The Message and the Messenger
Coming as they do in the middle of Lent, today’s readings invite us to consider our Lenten journey. Not necessarily to consider how we’re doing in staying away from chocolate, beer, or trashy novels : when you get right down to it, concerns like these focus mostly on ourselves and our willpower – or lack of same ! It’s good to fast, but this type of fasting is more peripheral business than the main point of this slow, steady journey whose destination is first, Holy Week, and then, at long last, Easter.
Today we’re being invited to contemplate how God is connected to that journey. We begin, as always, with experiences of God’s people in the past. And so we read that “early and often the LORD, the God of their fathers, [sent] his messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place” (2 Chronicles 36 : 14). We hear St. Paul reminding the Ephesians that “even when we were dead in our transgressions, [God] brought us to life with Christ” (2 : 5 ). And we see Nicodemus finally get some straight talk from Jesus concerning God’s love for the world (John 3:16) and Jesus’ role in that love.
God gives – that’s who he is. For ancient Israel, his giving involved sending, “early and often,” out of “compassion on his people,” messengers to bring the people back to their covenant-loyalty. But as it happened, Israel refused “early and often” to listen to those messengers. Who knows ? Israel was probably quite good at maintaining the schedule of sacrifices at the Temple and at keeping impure foods away from its tables. We can imagine that if there’d been a time of year not to eat chocolate (and if
they’d had it), the Israelites would have been punctilious in avoiding that, too. But it seems that God wasn’t really interested in that kind of activity unless it was accompanied by a desire to receive the gift he was sending through his messengers, namely the gift of his Word, his very Self.
The people to whom the prophets were sent, from the time of Elijah until the last prophet mentioned by today’s text in 2 Chronicles, Jeremiah, had set up systems to manage things – so much for God, so much for themselves. Efficient. Tidy. Correct. But also lacking in recognition that God was always the one to initiate, always the one who gave and wished to be received. Psalm 50 makes that quite clear, when God asks :
Do I eat the flesh of bulls
or drink the blood of he-goats ? (v. 13)
And a little bit later, he asks the most devastating question of all :
Do you think that I am like you ? (v. 21)
In many ways, it seems that they did, but they were wrong. As today’s Psalm (137) reminds us, despite having a thriving Temple-based religion, Israel wound up making a literal journey, a “trail of tears,” into Babylon in 586 BCE. There, the people hung their harps on the aspens and sang songs for their captors, but they also reflected on their exile and its causes. This reflection led them to a different sense of themselves in relation to their God. An entire tradition that placed more emphasis on knowledge of God’s word than on animal sacrifice had its roots in Israel’s “journey” into Exile and back home again.
Fast forward to the time immediately after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and hear Paul tell the Ephesians the same home truth : “even when we were dead in our transgressions, God brought us to life in Christ.” Paul is clear that our life is not our own affair : “by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you ; it is the gift of God ; it is not from works, so no one may boast.” “Not from works.” That’s a tough idea for human beings, whether members of the little church of Ephesus of long ago or the big Church of all Christians today. We like to do things ourselves. It’s very hard to admit need. Very hard to truly believe that I’m not in charge, whether I’m an ancient Israelite, a first century Ephesian, or – a 21st century reader of this essay !
The readings at this Lenten mid-point are suggesting that we ask : What do I really need ? Do I really need God’s mercy on my journey or can I actually manage quite well without it – skip chocolate, beer, and Facebook for 40 days and call it a draw ? And if I can acknowledge that, in fact, I do need God’s mercy, am I open to receive it ? What will I have to do in order to recognize it when it appears in my life ? What will my response be ? That’s where the fasting (not to mention the praying and almsgiving) can really help : not as an end in itself but as a means to focus our hearts on what really matters.
So one thing we can take away from today’s readings is God’s great desire to lavish his grace and mercy upon us. Maybe this is the moment to discover our own desire for them.
In addition, the readings invite us to wonder : who are the messengers that God has sent or is sending me, no doubt “early and often” ? Jesus, of course, and the apostles, saints, and various other obvious figures ! But we know that God rarely works in obvious ways, so it’s likely that his messengers are even closer than those others, excellent and necessary as they are. Could it be that my brother or sister is a messenger from God, or my spouse, or my children ? Or that cantankerous old coot whose dog is always getting into my yard, or that sulky teen with the big sunglasses and the short skirts who never says thank you, or that immigrant lady who can’t read in her own language, never mind in mine ?
Suppose they are. What messages from God are they giving me ?
And what about me ? Could God be using me as a messenger to someone ? What message am I giving ?
My God, let it be about your love and mercy first and always. Amen.
Sr. Nuala Cotter, ra
Worcester, United States