I’d like to begin this week’s reflection with a story about someone I hold dear in my life. I appreciate stories, because stories form us and teach us. They help us find meaning in our lives. So this one has meaning in my life and my life with God.
I am the first born of a first born, a child with favored status, and one who would come to know unconditional love. That all important person in my life was my paternal grandmother. At the age of 12, when my parents ended their marriage, she was my support. Weekend visitations with my dad, meant a Sunday afternoon trip to her home, the day of the week I most cherished. As a 12 year-old, my worries were about navigating the emotions of two bitter parents, and as a teenager, she would come to know my angst with an unjust stepfather. Later, she would be there to share my joys and for any life crisis that would come along. Over time we became best friends, and eventually, we built a bond that transcended understanding when we would intuitively connect with one another. There came a time when I knew, beyond any knowing, that it was time for a visit, and when I stopped in unexpectedly, she would say, “I knew you were coming today”.
My grandmother began gardening in her mid-sixties, after my grandfather died. He was the family gardener, but she would prove to all of use that her thumb was green as well. One day, when she was in her 80s, she invited me to take some onions from the garden. She often shared produce with anyone who visited. On this day, she asked me to take two, since the remainder would go into her cold storage for the winter. I complied. Later in the week, I found out she was angry with me for taking more than my share. I hadn’t. It turned out to be an animal that raided her garden. I was heartbroken. She believed I disrespected her, something I would never do. The idea of doing something to disobey or disrespect the most important person in my life was unimaginable. She eventually learned the truth and we talked about what happened, and all was fine.
For me, the readings for this week are stories about reverence and love. In the previous chapter of Exodus, chapter 19, God tells Moses, “You have seen how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now, if you obey me completely and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured possession among all peoples.” Ex 19:4-5. God expresses a conditional love for the Israelites, and sends Moses from the mountain with a set of expectations or “the rules”. I’ve often wondered why rules were needed if in most of our readings, we know God loved his people unconditionally. It’s clear there were times when his people didn’t love him, or didn’t know him in a way that spoke of reverence and respect. So, God let His people know who He was and what he expected of them – in a fire and brimstone kind of way.
I’ve never believed my God was a fire and brimstone God, maybe because I understood what it meant to be loved fully and unconditionally, by family, and through family, by God. In so many of our Sunday readings, we are reminded of how much God loves us. If we think about this week’s readings from the perspective of love and reverence, the interpretation changes. Perhaps the Commandments become something else. Let’s consider instead, that the commandments become an intimate sharing of what’s important to God. We deepen our love for each other in our most intimate moments, when we share the contents of our hearts. So, consider God saying:
Love me and only me, trust me and surrender to me fully.
Respect me and hold my name and our relationship sacred in all you say and do.
Spend time with me, I know your life is busy, but being with you brings me the greatest joy.
Love and respect your parents, and every person in your life, they are also important to me. They were given to you so you may know my love through them.
In an intimate loving relationship with God, we don’t need to be “commanded”, instead, we give ourselves openly and freely to Him.
The story of Jesus in the temple continues the theme of reverence. There is no greater love than the love between Jesus and His Father, and Jesus has a strong reaction to the disrespect which is evident to him in the temple. Jesus is fully aware of His Father’s love for his people, yet the temple, a place of worship and devotion for that love, is desecrated. Religion in Jesus’ day seemed less about worship, and more about routine and business- pay the coin and offer the sacrifice. Where was the faith, the love and respect of God and neighbor? It’s not hard to imagine we would have the same reaction if someone we cared about was disrespected? It seems Jesus needed a bit of fire and brimstone to bring awareness to the Romans, and the Jews, and still they didn’t understand.
In the season of Lent, we contemplate God’s love for us in the humanity of Jesus, the One sent to save us. We read in the verse before the gospel, a verse we know well, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16). How can we not know God’s unconditional love through the sacrifice of Jesus? Imagine the angst Jesus felt knowing how much the Father loved his people, yet, they didn’t return that love. Even in trying to explain to them what was happening, it took his resurrection before any of them, even his closest companions, would truly understand.
Lent is about our growing in our relationship with God. If we spend time understanding what it means to be loved fully, how might that change how we respond to God and the teachings of Jesus? If we view the commandments as intimate requests from someone who loves us, how does that change our view of neighbor- our brothers and sisters in Christ? As we continue our Lenten journey, how might we develop more fully our intimacy with God?
During Lent we have an opportunity to reflect on our shortcomings, and to seek the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I remember as a child, saying I was going to “confession”, and later, the Sacrament of Penance. But I really appreciate the language of reconciliation. Reconciliation is consistent with building relationships, whereas confession is an admission of wrongdoing, and penance is an expression of repentance, neither of which speak to the intimacy of relationship like reconciliation does.
So, as we sit in Church on Easter morning, may we come to know through the Pascal Mystery what it truly means to be in relationship with God and most especially, to be loved unconditionally.