Inside the Host

A Eucharistic host is usually small. At my first communion, it was about the size of a nickle and so thin I thought it was a sticker. The host that goes into a monstrance is closer to the size of a silver dollar but it’s still awfully thin. So why put such a small thing into a fancy monstrance? The word comes from the Latin monstrare meaning to show, indicating that a monstrance shows something hidden in the small host. As if the monstrance in itself were not enough, from medieval times up to recent modern times, the host was carried in elaborate processions through public places. Just a few years ago, I witnessed such a procession in Innsbruck that featured prayers given by the city dignitaries and rifle salutes by the Landwehr.

So what’s the big deal? Many religious thinkers not sympathetic to such devotions have asked the question and with a full heap of scorn and have complained of attempts to imprison Christ in a small piece of bread. This accusation misses the point. It isn’t that some evil bishop kidnaped Jesus and locked him up in the piece of bread. Rather, Jesus himself offered himself to us in the bread at the Last Supper. In a mysterious way, the piece of bead has become the Body of Christ. That really is a big deal.

But how can this be? How can a piece of bread ever become the Body of Christ? Jesus did not explain it, which is as good a reason as any for us not to try to explain it either. I personally find attempted explanations along the line of transubstantiation interesting as I savor the paradoxical reasoning of substance and accident becoming at odds with each other, but I have to admit this is more of a puzzle game than an act of devotion. After all, we aren’t saved by a metaphysical formula; we are saved by Jesus. And it is Jesus who invites us into the tiny home that he has made in the host. The very word expands:” “host” as in sacrifice (from hostias) as well as a host who invites us as a guest. (Any host knows that there is some sacrifice in inviting a guest.)

Just the notion of one person being invited by Jesus to an intimate meal as in George Herbert’s celebrated poem Love III would entail quite an expansion of space inside the a Eucharistic host. But there is much more. Jesus invited all twelve of his disciples to his Last Supper and it is possible that many more attended as well. In any case, Jesus invites not just one person, however individual and focused each invitation might be, but a multitude of people to the meal, so the inside of the host is more the size of an infinite banqueting hall. And the meal offered by Jesus has brought in the whole of creation that made the bread on the altar possible to begin with.

But there is much more. Since it is the person of Jesus who invites us in the sacrament, then we are meeting up with the whole person, not an outward persona such as what a maitre D’ in a restaurant would present us with. Besides meeting the person who healed the sick and the crippled, told mysterious parables, and commended the lilies of the field, we are meeting the person who was crucified on account of the social tensions we humans were not able to solve. The tomb in which Jesus was laid would have been a real prison except that it couldn’t hold him and it exploded inside out as Jesus was raised from the dead. So, inside the Eucharistic host, we are meeting the crucified and risen Jesus who is also glorified in Heaven. The inside just keeps on expanding.

There is still more. The crucifixion of Jesus is not an isolated act of one person: it is an act that absorbs every single unjust act of violence committed against every human being for all time. So all of the horrific atrocities we know of and many more are all included with the crucified Jesus inside the Eucharistic Host. This is the reason that the Eucharist has profound social significance. It isn’t just about me and Jesus; it’s about everybody and Jesus and we share with Jesus the suffering of everybody. And yes, there is still more. If every human atrocity is absorbed in the crucifixion which is present in the little host, then all the more is the redemption of the Resurrection present, a presence to raise every unjust act up to God for God to vindicate every injustice. The crucifixion absorbing all crucifixions is dark and unspeakable. It is all the space of infinite nothingness. (It has been asked if there can be poetry after the Holocaust.) The dazzling darkness of the Resurrection is even more unspeakable in its embrace of all crucifixions. This darkness is more infinite than the first. All of this inside a Eucharistic host no matter how small on the outside. Quite a lot to swallow.

The Risen and Ascended Living Interpreter of Scripture

In Luke’s Gospel, the first thing Jesus does after rising from the dead is explain the scriptures to two of his followers on the Road to Emmaus, explaining how it was “necessary” that the Messiah “suffer these things and then enter his glory.” (Lk. 24: 26) The last thing Jesus does before his Ascension is explain the scriptures to the disciples in the same way. Understanding this “necessity” is a tricky business. For whom was it “necessary?” It is ludicrous to suggest that it was “necessary” for God that the Messiah should suffer. On the contrary, Luke, like the other Gospel writers, tells the story of Jesus’ execution on the cross in such a way as to stress the necessity on the part of humans that Jesus die in order to bring “peace” to Jerusalem. The key to understanding the scriptures that Jesus opened his disciples’s minds to is this human necessity that the Messiah (Jesus) die so that “repentance for the forgiveness of sins. . . be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” Lk. 24: 47) So what was “necessary” for God? For God the only thing necessary was to raise Jesus from the dead so that he could continue to open our minds to the true meaning of the scriptures as a living interpreter.

Luke’s Gospel and its sequel, Acts, reveals quite clearly the human tendency to solve social problems through collective violence as theorized by René Girard. But these writings also reveal a deeper and much brighter truth about the human potential for sympathy and empathy. This is where Resurrection and Ascension, repentance and forgiveness, all come in. In announcing the Jubilee in his inaugural sermon in Luke, Jesus proclaims a gathering through sympathy and caring rather than through competitive tensions and violence. This new gathering involves freeing prisoners, giving sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free. (Lk. 4: 18) In his teaching, Jesus makes the words quoted from Isaiah his own in his famous parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. In opening the scriptures to the disciples, Jesus is not only revealing the truth of collective violence but also the human potential for sympathy that leads to forgiveness and reconciliation as taught in these parables. From there, Jesus leads us even deeper into the self-giving love shown on the cross, a love we too may need to embrace. More important by far, Jesus embodies this teaching and revelation in his own act of forgiveness and thus enables the same in each of us.

A dead Messiah wouldn’t be available to enact and enable repentance, forgiveness and costly self-giving. Only a Messiah who is very much alive can do that. This is why Jesus, having been raised from the dead and now ascended into heaven, is seated at the “right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.” (Eph. 1: 20–21) The image of all things placed under Jesus’ feet suggests the earthly rulers who use their fallen enemies as a footstool. (Ps. 110: 1) I suspect this is the image the disciples have when they ask Jesus just before the Ascension if now he is “to restore the kingdom to Israel.” (Acts 1: 6) But Jesus, in opening the scriptures to the disciples, has revealed his kingship to be one of sympathy, forgiveness, and compassion; in short a kingship based on the Jubilee proclaimed at the start of his ministry. Rather than thumping his foot on us, Jesus bends down and raises us up to his seat. In revealing his true kingship, Jesus has not only opened up the scriptures to us, but he has opened up the truth of human history as well, a truth more glorious than the “necessary” violence that we think gives life its “meaning.” As the key to scripture and history, Jesus fulfills Paul’s prayer that “the eyes of [our] hearts may be enlightened in order that [we] may know the hope to which he has called [us], the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.” (Eph. 1: 18–19)

Hearing and Seeing the Good Shepherd

With a bewildering shift, John 10 skips three months and interrupts the Good Shepherd Discourse with Jesus fending urgent inquiries as to whether or not he is the Messiah. (“How long will you keep us in suspense?) (Jn. 10: 24) For all of the intensity of asking, the Jews don’t really seem to be asking. Rather, they seem to have made up their minds that Jesus is not the Messiah. (Prophets don’t come from Galilee. Isn’t that obvious? Just look at the scriptures.)

Jesus then returns to the Good Shepherd theme, saying that those hounding him do not believe in him because they are not of his sheep. His sheep, on the other hand, know his voice and follow him. Are the “Jews” ontologically incapable of believing in Jesus? That doesn’t seem possible, but throughout his Gospel, John is showing us how it is possible to become willfully hard of hearing. This raises the question: Are we equally hard of hearing?

Being able to hear Jesus’ voice has to do with a certain amount of openness to Jesus. It isn’t just a case of being open-minded in general, although that can help. There is a special kind of openness that is required here. The ones who hear Jesus’ voice are the ones who respond to the works Jesus does, the works that testify to who and what he is. This whole Good Shepherd passage follows straight on from Jesus’ healing of the man born blind and the long hostile discussion with the Jews that followed. Those who rejected the miracle are the ones who are blind, but those who see the miracle for what it is, can see with the sharpness of the formerly blind man. These are the sheep who know Jesus’ voice and follow him.

What follows is an extraordinary verse that I admit has slipped by me all these years: “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” (Jn. 210: 29 For Jesus, the sheep who see his acts of healing and hear his voice are the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field worth selling everything for it, including his life. But what of those who do not hear Jesus’ voice, and what of ourselves if we do not hear it? Does Jesus throw the blind and hard of hearing away? But Jesus says here that nobody can snatch this treasure, each and every one of us, out of his hand. Throughout the Gospel, and especially in the story of Jesus’ healing the man born blind and the Good Shepherd discourses, there has been a sharp division between those who see and hear and those who don’t, suggesting the deaf are doomed. Yet here Jesus gives us a pre-echo of his prayer in chapter seventeen that we all might be one. Here we enter a mystery where we do not take seeing and hearing for granted. If we all are going to be one in Jesus, we must all hear deeply the voices of those around us and seek deeply to speak in ways that can be heard in a healing way. Since Jesus himself is the Forgiving Victim, hearing his voice in the voices of other people includes special attention to the voices of oppressed people, the victims of racism and other social evils, learning to hear that whatever racism we hear and see in our hearts, and any oppression we inflict on others victimizes us as much as it does other victims. It is this deep listening, this deep seeing of God’s will to heal our blindness and deafness that will make us all one.

The Gentle Resurrection

Luke’s first Resurrection narrative is the quietest of all four Gospels. Matthew is easily the loudest with an earthquake announcing the event. That’s our idea of Easter! Mark is puzzling and a bit of a cliffhanger with the women running away from the tomb out of fright. That’s still a pretty intense reaction. John is almost as quiet with the women finding the tomb empty before Jesus appears to Mary, but Luke is quieter still. The women are puzzled by the empty tomb and the announcement of the two men in dazzling clothes. They do tell the disciples but the disciples don’t believe them, not just because they are women but because the news is too unbelievable. The narrative ends with Peter looking into the empty tomb, amazed, but scratching his head.

There is an air of suspended reality about all this. Much of it has to do with the shock of grief over the death of a loved one. In the shock of grief, nothing seems real, least of all the absence of the loved one. It’s like the person is there and not there. This isn’t what we think Easter is all about but I would argue that this is the most realistic entry into this stupendous event. We are used to thinking of earth-shaking events as–well–events that shake up the world. But these sorts of events don’t really change the world as they are the same old acts of competition and violence and force that have been with us since Cain killed Abel. If the Resurrection were such an earth-shaking event, it would actually have kept the world going in the same old rut of retaliatory violence. That the Resurrection is so low-key, especially in Luke’s version, shows us that the Resurrection does indeed embody a radical act of non-violence, giving us all the space we need, century after century, the discern why it was “necessary” that Jesus be handed over to sinners, crucified and then rise from the dead. The necessity for the death was, of course, a human necessity as Caiaphas affirmed. (Jn. 11: 15) The Resurrection, though, is God’s necessity. It was necessary that God raise Jesus to give us an undying life-giving presence for all time. But this presence needed to be totally without violence, i..e. without force of any kind, just as Jesus’ death had to result from renouncing all violence in the face of evil. Not even the earthquake in Matthew forced Jesus’ resurrected life on anybody.

St. Paul writes about being baptized into Christ’s death before rising with him. (Rom. 6: 3) The initial phase of disorientation described by Luke is very much a feeling of death as the world the disciples had been living in had also been rendered unreal, even if the imperial order continued unabated as it always had done. There is a lot more to dying to the old self than giving up our own personal sins. More than that, we need to die to the culture of violence we are immersed in so as to enter the life-giving nonviolence of the resurrected life. Since there is nothing earthshaking about it, nothing to make headlines, it may not seem like much, but to the contrary, embracing the forgiving life is indeed everything.

We may think that nothing has changed when we read about the virulent racism in our own country and around the world. Even worse is the horrific act of violence in Ukraine, which makes headlines, but is really only a repeat of what Rome was doing in Jesus’ time. But something has changed over the centuries. We now have oppressed people throughout the world arising in non-violent protest, including Martin Luther King Jr and William Barber II. We have a world-wide protest against the invasion of Ukraine and many countries doing what they can to help their stricken neighbor. These are all signs of the Resurrection in the midst of the horror and death that Jesus suffered on the Cross. The Resurrection, though, isn’t just about events on a large scale. It is also about small events of love and concern for the well-being of others day after day with the people right next to us—our neighbors.

The Work of a Slave

When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Likewise, when he passed the bread and the wine, he stressed the importance of what he was doing. Both acts were to be remembered and done in memory of Jesus. And both are to this day, although the footwashing is not anywhere near as common as the eating and drinking of the bread and wine.

What is it about the footwashing that has put it into a very low second place? Logistics may have something to do with it but a look at its meaning, the sign that Jesus is giving us, probably has a lot more to do with our not even talking about it all that much. In the Greco-Roman world, it was slaves who washed the feet of their masters and their masters’ guests. That Jesus would do the work of a slave must have been shocking at the time and still is, if we consider the implication that imitating Jesus’ act is not confined to literally washing the feet of others but entails acting as a slave to others. Fundamentally, being a slave means to be in the hands of another person. If we are supposed to put ourselves into the hands of others like this, what does this say about trying to enslave another human being? Jesus himself was about to put himself into the hands of others with the result that he would be crucified. If the disciples still remembered the anointing of the feet of Jesus by Mary of Bethany six days ago, that too would have added to their discomfort. This discomfort extends to the parallel versions of this story

The woman ( or women) in the Gospel stories poured out her very substance (the expense of the perfume or oil) in devotion to Jesus. Likewise, Jesus poured out his very self to his disciples in washing their feet just as he was about to pour out his life for all people to put an end to the violence that includes the enslaving of other people. In those Gospel stories, the women were commended as examples of discipleship. If Jesus thought these women were such good examples, it makes sense that Jesus was humble enough to learn from them and do for his disciples what the women had done for him. There is no indication in any variant of the story that the disciples were reconciled to what the women had done. Did Peter take umbrage at Jesus for washing his feet because he associated it with the women as much as he associated it with slavery?

With the bread and wine, Jesus again poured himself into the two elements just as he poured out his life on the cross. So it is that the footwashing and the Eucharist both mean the same thing. We have put up with the Eucharist more than the footwashing because we have been able to sidestep this meaning by arguing about the metaphysics of Jesus’ presence. But the real presence of Jesus is his pouring himself into the hands of others and through them, the hands of his heavenly Abba. Paul knew this very well but we also conveniently forget that the context of his recalling the Last Supper is to upbraid the Corinthians for violating its meaning through denigrating the weaker and poorer members of the assembly.

Jesus rebuked Peter for refusing to have his feet washed, warning him that he would have no share in him. (Jn. 13: 8) This warning converts Peter so powerfully that he goes overboard and asks to be washed all over. He has allowed Jesus to be a slave to him so that he could be a slave to Jesus and all people. This conversion did not prevent him from denying Jesus three times but it allowed him to hear the cock crow and then to affirm his love to the Resurrected Jesus three times. This is what both the footwashing and the Eucharist are all about.

Giving Everything and More

The meal at Bethany served by Martha seems to be an ordinary meal but in reality it is extraordinary. To begin with, John explicitly says that it is six days before Passover. This puts the meal in the context of the most solemn festival of the Jewish year. For another thing, Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, is present. The imminent offering of the paschal lamb and resurrection are both brought together. Even more extraordinary is the extravagant anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious perfume by Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Jesus interprets Mary’s action as a preparation for his burial, which he seems to expect is imminent, thus tying his death with the both the Passover and Resurrection. Judas’s protest over this “waste” shows that the hostility against Jesus has reached the inner circle of his disciples.

All four Gospels have a story of a woman who pours expensive ointment or perfume over Jesus, but the differences are striking. Matthew and Mark are very close parallels. Just before the Passover and Jesus’ Passion, an unnamed woman enters the house of Simon the Leper, who lives in Bethany, pours the ointment and dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. The disciples as a group protest the “waste.” This is much the same story as in John except the host is different. (Mt. 26: 6–13), Mk. 14: 3–9) Luke tells the same story except that it is placed much earlier in his Gospel and is not connected to the Passover and the Passion. (Lk. 7: 36–50) That the anonymous woman is called “a sinner” adds a sharp edge to the story. The host is Simon and he is identified as a Pharisee. He grumbles that Jesus should have known the woman was a sinner and elicits a famous parable on sin and repentance. The woman in Matthew and Mark, like the sinful woman in Luke, is so froward with Jesus that she too is considered a loose women if not a sinner. Mary of Bethany in John is more respectable and is a hostess rather than an intruder, which gives the story a very different feel from the other three, but this respectability makes the gesture all the more shocking. Respectable women don’t act this way.

It is intellectually interesting to piece together the symbolism in John and the relationships between the four versions of the story. If we let all of this seep deeply into us, it can be quite spiritually stimulating. But what really connects the women in all four versions is the extravagance of the woman which is warmly commended by Jesus. Even if we are shocked by these women (or woman), we should be even more shocked at ourselves over how little we care about Jesus. Are we like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his table but showed no affection? Are we like the apostles who complained about the waste? To this day, we tend to look down on this woman, thinking the worst of her, when Jesus would have us look up to her as an example of apostolic zeal. It is worth noting that in Luke Mary of Bethany is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus listening to this teaching while Martha (as in John) serves the meal. Here, Mary of Bethany shows her ardor but in a more contemplative way.

Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” In this generosity, God is pouring Godself out as extravagantly as the women with the ointments, and surely God does need see this extravagance as“wasteful.” (Is. 43: 19–21) When Paul writes to the Philippians that he is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” his words gush out like ointment flowing out of control. (Phil. 3: 12–14) Bob Dylan expresses this gush in his song “Pressing on” which repeats these words over and over with greater and greater intensity that becomes overwhelming.

The women and Paul return the overflowing love of God back to God while the rest of us sit back and grumble at the unseemliness of it all. Do we not realize that the women who let their hair down and gush out their love for Jesus will also gush out that same commitment to Jesus who is present in the poor? Meanwhile, the complaining disciples, and especially Judas, don’t really mean to help the poor or anybody else. More importantly, do we not realize that on the Cross, Jesus’ blood will pour forth as did the ointment poured over him? It isn’t that all of us have to be as emotional as these women and Paul, but we do need to be as deeply committed to Jesus so as approach the deep commitment Jesus shows to us. We should take to heart Leonard Bernstein’s directions to a choir and orchestra: “Give me everything you’ve got, and then a crescendo.”

On Saving a Fig Tree

Both Matthew and Mark have brief stories of Jesus cursing a fig tree for not bearing fruit even though it is not the season for figs. The story is puzzling and some people think Jesus is just throwing a childish tantrum.

Fig trees, like vines, have much resonance throughout the Bible and the Gospels are almost certainly referring to some of the verses about them. In 1 Kings 4: 21 it says: “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.” Micah prophesies that “they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken.” (Micah 4: 4) In contrast to these images of well-being, Jeremiah complains that “there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.” (Jer, 8: 13) The fig tree appears to stand for Israel as a whole in these instances and they make Jesus’ curse of the fig tree understandable as a prophetic warning that Israel is on the verge of becoming irremediably fruitless.

In Luke, Jesus refers to two recent disasters:: Pilate’s mingling the blood of some Galileans with his sacrifices, and the collapse of the Tower of Siloam. (Lk. 13: 1–5) He scotches the blame game where we assume the victims deserve what they got, but warns the crowd that all will perish in an equally horrible way if they do not repent. Paul refers to a series of disasters at least as ghastly in First Corinthians: the Israelites fell, were destroyed by serpents, or destroyed by the Destroyer on account of sinful behavior. In both examples, there is a mixture of natural causes and human causes, both of which show Israel suffering disaster for failing to bear fruit, like the barren fig tree.

The small parable in Luke (Lk. 13: 6–9) gives us a different take on the fruitless fig tree. The owner is losing patience after three years without fruit and demands that the tree be cut down, but the gardener pleads for one more chance. The gardener will make an extra effort and see if that makes the tree bear some fruit. One wonders if this gardener will ever stop pleading for one more year, year after year. This is in dramatic contrast to the threatening words of imminent disaster the precede the parable.

Jesus’s cursing the fig tree for not bearing fruit and Jesus’ parable seem to work at cross purposes. Is there a resolution to this tension? The Old Testament reading adds weight to the gentler position in Luke. Yahweh, speaking to Moses out of the burning bush, promises to deliver the Israelites from Egypt and bring them to a land where they will find, among other things, fig trees, as Moses’s sermon in Deuteronomy promises. (Ex, 3: 8; Deut. 8: 8) Hosea spoke of Israel as “like the first fruit on the fig tree, in its first season.” (Hos. 9: 10) This initial commitment suggests that God will not give up on Israel easily, and probably not at all, no matter how barren the tree. We can ask ourselves: Are we like the owner who has given up on the fig tree that is human culture today, or are we like the gardener who will keep on trying when we fail to bear fruit year after year?

In his first Epistle, Peter says that Jesus bore our sins in his body on the tree. (1 Pet. 2: 24). Could this tree be the withered fig tree? In the parable in Luke, the gardener says he will put manure around the barren tree. Manure is considered a waste product, but farmers know that it brings fertility. Is Jesus, the stone rejected by the builders, (Ps. 118: 22; Lk. 20: 17) himself the manure that makes the withered tree bear fruit again as Gil Bailie and Paul Nuechterlein suggest? Are we willing to give of ourselves for the sake of others who seem to be as barren as the fig tree?

Living With Jesus’ Temptations

Every year, the first Sunday of Lent has us reflect on Jesus’ testing in the desert. In two of the three years, the Gospel narrates the three temptations presented by the devil. We have been over this terrain many times, but since we struggle with temptation and fall, each year we need to see what insight we might get from the way Jesus dealt with the three temptations. With the help of Luke’s ordering of the temptations, it is easier, compared with Matthew, to see the first two temptations as focused primarily on our relationship with the material world while the third is focused on our relationship with God.

This year, I realized that in the first temptation, it is the devil who offered the stones as raw material for bread. This ties into the second temptation where the devil claims that the kingdoms of this world are his to give. If the devil believes he owns the kingdoms, it is small wonder he thinks he owns the stones in the desert. So who gave the stones and the kingdoms to the devil? God? Hardly, as Jesus makes clear in his reply. The only other possibility is that humans have given the kingdoms and stones to the devil. What does that say about us? I can’t help but think of Jesus’ rhetorical question: “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone?” (Mt. 7: 9) But when we think of all the carbs, fat, sugar, and other junk that goes into so much food these days, aren’t we practically feeding each other stones? This thought leads to the suggestion that in offering the kingdoms and their authority, the devil is offering mountains of stones that threaten to bury us. And with the overwhelming social injustices in our country, not least the racist system that entangles all of us, our social relationships consist of throwing stones at each other rather than offering each other wholesome bread.

The first temptation is closely linked to the feedings in the wilderness narrated six times in the four Gospels. Significantly, Jesus does not pick up stones and turn them into bread; he takes a few loaves of bread and makes many loaves to feed the people. Jesus is not concerned with feeding himself; he is feeding others, and he is using the initial generosity of the disciples (or the boy with some loaves and fish in John) and extending that generosity. Generosity creates abundance while parsimoniousness creates scarcity. There is much we need besides bread alone to live on, and one of them is the willingness to share with others. The same principle applies to our relationships with kingdoms and their authorities. The stones that the devil offers feature sacrificial practices where the well-being of many is sacrificed for the benefit of the few. That is certainly the case where maximizing the bottom line in a business becomes an absolute value to the exclusion of everything else. It is tempting here to wax eloquently about the dictator of a certain country who has unleashed an invasion of another country, but we must not let that distract us from how we ourselves handle social and power relationships.

This brings us to the third temptation. As a promise of care and protection, Psalm 91 is among the most comforting in the Bible. That the devil should quote it to pervert the assurance that the angels will bear us up lest one dash a foot against a stone (Ps. 91: 12) is especially painful. When Jesus replies with Deuteronomy 6: 16: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test,” he gets to the heart of the matter. Yes, we are to trust in God’s providence but not in a way that focuses on self rather than God. We ourselves put God to the test in the same way if we assume we can do what we want and God will protect us from the consequences. The late Tom Truby, a good friend of mine, said in a sermon on this Gospel that our ecological situation is an example of this presumption. The demonic voice says: “Go ahead, jump into environmental free fall, nothing will happen to you.” With this attitude, we are testing God, expecting God to clean up our messes. Instead, we may dry up all the drinking water on the planet.

There came a time when Jesus indeed fell into the pit of death and needed to trust his heavenly Abba and the angels to catch him and raise him up. But far from self-centeredly making a spectacle of himself, Jesus gave his life for the sake of us all. If we think and care deeply for others, we will enter difficult and sometimes dangerous situations for their sake. This is what the psalm verse is about. God and the angels will protect us but, as with Jesus, the protection does not necessarily leave us unscathed in this life. After all, we are venturing into the Paschal Mystery. As material goods such as food and our social relationships need to be focused on the good of others, our dependence on God’s protection must be focused even more deeply in the same way. As Jesus depended on his heavenly Abba and the angels to sustain him during the temptations in the desert and throughout his life and death, so we also must depend on Jesus and his heavenly Abba.

A Brief Message for Ash Wednesday

I am tempted to feel that Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Paschal Mystery of Passiontide and Eastertide have all been upstaged by world politics, most especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What are a few ashes on the forehead compared to armored tanks? The only way to answer the question is to receive the ashes and God’s gift of penitence that they symbolize and then receive the Body and Blood of our Lord in the bread and wine, which is to take into ourselves the Paschal Mystery. Jesus himself was shoved offstage by those who held center-stage and crucified outside the city. (Heb. 13: 12) That is, offstage has become the new center stage where we, too, follow Christ.

Where Are You Planted?

The last time I preached, Jesus announced the Jubilee of God. I suggested that we will likely find the rest of the Gospel filling out what such a Jubilee entails. If that is so, the blessings and woes at the beginning of the Sermon on the Plain (Lk. 6: 20–26) seem to be an odd way to have a jubilee. Usually we think that being rich and being well fed at meals filled with laughter and receiving lots of compliments is precisely how to have a jubilee. On the other hand, being poor and hungry while weeping and being reviled are all downers, but Jesus seems to suggest that these downers are what the jubilee is all about. As for Jesus himself, after he announced the Jubilee, he was spoken well of for about a minute and then it all tanked and he was driven out of the synagogue. So Jesus was already practicing his jubilee in terms of the Sermon on the Plain from the start of his ministry.

Obviously we need all the help we can get for understanding these troubling and puzzling words, so let’s see what we can glean from the first two readings. Jeremiah also talks about blessings and curses. Does he mean that God curses people God doesn’t like? The people that Jeremiah says are cursed “trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength.” (Jer. 17: 5) Sounds like these people are cursing themselves by rejecting God. The contrast of a tree planted by the water and a tree planted in salt land suggest that blessings and curses are simply natural outcomes of being grounded in God or not being so grounded. Jesus, then, picking up on Jeremiah, would be suggesting that the poor and hungry are grounded in God and the rich and sated aren’t. If that is true, then maybe being rich is overrated and is not such a great cause for jubilee. It is worth noting that the Rich Young Man went away sad because he had many possessions.

The words of St. Paul from the end of his First Epistle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15: 12–20) with his anxious defense of the Resurrection suggest the possibility that the reversal takes place in the afterlife. Jesus does hint at that for the reviled and defamed. Maybe a better afterlife can also be some consolation for the poor and starving, but that does not otherwise help us cope with being poor and starving and slandered right now. And Jesus is saying that the poor are blessed now, not just later. The anxiety on Paul’s part is the denial of the resurrection on the part of some supposed followers. What’s the problem? If applying Jeremiah’s words to the Sermon on the Plain leads us to depend on God, we must depend on a living God, not a dead one. Only if Jesus is truly raised from the dead as the apostolic witness avers can Jesus be depended on right now.

So, the big take from Jeremiah and Paul is that we are blessed if we are grounded in God and we are unfortunate if we are not. That much is certainly true and has the advantage of being a pretty big loophole where there didn’t seem to be one: we don’t have to worry about having some economic resources and being well-fed as long as we are grounded in God. But maybe this loophole threatens to be a trap. Surely Jesus is warning us that the more we have, the less likely we are to depend on God.

At this point. I get the feeling I’m fretting that if I have one penny too many, I lose my blessing and become unfortunate. Same if I take one bite of food too many, laugh too much or get one compliment past my quota. There is no end to this spiral unless I stop and turn around. After all, these thoughts are all centered on self. There is no jubilee in such fretting and there is no depending on God either. But what if we think more about other people having something to eat and something to laugh about? What if we stop reviling other people and build them up by letting them know we appreciate them? Doesn’t this start to look a little more like the Jubilee announced by Jesus? If we take this approach, we start to see how we hinder these things and how our social system hinders them. This gives us cause to weep, but if weeping leads to making these things better, then we have turned tears into laughter. But the deeper mystery remains. Sometimes we don’t see the silver lining of being poor and starving, crying and being reviled and these things often happen as a result of doing the things listed above. Jesus is encouraging us by promising that the silver lining we cannot see is really there in the love we pour out for others. He should know, having gone through Gethsemane and the Cross. This is why we are blessed even in such times if we are grounded in the crucified and Risen Christ.