities had devised for capital punishment. There, according to the Gospels, he hung for three hours. Victims of crucifixion died either from loss of blood or, more commonly, asphyxiation, as the weight of their bodies pulled on their wrists, compressed their lungs and made breathing impossible. Jesus’s life, like any human life, included physical suffering, and an immense amount of it on Good Friday.
But even before Good Friday, Jesus suffered physically, because he had a human body like yours and mine. Growing up in the tiny town of Nazareth, and later as an adult traveling throughout Galilee and Judea, Jesus likely had headaches, got the flu, sprained an ankle or two, and perhaps even broke a bone—in an era of lousy sanitation and only the most primitive of “medical” knowledge. As a fully human person with a fully human body, he suffered physical aches and pains. Good Friday was not the only day he suffered physically.
2: Emotional suffering is part of life
When Christians speak of Jesus’s suffering on Good Friday, they tend to focus on his physical trials. Many Early Renaissance artists, for example, depicted that agony in gruesome detail, as a way of reminding Christians of what their Savior underwent. But Jesus’s “Agony on the Cross” included emotional sufferings as well. In these emotions we can see further intersections with our lives.
To begin with, Jesus of Nazareth felt a deep sense of abandonment. How could he not? All of his disciples had abandoned him before the crucifixion, save for a few faithful women and the Apostle John. Peter, his closest friend, denied even knowing him. Moreover, Jesus felt the suffering of betrayal: another close friend, Judas, betrayed him outright. How that must have weighed on his heart as he hung on the cross.
Finally, Jesus likely knew the crushing disappointment of seeing his great work seemingly come to an end. That is, he may have felt like a failure. While it’s almost impossible to know what was going on in Jesus’s mind on Good Friday (save for the few words he utters before Pontius Pilate and while on the cross) it’s not unreasonable to think that he lamented the end of his public ministry.
Now, here we enter some complicated theological terrain. On the one hand, since Jesus had a human consciousness, he would not have known what was going to happen. On the other hand, since he had a fully divine consciousness he would have.
So, on the one hand, it is possible that Jesus knew that the Resurrection was coming. (By the way, for anyone who thinks that this “lessens” his suffering, think of being in a dentist’s chair: knowing it will be over soon does not remove the pain.) In fact, Jesus predicts the Resurrection at various points in the Gospel. But it is also possible that Jesus the fully human one may have been surprised on Easter Sunday, when he was raised from the dead.
Thus, as he hung on the cross, Jesus might have mourned the end of his great project—into which he had poured his heart and soul—the end to his hopes for all his followers, the end to all that he tried to do for humanity. And so he says, “It is finished.”
3: Suffering is not the result of sin
Sometimes it is. If we do something sinful or make immoral decisions that lead to our suffering, we could say that this suffering comes as the result of sin. But most of the time, particularly when it comes to illness and other tragedies, it is assuredly not. If you still harbor any doubts about that, think about this: Jesus, the sinless one, suffered a great deal. He was not being “punished for his sins.”
This idea was more or less common in Jesus’s time. In the Gospel of John, when Jesus meets a man who was born blind, his disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered bluntly. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.”
Sadly, this attitude is still common today. Recently, friend living with inoperable cancer received a visit from friends she knew from her church. They callously told her that they felt her illness was the work of “Satan.” In other words, sin had entered her life and she was being punished. When she told me this, I reminded her not only of the Gospel of John, but Jesus’s own suffering.
4: Jesus is fully human
Christians believe that Jesus Christ is fully human and fully divine. Now this is, as theologians like to say, a mystery, something that we will never be able to fully comprehend. But belief in this is essential for Christian belief. Besides, attempts to paint Jesus as either only human or only divine simply don’t square with the Jesus we encounter in the Gospels. We read of him both weeping at the death of his friend Lazarus (hardly something that the classic Aristotelian or Platonic God would do), and we also see him heal the sick, still storms, and raise people from the dead (hardly something that people expected of religious figures in first-century Galilee and Judea, or modern-day anywhere today).
In the events of his Passion, we see Jesus’s humanity on display. On Holy Thursday, in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus says, “Remove this cup.” In other words, I don’t want to die. Only when he realizes that it is his Father’s will that he undergo death, does he assent. But initially the human one expresses, in the bluntest language possible, that he does not wish to die. Later, also revealing his humanity, he utters a great cry from the Cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” I don’t think Jesus ever despaired—to my mind, someone in union with the Father would not be able to do that—but he clearly struggled and, at that moment, felt a profound sense of God’s absence. Here is his humanity on full display.
This is often a consolation to people who pray to Jesus, the risen one in heaven. Why? Because he understands their humanity. He gets it. Christians do not have a God who cannot understand them, because God endured all the things that we do.
5: Suffering is not the last word.
The message of Good Friday is incomplete without Easter. The story of the passion is not simply of a man being brutally tortured, nailed to a cross and executed by the Romans. It is the story of a man who turns himself fully over to the Father’s will, trusts that something new will come out of this offering, and receives the astonishing gift of new life. The message of Easter is not only that Christ is risen, not only that suffering is not the last word, not only that God gives new life, but this: Nothing is impossible with God.
So may you have a prayerful Good Friday, but, more important, may you have a happy Easter.
(Source: Huffington Post, April 17, 2014)
Finding God Again, Henri Nouwen
How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death? Yes, Lord, I have to die—with you, through you, and in you—and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed and anger, impatience and stinginess…. I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.
(Source: A Cry for Mercy: Prayers from the Genesee)
Christ is Risen!, Alexander Men
When you and I turn to the Holy Scriptures and read about those radiant days when the Lord appeared after His Resurrection, let us reflect on something very important which we may not all have noticed. He appeared to many people, but to each of them in a different way.
On one occasion, it was the weeping Mary Magdalene, grieving along by the empty tomb; another time it was Peter, confused and troubled after returning from the garden, where he had found the stone rolled away from the tomb. Later we see the disciples on the lake. John senses the Lord’s presence in his heart and recognizes Him; Peter plunges in at once and swims to Him. Then, as we read in the letters of the Apostle Paul, among the last people to whom the Lord appeared was Paul himself—or Saul, who used to persecute the Church of God.
This continues even now. The risen Christ is unseen, but manifests Himself imperceptibly to each of us. Any one of us who in our lives has sensed, even for a moment, the proximity of another world has had an encounter with the risen Lord. He comes to everyone, knocking at the door of their hearts and finding His own words for each one.
Our task is to listen, to respond to that knock, for the Lord has come to save, revive, and change the lives of each one of us. So on Easter Day, as we return to our homes, may each of us take that joy away with us in our hearts; along with the thought that the Lord has manifested Himself to me, He has risen for my sake as well. He speaks to me, He remains with me and always will—as my Lord, my Savior, and my God.
May the Lord preserve you.
(Source: Awake to Life!)
It is Easter morning.
Christ unwinds the burial bands
and lays them by:
the balm and the spikenard,
the anointing of tears,
the soundless snow
of the white sleep of death,
the body of Christ lays by.
He sets His feet on the dust.
He extends His open hands
with a supreme gesture of love.
He uncovers His heart.
It is not a ghost
who walks in the silver
of morning light;
the shadow that falls on the tombs
is the shadow of a man
of flesh and blood…
Christ rises from the dead.
There is no salute of guns,
only everywhere in the world
there are men who are aware
of a silence that is audible,
that is heard only inside the heart,
telling the wordless secret
of ultimate joy.
man is listening
for the first footsteps
of the risen Christ.
an unseen bird singing
and leaves opening
one by one
in a multitudinous green solitude.
In the silence
he hears the beat
of his own pulse.
It gathers like a tide rising
inside the throbbing in his forehead.
He hears the drumming
of the sap rising
from the roots of the world
and the infinitesimal music
of the tiny hammering
of life under the earth,
and the tap, tap in the egg.
In the red bud of his heart
summer is slumbering,
warm and murmurous
as a swarm of bees,
on heavy honey of golden light.
His heart swells
with a new and secret majesty,
and now he knows
that it is not his own pulse
that he hears in the silence
and feels with his finger-tips
in his thin wrist;
it is the eternal heartbeat
of Absolute Love.
(Source: “Holy Saturday,” in The Flowering Tree)