St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
Firstly, Jesus goes to the heart of religious practice in his day. In the Temple people prayed, offered ritual sacrifices and encountered God in a unique way. Jesus is angry not at worshippers, seeking to be transfigured by an encounter with the divine in the only way that they knew, but at people selling cattle and sheep and pigeons, and the money changers sitting at their counters. He insists that he is the new Temple and the new Lamb, sacrificed to take away the sins of the world. He wants to break the moulds that we constantly create to limit the power of God. And he wants to break the idea that God and worship can be packaged. St Paul – in our second reading – knew that Jesus was introducing a liberating way of encountering God, that seemed madness to both Jews and Gentiles.
Thus, the prayer, penance and almsgiving of Lent are not ends in themselves but ways to soften us up so that God can break our dependence on my wants and pet projects. That comes from the childish temptation to give divine infallibility to 'my truth', my 'Ten Commandments'. Lent's difficult journey challenges us to be open to the real bad habits that need to be broken. Jesus wants to break down my protective ways that expect God to serve my agenda. Jesus asks whether I trust the wise foolishness of God's agenda or would rather curl up in a Temple of my own making, dreaming of nothing better than what I decide suits me. A faith life that does not go beyond comforting ritual was deficient then and is now. Are you journeying into uncomfortable territory with Jesus this Lent?
Secondly, the earlier followers of Jesus knew that there was still need for sacred space and time to be fed by the power of divine weakness and foolishness. They met in their homes as a community to pray and break bread. St Paul was clear that people are the Body of Christ which is the church. Jesus goes beyond the idea that sacred buildings are magic places. They are places where the people of God meet God and each other, bearing witness to the power of God and the possibility of friendship. There is always the temptation to fragment church into little groups of like-minded individuals who see themselves as purer than the rest. The power of Christ bears witness to the possibility of living with messy difference – in imitation of Jesus who dined with tax collectors and sinners. Our celebrations of Jesus in word and sacrament are intended to inspire us with the divine agenda and not pamper us within our limited horizons. In the pilgrim people of God, there is no place for self-righteousness or spiritual elitism. St Paul will write to the Corinthians that doing everything right without love is worth nothing. That would push us back into the sort of ritual-based Temple practice that Jesus disrupts right at the beginning of his public ministry in St John's Gospel.
Thirdly, after the end of these lockdowns, there will be a huge need to rebuild our faith communities. That will be hard work. In an age of fragmentation, we have missed contact – but the on-line work of many parishes will have reinforced the idea having that faith can be packaged in an individualistic way, religious-themed entertainment, to be consumed on-line. Today's Gospel tells us that we have to rebuild community around Jesus and not just around candyfloss. The question for each local community is how parishes will ensure they are a place where heaven and earth meet and where people encounter Jesus. Even though we have to pay our bills, we are not a business.
Thus, the planning by parishes has to prioritise how our missionary parishes will help the hurting encounter Jesus. There will be work to be done in helping those impoverished by the pandemic. But parishes are not just aimed at helping people to be fed but helping them to belong. Poverty can promote a sense of alienation and not just hunger for food. Thus, parish planning is not merely about lay and ordained leaders protecting themselves and desiring to be in control. Me-centred God-controlling caution will never bear witness to the uncomfortable Jesus of today's Gospel. Religious practice can be cosy, but the Cross is madness and very demanding. The final sentences of today's Gospel are interesting - Jesus …never needed evidence about anyone; he could tell what a person had in them. Lent is an invitation to let Jesus shine his probing light on what each of us has in our hearts – and let divine mercy break open the chains that hold us from letting God be God in our lives.
We are now heading towards the mid-point of Lent. Jesus is concerned, not with wrecking anything but with healing mercy for the hurting. We know from the Gospels that he healed everybody. The only unhealable sickness that he met was that of believing we don't need to be healed, forgiven, corrected and loved. Lent is a time of searching for that healing truth about self. Searching for the lack of truth in others is itself an attractive distraction from facing the real cost of discipleship. If Lent is merely slightly physically uncomfortable, then it will not effect change and growth. All these Lenten Sundays ask us to journey with Jesus into places that we would rather avoid. But, if we fail to take up the Cross and follow him, we risk sitting in sacred spaces, trapped by Temple model of relationship with God. That is the model that Jesus wants to rebuild through his death on the Cross. On this third Sunday of Lent, he looks round, asks each of us whether we are giving up or ready to hang in there with him, trusting his apparently foolish and weak ways.
+ Donal McKeown