One of the things I enjoy most about scripture is the way I can count on it to surprise me. Last week, before I headed out to Santa Cruz for our wonderful parish retreat, I looked at the readings for this Sunday. I knew that the retreat would be an opportunity for the Holy Spirit to rummage around in my heart and mind, and I wanted to have this week’s readings in mind, just in case an experience during the weekend intersected with the readings. I wanted to be ready for the surprise. I wanted to be prepared.
I read the bit of the Noah story in Genesis, and the words that popped out at me were Never again. God establishes a covenant and promises that never again will the waters become a flood to destroy the flesh of creation. I noticed that God initiates the covenant with us, and I reflected on how we respond to that covenant. Then I read Psalm 25 and was struck by the word trust, and I thought for a bit about the ways God leads us and guides us. I read the portion from the First Letter of Peter and saw baptism described as an appeal to God for a good conscience, and I tucked it away as a possible connection with the Lenten journey we would be beginning on this past Wednesday. And then I read the gospel portion. And then I read it again. And then I looked at all three of the gospel portions that are read on the first Sunday in Lent and found the thing I’d never noticed before. All three gospels begin at the point of Jesus’ baptism. Who knew? Certainly not me. I was always focusing so tightly on the journey through the wilderness that I failed to notice that we enter this journey with the echo of God’s words in our ears: You are my child, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased. I have always been so focused on Lent as the journey toward baptism and the renewal of our covenant that I neglected to notice that is also where the journey begins—with God’s covenant and Jesus’ baptism.
Those were the thoughts in my mind and the stirring in my heart as I went to our retreat. During those 48 hours, I mostly watched and listened and knitted. What I saw and heard—in the Villa Maria staff as well as in our group—was people caring for each other, sharing their own stories and seeking ways to move closer to God. As I watched and listened and knitted, those readings kept rummaging around in my heart and mind, and my thoughts kept turning to our baptismal covenant promises and the way they were being honored among us.
And then I came home and leapt into the week that was waiting. As last week’s gospel makes clear to us, we always have to come down from the mountain. As I participated in Ash Wednesday services, my experience of the weekend came more strongly into my awareness. Then, during the Wednesday evening liturgy, I heard the preface of the Eucharistic prayer with fresh ears: You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you.
Cleanse their hearts and prepare with joy. I asked myself what needs to be cleansed from our hearts in order to prepare with joy for Easter, and the words were right there: guilt and fear.
So, as we journey through this time of preparation for Easter, I invite you to consider our baptismal covenant promises through the lens of appreciative inquiry. I don’t need to invite you to examine your heart for the ways you have failed to live into those promises. I know that you do that. Instead, I invite you a different kind of examination of your life. In what ways have you kept the promises? How has striving to fulfill the promises enriched your life? How has your keeping of the promises contributed to those around you and to the world in which we live? How have others who are also striving to keep these promises touched your life and the lives of those around you?
As you reflect on these questions and your answers, notice those moments when you feel the presence of God most strongly. Feast on those moments. Cherish them and look for ways to experience more of them. As you feast on those moments of closeness to God, I invite you to fast from self-recrimination and blame—to fast from focus on your sinfulness and to move into a space of gratitude for the way God’s grace has supported your growth as a follower of Christ.
Whatever else you do in these weeks leading to Holy Week and Easter, I encourage you to notice God’s action in your life. Listen for the voice of God in the words of the people you meet on the street, in the store, at work and even in the pew next to you. Watch for the movement of the Spirit in the surprises that come to you during our Lenten journey, and in all things, give thanks to God who sees our striving and loves us even when we fall.
Thanks be to God!
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