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Saturday, March 29, 2014

Finding God in Life's In-between

Lenton Homily
Year A
John 4:5-42

by Daniel Haynes

READ “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”

How many of us are big fat squishy caterpillars? How many of us are going without in our various life cocoons? How many of us are beautiful Christ-like butterflies? I think many of us, me included, would say that we are the first option, a few the second, and most of us do not realize that in the Kingdom of God we are already the last choice by grace. The story of the very hungry caterpillar can really help us to understand a core Lenton truth: by giving up some of our normal creaturely comforts, by partaking in the holy sacraments that soothe our tummy aches, and by turning inward to reflect upon the condition of our souls, we can see with our spiritual and theological eyes the Easter hope of resurrection, of new birth with Christ.

I love the story of the very hungry caterpillar, probably even more than my two-year old son. However, the Christian story of Easter or Pascha does not stop with Easter Sunday. Every year we come back and we recapitulate the remarkable metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly. Now, I just used a fancy seminary word, “recapitulate”. So, I think it would be helpful to unpack it a little bit. The dictionary has this for the definition of recapitulate: “to review by a brief summary, as at the end of a speech or discussion; to summarize.” Thank you Mr. Webster, that was a nice and neat secular definition, but what does our Christian tradition tell us this word means?

To really grapple and get a hold of the full meaning of this word for Christianity we would need to take a considerate amount of time. So, I encourage you to meditate on it long after this homily. Recapitulation is a Latin word, recapitulatio, that literally means to re-head, to summarize the major points or “headings” of a piece of writing or an argument. When ancient Christians and the Church fathers and mothers tried to find a word that would describe salvation, they used recapitulatio.

Their theological eyes saw salvation as not merely being an eternal judgment handed down by God at the end of time. Instead salvation was a complete life granting gift. The purpose and meaning of the entire cosmos throughout all of time, past, present, and future was summed up, it was re-headed in Jesus Christ. What does it mean to be a human being? Christ shows us what it really means to be a human being. What does it mean to love our neighbor? Christ shows us what it truly means to love our neighbor. Christ reveals God’s intentions for his children even though we have wandered far off from those original intentions.

Through God’s salvation in Christ we get back our true selves. We become the beautiful butterflies that we were created to be. That is the theological meaning of recapitulating the Easter story. The season of Lent gives us the opportunity to identify and recapitulate the suffering that Christ went through for our sake.

We have 40 days of Lent, and I spoke last year about the importance of the number 40 in many religions as being a symbol of death and burial. Early Christians debated the length. St. Irenaeus of Lyon writing in the second century said that some Christians fast for one day, some for two, and some for 40 hours before Easter. Luckily, the Church expanded it to 40 days for us. I guess they had the spiritual discernment and prophetic vision to see that we needed a little more work.   

The season of Lent is unique in our Christian tradition because it brings all of the elements of our faith together. St. Leo the Great, 5th century doctor of the Church, was a bishop and theologian of great importance. This is what he said about the importance of Lent in a sermon:

“On all days and seasons, indeed, dearly-beloved, some marks of the Divine goodness are set, and no part of the year is destitute of sacred mysteries, in order that, so long as proofs of our salvation meet us on all sides, we may the more eagerly accept the never-ceasing calls of God's mercy. But all that is bestowed on the restoration of human souls in the various works and gifts of grace is put before us more clearly and abundantly now, when no isolated portions of the Faith are to be celebrated, but the whole together.”

Lent here recapitulates all of the elements of our faith because it recapitulates the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. St. Leo goes on:

“For as the Easter festival approaches, the greatest and most binding of fasts is kept, and its observance is imposed on all the faithful without exception; because no one is so holy that he ought not to be holier, nor so devout that he might not be devouter. For who, that is set in the uncertainty of this life, can be found either exempt from temptation, or free from fault? Seeing that adversity does us harm, and prosperity spoils us, and it is equally dangerous not to have what we want at all, and to have it in the fullest measure. There is a trap in the fullness of riches, a trap in the straits of poverty. The one lifts us up in pride, the other incites us to complaint. Health tries us, sickness tries us, so long as the one fosters carelessness and the other sadness. There is a snare in security, a snare in fear; and it matters not whether the mind which is given over to earthly thoughts, is taken up with pleasures or with cares; for it is equally unhealthy to languish under empty delights, or to labour under racking anxiety.”

In our Old Testament reading in Exodus 17 this morning, the Israelites were spoiled by having their basic needs met in Egypt. Oh why Moses did you bring us out into the desert to die of thirst? At least as slaves we had food to eat and water to drink. Moses asked them why are they testing God who delivered them from their bondage? They just could not see the bigger truth at work in their lives. God’s truth was trying to show them that their reality was not slave, nor freeman, nor hungry, nor thirsty, but the children of God, the Lord’s butterflies.

Similarly, in our Gospel reading today in John chapter 4 the Samaritan women could not grasp that Jesus was not talking about physical water and a physical mountain. He was trying to get her to see the bigger picture. Jesus offers us living eternal water that will never leave us thirsty though we may indeed thirst. He is the heavenly bread that sustains us though we may actually hunger. We are human beings, and we often do not have the theological vision to see the saving work of God in our midst.

This is why the Church instituted the season of Lent to do the hard work of recapitulating the life of Christ. St. Leo again offers some supportive insight:

“A keener devotion must be awaked to the performance of the Divine commands, in order that we may enter on the season, when all the mysteries of the Divine mercy meet together, with preparedness both of mind and body, invoking the guidance and help of God, that we may be strong to fulfil all things through Him, without Whom we can do nothing. For the injunction is laid on us, in order that we may seek the aid of Him Who lays it. Nor must any one excuse himself by reason of his weakness, since He Who has granted the will, also gives the power, as the blessed Apostle James says, If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, Who gives to all liberally and upbraids not, and it shall be given him (James 1:5).”

We do not fast during Lent so that we can punish ourselves for our sin. We fast because through identifying with the suffering of Christ we see the love of God more clearly. Through physical hunger and thirst we do not just see our own sufferings. Instead, we see the heavenly bread and the eternal living water that satisfies our deepest needs. By recapitulating the transformation of Christ from death into life, we see our true butterfly destination.

But, as Brother Kenneth from the Order of St. Anthony the Great said in our March Monastic series this last Wednesday, we cannot find God in our hearts without being still, without putting forth the time and effort to hear him. This is why, says St. Leo, we must fast during the season of Lent:

“For the designing mercy of God has set up the brightest mirror in His commandments, wherein a man may see his mind's face and realize its conformity or dissimilarity to God's image: with the specific purpose that, at least, during the days of our Redemption and Restoration, we may throw off awhile our carnal cares and restless occupations, and betake ourselves from earthly matters to heavenly.”

Lent is hard. Period. This is probably the only really obvious point of this sermon. Giving up something that we love and brings us comfort is not easy. The Church fathers and mothers tell us that Lent is about self-reflection, repentance and sorrow for our sin, fasting, and the giving of alms. This is not easy stuff. Moreover, Satan attacks us most vigilantly during this season because he thinks that he can trick you into believing that your faith rests on the choice to cave-in or not on your fast. Do not let him deceive you brothers and sisters.

Do you want to know the truth? The truth is that you are not weak though you are hungry. You are not parched though you are thirsty. You are a member of the body of Christ, and he has resurrected from the dead. He has imparted his holy spirit and power into your life so that Lent is not about your willpower. It is about the theological truth that though you come from dust and to dust you shall return, you are a butterfly. Because you are identified with Christ and marked as his own forever, Lent will give way to Easter.

However, in order to mature into the fullness of Christ and be able to understand the theological hope of Easter, we need to recapitulate the whole Easter story in our own lives. We need to build a cocoon and fast. Lenton sacrificial practices need not be our own. In fact, the Church fathers and mothers did not see the fast as being a private matter. Salvation is not just for our own benefit. It is for all of God’s kingdom. St. Leo offers these words:   

“Let all discords and enmities be laid aside, and let no one think to have a share in the Paschal feast that has neglected to restore brotherly peace. Furthermore, in the distribution of alms and care of the poor, let our Christian fast-times be fat and abound; and let each bestow on the weak and destitute those dainties which he denies himself. Let pains be taken that all may bless God with one mouth, and let him that gives some portion of substance understand that he is a minister of the Divine mercy; for God has placed the cause of the poor in the hand of the liberal man; that the sins which are washed away either by the waters of baptism, or the tears of repentance, may be also blotted out by almsgiving; for the Scripture says, As water extinguishes fire, so alms extinguishes sin (Sirach 3:30).”

In this passage we do not see a disconnect between what we do and who we are. Our fasting not only reflects in a very real way our regret over our sins and our identification with Christ’s death, but it also shares the grace of what God truly gives us with those in need in a very real and tangible way.

So, as we meditate and reflect on the meaning of the season of Lent, let us not be like the Israelites who tested the power of God to provide for our needs, or like the Samaritan woman who could not get past literal water or mountains. Theology can work in strange and mysterious ways. Sometimes a caterpillar is meant to be a butterfly. New life is our Easter hope and destination, but we need to first build a cocoon for that transformation.

Blessed be the name of God.  

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