Second Sunday of Lent — March 1, 2015 — “For Your Lenten Penance, Listen!”
One of the things I really enjoy about being the pastor of a parish with a school is celebrating Mass with the school students. I especially like inviting them to help me during the homily. On Ash Wednesday, for example, I like to ask them, “What’s today? Why do we call it Ash Wednesday? Where do the ashes come from? What new liturgical season do we begin on Ash Wednesday? And what are the three traditional Lenten practices?”
One year at another parish, when I asked the students to tell me some of the things they would be doing during Lent, they started by telling me about all the things they were giving up during Lent, like candy, video games and TV, and not beating up on their little brothers and sisters.
Then, when I asked if they were going to be doing any positive things during Lent, they told me about praying more, and about doing good deeds, and obeying their parents, and doing their homework and all of their chores around the house. That was pretty good, I thought to myself, we have covered prayer and fasting, and I was getting ready to move on to “almsgiving,” the third traditional Lenten practice. So I asked: “What else should we do during Lent?” A bright little girl in the front row raised her hand, and waved at me like she really knew the right answer and wanted to tell me. So I went over to her and asked my question again: “Besides prayer and fasting what else do we Catholics do during Lent?” Then I put the microphone in front of her, and she confidently shouted out her answer: “Listen!”
Now I was looking for a way to start talking about almsgiving, although I didn’t really expect any of the kids to say the word “almsgiving,” so I didn’t follow up on what that bright little girl had to say about listening as a Lenten practice. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that listening really should be very much a part of all of our Lenten practices.
During the next week, while preparing a homily for the next Sunday, I discovered Fr. Walter Burghardt’s homily for the Second Sunday of Lent entitled: “For your Lenten penance, listen!” Fr. Burghardt’s point was to encourage us all to take to heart the instructions that Peter, James and John heard in today’s Gospel, on the occasion of the Transfiguration: “Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice:’This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!'”
“Listen!” In response to the Scripture reading this weekend, I think we are being called to listen in three directions: (1) Listen to one another; (2) Listen to Jesus; and (3) Listen to God speaking in the world around us.
• First, I suggest that we begin by listening to one another. Often what we call conversations are not conversations at all. Either they are monologues, or they are debates. In a monologue, I wait patiently or impatiently until you finish speaking, and then I say exactly what I would have said, even if you had not spoken at all. And in a debate, I listen carefully to what you say, but only for the mistakes or errors that I can contradict with my own perception of the facts. But in a true conversation, I listen carefully to what you want to say, and I continue the conversation by responding with genuine interest to what you just told me.
Hopefully, we all have some people around us who really do listen to us, and we know how important it is to be able to talk with them about things that are really important to us. Not just about the weather, or sports, or politics, but especially, and most importantly, about what we believe in, what we hope for, and what and whom we love.
So the first part of our Lenten penance of listening is to really listen to one another. To share ourselves and our faith with each other. And to make a special effort to listen and to respond to one another when we speak.
• Second: Listen to Jesus. This is the command of the Father from the cloud: ‘Listen to him!” We might be tempted to think, “Well, that was what the Father told Peter, James and John to do, when Jesus was really there with them there in flesh and blood. But how does it apply to us now, nearly two thousand years later?’
We Catholics believe that Jesus still speaks to us in the Scriptures, especially when the Scriptures are proclaimed during Mass. We read these Scripture readings not as part of an ancient history class, nor as part of a foreign literature course. When we read these readings, especially the Gospel, Jesus himself is speaking to us. The risen Lord Jesus is truly here in our midst trying to open our hearts and minds to the true meaning of the words we are hearing. And we have to listen very carefully, even more carefully and more intently than when we listen to one another.
The Father’s instruction “Listen to him!” means a lot more than just hearing what Jesus has to say. “Listen to him!” really means: “Obey him! Follow him! Do what he says.” So our listening to the Lord must truly be a matter of first saying to him, “Speak, Lord! Your servant is listening.” Here, it is not enough to say: “Speak, Lord, and your servant will think it over and give it all due consideration!” We must really mean it when we say, “Your servant is listening. Your servant will obey. Your servant will follow your instructions. Your servant will do whatever you say.” That was certainly the attitude of Abraham in today’s first reading. Abraham listened to God’s instructions, and he was willing to sacrifice the life of his only son Isaac. Even though what God was asking of him at that moment seemed to contradict all of the other promises and instructions that God had ever given him, Abraham was willing to do exactly what God asked of him. And that should be our attitude too, as we listen to all of our Scripture readings this weekend. We should be willing to do whatever it is that God asks of us each and every day of our lives.
• And finally: “Listen to God speaking to us in the world around us.” Although we Catholics believe that Jesus is the ultimate revelation of God, and that the Scriptures are the definitive record of God’s revelation to us in Jesus, we also believe that God continues to speak to us through nature, through human history, and through the daily events of our lives.
We should never be so busy or so sophisticated that we do not take time to marvel at the beauty of God’s creation. Like seeing a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or noticing the beauty of plants and flowers, or watching the power of the ocean as the waves roll in and out at the beach. All of nature reflects the divine qualities of the Creator. And as the universe operates in obedience to God’s laws, so should we live in accord with the laws of God and of nature.
We should also listen to and learn from human history. The Scriptures tell us of the Chosen People’s search for freedom and for a homeland. Human history tells us that we should all work together for freedom and for peace. Whenever one group’s right to life, or liberty, or the pursuit of happiness is threatened, we all risk losing our own right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We must all try to learn from the mistakes of the past, and try to follow the heroic examples of the saints who have gone before us in faith.
Like Abraham in today’s first reading, let us listen to whatever it is that God is calling us to do, and let us try our very best to do it. And listening to St. Paul’s words of encouragement in today’s second reading — “If God is for us, who can be against us?” — let us find in these words the courage and the strength that we need to keep on doing what God asks of us, even if it seems especially challenging or difficult, if not impossible.
If we really want to do something special for Lent this year, in addition to our regular fasting, and praying and almsgiving, let’s take to heart God’s instructions in today’s Gospel, and the advice of that bright little girl In the front pew: “Listen!” Listen to one another, listen to Jesus, and listen to God in the world around us!
Fr. Richard Duncanson