Showing posts with label lent. Show all posts
Showing posts with label lent. Show all posts

The Cross is Communication

John 12:20-33 (5th Sunday of Lent, year b)

Why did Jesus need to die on the Cross? I know… Jesus had to do it to save us from our sins. But, couldn't God have done this in some other way? Could God not just offer us His grace and forgiveness in some other, less brutal fashion, and we could just accept it and be saved? The Gospel today is taken from a turning point in the Gospel of John. Jesus has finished His preaching and working of miracles and is about to enter into His Passion. In the Gospel Jesus Himself states that it is necessary for the Son of God to suffer and die in order to give us new life: “unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.” Could there not have been some of other way? Why did God need to send His Son to die a terrible death on the Cross in order to save us from our sins?

The answer: it’s a mystery. Years ago when I was a student, nothing would get me more frustrated than when I would ask a question about our faith and the response I would get was “it’s a mystery”. I always saw this as shorthand for “I don’t know”. At times I am convinced it was. Now I see the concept of mystery somewhat differently. Some questions, like how to get from A to B, are problems. There is a definitive answer. Other questions, any which involve God, are mysteries. Mysteries are like spirals of infinite depth. We can go deeper and deeper in trying to answer the question and yet we can never answer if fully. We can, however, say much that is true about the topic under investigation. We just cannot fully or definitively answer the question.

The question “why did Jesus die on the Cross?” is a mystery. There are many angles from which we can approach this question. I would like to answer this problem by approaching it through the perspective of communication.

When we communicate with someone, we want to do two things: 1) transmit a message and 2) have the person we are communicating with act in response to the message. The degree to which we are successful in attaining these ends depends in large part on how we communicate the message. For example, if we want to warn someone who is about to walk into oncoming traffic, we shout “stop” loudly and forcefully in the hope that they will freeze in their tracks. Saying “stop” in a mellow, sing-song voice would probably not produce the desired effect. If, on the other hand, you wanted to tell your significant other how much they mean to you with the hope of eliciting the same feeling in them, you might say “I love you” in a kind voice, while gazing into their eyes and perhaps even handing them a gift. Shouting “I love you” at the person while throwing a glass of cold water in their face would be a less effective means of communication in this circumstance.

Throughout history, God the Father has been seeking to communicate to humanity. He wants to both tell us a message and have us act in response to the message. The message God wants to communicate is simple. He is an infinitely loving and merciful Father. He desires to be in relationship with us now and for eternity. Sin is a terrible, destructive thing. It hurts us and damages our relationship with God. In His great love and mercy, He has forgiven our sins, repaired the damage it has done and prepared a path for us back to Him. In response to this message, God desires that we all take one action: turn from sin and return to Him. This is what God has been trying to communicate all throughout human history.

Because of sin, we are have a predisposition not to listen to what God is saying and resist taking action in response to His message. Sin has given us a misguided understanding of God. We can think God is a vindictive tyrant or, on the other extreme, a permissive, non-demanding deity. We can fool ourselves into thinking that there is no such thing as sin, thinking “I’m okay - you’re okay”, to borrow a phrase from a famous self-help book. Sin makes us mistrustful, suspicious and even aggressive towards God. Even if we hear something of His message, our will is frozen and enslaved by sin. We avoid doing what we know is right.

In communicating His message, mere words are not enough to break through our sin-induced deafness. It takes more than a moral exhortation and Divine offer of grace to convert us. We saw this in history. God sent prophets to teach the people that He is a loving Father and to call them away from sin and back to Himself. All the prophets were rejected, their message largely ignored. Even the preaching and miracles worked by Jesus were not enough. All it served to do was unmask and provoke evil. Words were not a sufficient medium for God to communicate His message to us.

In order for us to truly hear God’s message and to respond to it, we needed tangible and convincing evidence to prove His message: the Cross. The Passion and death of Jesus is the only successful form of communication. It alone breaks through our deafness so we can hear clearly God’s message. On the Cross, God proves the infinite depths of His love and mercy. God became a man and took upon Himself and suffered all the effects of our sinfulness: hatred, violence, and ultimately death. He proved Himself beyond doubt to be a compassionate God. Every drop of blood shed by Jesus on the Cross screams to us how much He loves us. The Cross also tells us the severity of sin. Our sins did this to Him. Not only does the Cross allow us to appreciate God’s message, it alone is forceful enough to shake us loose from our fiercely defended idols and dislodge our chained will from slavery. When we look at the Cross it compels us to turn from sin and return back to our loving Father.

Why did Jesus have to die on the Cross in order to save us? Because it was the only way we would finally hear the message of how loving and merciful our Heavenly Father is and choose to leave sin behind and enter into a relationship with Him. The Cross is the ultimate means of Divine Communication. Each year during Lent we are given the opportunity to make sure we have heard the message and respond more fully to it.

How you can overcome procrastination

John 2:13-25 (3rd Sunday of Lent, year B)

It prevents us from doing our income tax. It keeps us busy with small distractions, stopping us from getting to work on a challenging project. It makes us put off a difficult conversation. It is a barrier blocking us from breaking sinful habits. Procrastination: the tendency to delay unpleasant but important tasks. When we procrastinate, we fool ourselves into thinking the hard work will get done on its own. Procrastination doesn’t make sense because nothing gets done one its own. It holds us back from becoming a better person. Why, then, do we do it? Why do we put tasks that we know are important on the backburner?

We procrastinate because doing difficult things requires us to expend a large amount of energy for an extended period of time. Since this is exhausting and even painful, we avoid expending our willpower for as long as we can. The psychologist Roy Baumeister proved how exhausting the use of willpower is in an interesting experiment. He formed two groups of students. He placed the first group in front of an oven in which delicious smelling cookies were baking. On top of the stove he put a bowl filled with radishes. He told the students that they could eat as many radishes as they wanted. The cookies, however, were strictly off limits. Then the students were left alone for thirty minutes. The students in the second group, on the other hand, were allowed to eat as many cookies as they wanted for thirty minutes. After the time period was up, the students from both groups had to try solving a difficult math problem. The students who were forbidden from eating the cookies gave up on the problem twice as fast as the students who pigged out on the cookies. Exercising self control had drained their energy! Doing difficult, necessary things is unpleasant because it takes so much energy. For this reason we put them off.

Though we cannot eliminate our tendency to procrastinate, it is something that we must work against so that it doesn't have an adverse effect on our life. Jesus’ behaviour in the memorable story of the cleansing of the Temple teaches us important lessons in how to overcome procrastination.

First, we need to clearly identify the problem and decide to do something about it. Jesus recognizes that the way people are using the Temple is unacceptable. The Temple was meant to be the place where people could encounter the Living God and worship Him. It was the most holy place in all of Israel. By Jesus’ time, however, the Temple’s purpose had become corrupted. It became a place to make money. Many others recognized the problem. Cleansing the Temple in order to restore it’s proper dignity and purpose was an incredibly intimidating and unpleasant task. It would upset many powerful people. While everyone else procrastinated and put off doing the right thing, Jesus alone both identified the problem and took the necessary action.

St. Paul tells us that each one of us is a temple (1 Cor 6:19). We are meant to serve, worship and glorify God. Like the Temple in Jerusalem, however, we have departed from this purpose by allowing sin, anger, unforgiveness and bad habits to invade our temple. We are in need of cleansing. Take a moment and try to think of one particular problem area in your life that you have the power to change. A bad habit. A relationship you need to pay more attention to. A lack of prayer. The first step in overcoming procrastination is clearly identifying the challenge you would like to overcome.

Overcoming this problem - cleansing our temple - requires us to take strong, deliberate action. During my summers in High School, I worked at a fishing resort located in the interior of British Columbia, far away from the Internet and electricity. I did many different jobs. What I did the most was wash dishes. The baking pans were the hardest to get clean. I dreaded doing them. I would try to make the job easier by letting the pans soak in water or by trying to use some fancy cleaning agent. In the end there was no easy way to do the work. If I wanted to clean the pans I had to roll up my sleeves, get out the steel wool and start scrubbing. Overcoming sin, bad habits and other problem areas in our life is very similar to this. We put off doing the hard work. We procrastinate. We fool ourselves into thinking things will get better on their own. We think that if we say the right prayers God will make us better in our sleep. God will help us improve, but not without our cooperation. In order to fight our tendency to procrastinate, we need to take bold, deliberate, strong action. Jesus does just this when He cleanses the Temple. His behaviour can seem shocking. He is angry, aggressive, unweilding, and determined. If we want to cleanse our own temple, we must follow His example. The saints did this, sometimes to dramatic effect. St. Benedict, for example, famously threw himself into a thorn bush to fight a lustful temptation! Overcoming evil in the way we act and think requires strong willpower, perseverance and at times some anger and aggression.

In order to successfully resist procrastinating and complete a difficult task, a deadline can be extremely helpful. Why do we eventually file our taxes, finish our homework, or complete a project at work? Often it is because of a deadline. During His ministry, Jesus was working against a deadline. He knew the authorities would turn on Him. Jesus zealously worked to accomplish His Father’s mission in a short period. Lent is the perfect time to do some unpleasant but necessary task because it gives us a definite deadline. Bring to mind again that problem area in your life. What is one concrete way you can cleanse your temple? What is the challenge you want to overcome with God’s help? Whatever your personal project is, set the end of lent as your deadline. Follow the example of Jesus and take some bold, deliberate steps to change. If we do this, when Easter comes we can truly rejoice.

What are the first three things you will do in heaven?

Mark 9: 2-10 (2nd Sunday of Lent, year B)

My 95 year old grandma (if you're reading this, hi Oma!) likes reading mystery novels, specifically ones about a cat that solves murders. Whenever she starts a new book, she does something interesting. After reading the first chapter, she flips to the end of the book and reads the last chapter. Sound strange? She has her reasons. First, she doesn't know if she will live long enough to read the end. Second, she doesn't want to waste her time reading books with a bad ending. Third, if the ending is promising it gives her incentive to go back and read the whole novel. Contrary to what I would think, knowing the book’s finale helps her persevere in reading it all. When she feels like giving up because the reading is burdensome, she reminds herself of the great ending, and how good it will be to arrive at the last chapter and relive it. This gives her the strength to continue reading.

In His Transfiguration, Jesus does something similar for Peter, James and John. Jesus shows His disciples how the story will end so that they will have courage for what lies ahead. After the Transfiguration, Jesus will begin making His way towards Jerusalem where the authorities will turn on Him, arrest Him, beat Him and have Him crucified. In order to strengthen His disciples, Jesus gives them a sneak peek at His final victory. In the Transfiguration, Jesus predicts His own resurrection and His appearance is changed. His clothes becomes dazzling white. It is as though Jesus gives us a glimpse of His resurrected, glorified body. Alongside Jesus appears Moses, the one through whom God gave the law, and Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets. This shows that Jesus is the true Saviour, the fulfillment of the law and all that the prophets had spoken of in the past. When Jesus’ disciples hear the voice from heaven, they receive confirmation of His identity. This carpenter from Nazareth is indeed the Son of God! In the end, He will be victorious - He will rise again! Jesus allows His followers to see the end of the story to give them hope, strength and courage in the face of the struggles that lie ahead.

In order to better bear the hardships in our own life, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the end of our own story: heaven. Remembering that we will one day be with God and those we love in perfect, eternal happiness is a source of hope and strength in times of trial. It gives meaning and purpose to all that we do until then. This principle was powerfully described by Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and holocaust survivor, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. While suffering in a concentration camp, Frankl’s trained mind observed the behaviour of the other prisoners. He saw that although all prisoners were subjected to the same torment, some gave up and soon died, whereas other struggled on and lived longer. Frankl determined that those who continued trying to survive were the ones who had found meaning in the midst of their suffering. Particularly, the hope that they would one day be reunified with those they loved spurred them on. Frankl experienced this personally. Remembering his beloved wife and the fact that they might someday be together again gave him the hope and courage to continue. We all suffer and can feel like giving up at times. Reminding ourselves that one day we will be perfectly happy in heaven enlivens us the the midst of our own struggles.

In order for the hope of heaven to empower us, however, we need to become much more concrete about what we expect to find in heaven. We are too vague about what the end of our story is. We see heaven as some spiritual, bodiless, reality in which we are praying all the time. We are not excited about heaven because our idea of heaven is not very exciting! Our belief in the resurrection of the body means that heaven is a physical reality. We will live in a physical world much like this one, only purified of all evil. Recently I heard a talk by the author John Eldredge that really got me thinking. In order to make heaven a more tangible reality, he challenged everyone to answer this question: “what are the first three things you will do in heaven?” I tried to come up with an answer. Here are the first three things I will do when I get to heaven.
  1. Have a beer with Jesus. This isn’t just because I imagine that the beer in heaven will be awesome. I look forward to the conversation we will have. I imagine it will be like one I have with my best friends. These are conversations that alternate effortlessly between moments of laughter and being serious. I want to rejoice with Jesus about  the victory of good over evil. I want to hear Jesus tell me that I have done well and that inspite of my mistakes He is proud of me.
  2. Meet all the cool people in heaven. I want to see members of my family and friends who have gone before me. I want to meet the incredible Saints: Peter, Nicholas, Francis, Ignatius and Mother Theresa. That will be awesome!
  3. Go water skiing. As a child, I loved going water skiing. Skipping across the glassy water and taking in the beautiful scenery was a pure joy. Unfortunately, I had to stop water skiing when I got too heavy for the boat to pull me! Since I assume that under-powered engines will not be an issue in heaven, I very much look forward to doing this again.
In trying to answer these questions, heaven became much more real and concrete for me. It is therefore easier to hope to be in heaven. Thinking about the end of my story becomes something that more readily fills me with strength and courage in difficult times.

Try to answer this question for yourself. What are the first three things that you will do in heaven?