“Welcome Sinners!” proclaimed the banner over the entrance to Saint Martin’s Church in Washington, DC — a challenging but nonetheless comforting message — we are loved sinners! The challenge for many of us comes from our divided consciousness: on one level we are ready to acknowledge we are sinners, but on another level we are reluctant to own our true sinfulness which, I believe, stems from our basic need for security and need to be in control of ourselves and our world. If we reflect on our experience we recognize that we are surrounded by and permeated by mystery. It is no wonder then, that we humans experience “dis-ease” with and fear of mystery. This, unfortunately, gets in the way of our engaging in the mystery of God and others. Today’s readings encourage us to leave ourselves open and vulnerable to the mystery of God.
If we were to hear the first reading in its context we would witness the Israelites’ dis-ease with and fear of mystery. Recall: God told Moses that God was ready to make a covenant with the people of Israel and that they should prepare themselves for this special election and encounter. Then, in the midst of peals of thunder and flashes of lightning, God, in a dense cloud, appeared to Moses and spoke the words of the first reading. The terrified people wanted to keep their distance from God. Moses reassured them that this fear (better understood as wonder and awe) in the presence of God is good and will keep them from sinning. It’s worth noting that in this Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, the major focus is on what is owed to God. As Christians, we have a distinct advantage over our ancestors in the faith. Jesus has revealed that the mystery of God is best apprehended as being- for- us as a parent is for its child.
Paul in his letter to the Corinthians also demonstrates the human response to mystery. Though culturally different, the Jews and Greeks expressed our all-too-human reluctance to enter into and be engaged by mystery by setting preconditions. For Jews, signs and wonders were the hallmarks of a prophet sent from God and thus, the cross with its powerlessness and vulnerability was the opposite. They could not get beyond the cross to the mystery of God mysteriously at work in human history. The Greeks, in their philosophical worldview, treasured wisdom and logic. The cross did not make logical sense. It is a sign of weakness, not strength and thus, foolishness.
John’s Gospel places the story of the cleansing of the temple at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately after the wedding at Cana. At that feast, Jesus presented his credentials as one who has a divine mission through the sign of changing water into wine . He then began his mission by moving into the temple area and venting his frustration and anger with those who would reduce their relationship with God to a business, a quid pro quo relationship, i.e., “I do this and you will do that.” Living relationship on this level provides a sense of security but prevents one from journeying into mystery.
As we continue on our Lenten journeys we are invited to reflect upon how we approach God, ourselves, and others. God is the mysterious Other. Can we be comfortable with this naming of God? Can I abandon myself to the mystery of God? Theologian Karl Rahner says that every single human being is an “event” of the absolute, radical free self-communication of God. Can I see and appreciate myself in this light? What about my neighbor? Two suggestions for the remaining days of Lent are to nurture the attitudes of wonder, awe and holy fear in our everyday lives and to ponder the words of Rahner and make them our own.
–Sister Jean Flannelly, SC
(Sister Jean currently serves as Executive Director for Mission at the College of Mount Saint Vincent and offers adult faith enrichment programs in various settings.)