Firing and Pruning

Today we say goodbye to “the wearin’ of the green.” This, the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, is the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. As part of my preparation for Lent this year, I thought I might spend some time with the Scripture readings for today, and see what light they might shed on how I prepare for Lent. Note that the liturgical readings for this Sunday were not chosen in view of Lent since Lent can start at various times during February or March. So any message relevant to what I should focus on during Lent is purely coincidental . . . or providential.

Year C is the year of Luke’s Gospel, so we are journeying through Luke during Ordinary Time. During Lent, the first two Sundays will also be from Luke – the Temptation in the Desert and the Transfiguration – and then we will pretty much abandon Luke until we resume Ordinary Time in June, after Easter Season. Each year, our Sunday journey through Lent and Easter is mostly nourished by John’s Gospel, a rich treasure-trove of deep meaning for us. (Here are the Lectionary Readings for today.)

The First Reading is a short passage from one of the longest yet least-known books in the entire Bible, Sirach. It’s one of the books about which there has been a long-standing dispute about whether or not it actually belongs in the Bible. (See Wikipedia for an excellent discussion of the issues.) It’s a compilation of the accumulated wisdom of the entire Old Testament tradition, and so is a valuable source of insight and perspective.

These words jumped out at me;

As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace,
so in tribulation is the test of the just.
The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;
so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.

No matter how creatively and carefully a potter shapes the vessel, it cannot serve its purpose without being fired in a kiln. No matter how wonderful a fruit tree may be, it will not produce at its best unless it is properly pruned. There’s an old saying in France that “the vine must suffer in order to produce the best grapes.” Fine wines are made from grapes that develop character through sometimes severe pruning. I ask myself, how my Lent be like the kiln or the pruning. What will be the Lord’s furnace or pruning shears in my life over the next six weeks? How can I best open myself to let the Lord work as a loving gardener or a skillful craftsman?

In the Second Reading, Paul writing to the Corinthian community recognizes that our present situation in this world, well to put it bluntly, sucks. But . . .

. . . thanks be to God who gives us the victory
through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters,
be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord,
knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.

We are collaborators with God in the labor of bringing all creation to perfection in Christ. Our world may seem very far from that goal, but it’s not merely an ideal. It’s a reality not yet realized. How can I refine the vision – in myself and in the world – of what that ultimate reality (what Jesus calls the “Kingdom of God”) might look like in its perfection, and what do I have to do to be a faithful servant of God’s vision for humankind? This takes the self-emptying of fasting and almsgiving, and the rich nourishment of prayer.

Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus gives us some pearls of wisdom, proverbs for fruitful living as servants of one another in the Kingdom of God. (Luke calls them parables, but, as a literary form these little sayings really function more as aphorisms.) This leaped out at me as I read and reflected:

You hypocrite!  Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.

The word “hypocrite” probably did not have the same emotional baggage that it carries for us today. The word simply means “actor” in a play. Actors in Greek dramas wore masks to denote their character, and spoke through the mask. Jesus would have been familiar with this whole scene because less than five miles from where he grew up was he major imperial city of Sepphoris in which had an open-air theater that seated 5,000 people was built during his youth. (I think it’s very likely that Joseph and Jesus, as carpenters – Greek tekton simply means “construction worker”)

Excavation at Sepphoris today, showing theater (lower left).

For me, Lent is a time to discover how and where I am “play-acting” in my relationship with God as a servant of God’s people. Removing the beam or plank (a term that would be familiar to a construction worker) from my own eye is essential if I’m to be any good at my calling to be servant of the Word of God enfleshed in our world.

What does this mean for the weight-loss project I’m undertaking (and inviting others to join me) during Lent? (See the two previous posts.) How do the “three pillars” of Lent (almsgiving, prayer, and fasting – articulated in Ash Wednesday’s Gospel) relate to one another and to y life as a Christian?

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