‘They will look on Me, the One that they have pierced…and grieve bitterly. On that day a fountain will open to cleanse them from sin and impurity’ (Zech. 12:10; 13:1).
Jesus mirrored hard truth. Outraged man shattered the mirror. God retaliated by releasing a flood of divine mercy from His broken frame, the only source that restores us to the truth.
Barbara Taylor Brown says it best: ‘I remember being at a retreat once where the leader asked us to think of someone who represented Christ in our lives. One woman stood up and said: “I kept thinking: who is it who told me the truth about myself so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?” Jesus died because He told the truth to everyone He met. He was the truth, a perfect mirror in which people saw themselves in God’s own light.’
The Desert Stream staff now habitually gathers to tell each other the truth about one another’s strengths and weaknesses. As the sugary, soft fruit of the therapeutic age, we delight in blessing each other’s good points but brace ourselves for the bad. We flinch to even use language like ‘bad’, preferring words like ‘unchallenged strengths.’
What I recall from those meetings is the ‘bad.’ I couldn’t recount the ‘blessings’ but have wrestled in the wee hours with the difference between how I see reality and how others see mine. I have not wanted to kill certain staff members but I’ve rehearsed ‘setting them straight’ monologues before sleep. How much bigger the gap between God’s truth and ours? The difference: in exposing our self-deceptions, He submits to our smashing, and offers Himself as the antidote.
He gives all—His body pierced for our washing and broken for our bread, the meal that makes us whole. For us who are troubled and touchy and too readily defended—pour out Your ‘vengeance’ upon us this Good Friday, Good God.
Barbara Taylor Brown again: ‘In the presence of His integrity, our pretense is exposed. In the presence of His constancy, our cowardice comes to light. In the presence of His fierce love for God and us, our hardness of heart is revealed. I am not worse than you nor you I, but leave Him in the room and there is no room to hide. He is the light of the world. In His presence, we either fall down to worship Him or do everything we can to extinguish His light.
Today, while He dies, do not turn away. Make yourself look in the mirror. Today no-one gets away from being shamed by His beauty. Today no-one flees without being laid bare by His light.’
‘In the Church, Jesus entrusts Himself to those who betray Him over and over.’ Pope Emeritus Benedict
As we proceed with Jesus to Calvary, we linger at the Last Supper where we witness St. Peter dining comfortably with Jesus, curious of who Jesus’ betrayer might be and confident that it is not himself (JN 13:21-38).
Perhaps the purpose of Lent and Holy Week is to challenge such confidence by inviting us into the desert in order to spotlight our denials. No better lesson than St. Peter’s: after a holy meal surrounded by friends, he steps out alone into the klieg light where he strives to save his life rather than lose it for Jesus (JN 18: 15-27). I am less surprised by his and our unwillingness to be true to Jesus than by our lack of self-awareness. Only faithful? We deceive ourselves.
The seven virtues we looked at this Lent expose gaps; they highlight self-illusions. We whose hope masks unresolved grief, whose faith caves to fear in a second, and whose love dares not conflict—the desert lays us bare. In the heat and the hunger, we who champion global justice and enslave love ones, who exercise fortitude in consuming multiple episodes of ‘Game of Thrones’ or ‘Walking Dead’ but cannot abide with Jesus for 10 minutes, and while viewing divide our souls with more graphic violence, sex and words than our grandparents experienced in their lifetimes—that is the unchaste mess we are in.
At least Peter’s three denials were obvious. Ours are not. This Lent, I am grateful for a renewed awareness of my denial of wisdom, the truth of how things really are. I would rather frame reality as pleasant in order to please myself and sleep peacefully. I am subject to the spirit of the Israelites who implored the wise: ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel’ (IS 30: 10, 11)!
Like St. Peter, we want to honor Jesus but refuse to be personally dishonored. Peter refused a good foot-washing (JN 13:6-8). Yet he like us needed cleansing at core. We need love to engulf our clubfeet, scour the dirt and stench, and transform our moral disabilities into something pleasing to God. He sees all and summons us to give Him all this Maundy Thursday. Hobble to the altar with expectancy. Take heart: ‘The burning sand will become a pool’ (IS 35: 7).
‘Justice without mercy is cruelty.’ Thomas Aquinas
When St. John (JN 8:1-12) describes the Pharisees hauling the adulterous woman before Jesus in the hopes of exposing His inability to unite mercy and justice (Lev. 20:10), with whom do we identify?
Like me, you can probably admit that you are both prostitute and Pharisee. Many of us who come out of sexual disintegration have worked hard at coming clean and helping the Church clean house. Congratulations. We now are less tempted by unclean spirits and more inclined to religious ones. What else explains the shock we feel when a real sinner shows up in our midst?
God is faithful. Might we recognize in our Christian ‘enculteration’ a flash of the inner-Pharisee whose outrage over the gender meltdown in our day tempts us to look with disgust at the unidentified gender being before us? Have we forgotten the bullies who beat us up at school before we were LGBT-anything, just lost and alone in our uncentered selves? What about the religious who squinted through their smiles at us? The idiotic counsel from church men who punctuated their platitudes with ‘just don’t tell anyone…’?
It is good to forgive and also not to forget how tough it is for outliers to find footing among the holy ones. And if we do forget, just wait. God is merciful to bring up old struggles of the flesh just to remind us of how vulnerable we still are and how somehow, we need the saving love of Jesus more today than yesterday. Let the accusing voices roar. Let the demons howl and chase us right back to the feet of Jesus where our divided souls can find refuge from the stones and stony gaze of Pharisees. C.S. Lewis is right: ‘If religion does not make you an awful lot better, it can make you an awful lot worse.’
Maybe your sins are not sensual; you cannot relate to the prostitute. Then think about adultery as illicit virtue, not sex. Have you quietly begun to pat yourself on the back for your ordered life rather than to thank God for His mercy? Perhaps you spend more time praying for your holiness than for saving a tortured soul from the flames of hell. Many of us can confess honestly that we needed the disordered son or daughter or spouse or friend to rouse us from our self-centered faith and to cast ourselves once more on the saving love of Jesus.
The sweet, savory truth: Jesus is God’s justice for broken ones like us! And it takes a good break in order for us pilgrims to be made new by His mercy, a cleansing love which engulfs and transforms our injustices into something good.
All we have left is tears, evidence that we have lost our way, grown cold in the light, weary in well-doing, unmerciful. Tears are good. They show us that we still have hearts that can break. What better time to break than now as we walk with Jesus to Calvary? Maybe our broken hearts are required to make room for persons who will perish unless they receive a share in His heart through ours.
‘The fire of divine love, which burns on the altar of our hearts…miraculously turns itself into water, the compunction of tears, which purifies us from sin and commends our good works. When our works are sprinkled with tears, splendor shines upon us, and a ray of light radiates from our depths with a serenity of delightful brightness.’ St. Peter Damian
God gave everything for us at Calvary. He poured out His life, which is the best definition of love I know. We have all (I hope) known someone who sacrificed for us. But he or she did not give everything. God did. He died for us.
He died for us in order to gain us: He died to draw near to us, to be with us, to calm us with His Presence, to speak words we can hear, to nourish us with His body and blood. He ‘who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see’ (1T 6:16) humbled Himself in His Son and came closer to us than a mother or a lover ever could.
Love means God comes near to us in Jesus. We who are little and rebellious and unable to love Him back now have access to God through this Jesus. We are not alone anymore. Because of Him, we need not be destabilized by other lovers. All He asks is that we give everything to Him.
That seems like a lot. But it’s the only way we can live happy lives. To know Him but to serve other gods is torture, hell before hell. Discovering the secret of surrender opens to us the music of the spheres, the peace that surpasses understanding, unbounded joy. We die to worldly distractions in order to rest in holy love, to enjoy the fruit of His suffering–the Creator’s desire for intimate union with His human creation.
I want to rest in the arms of the One who fought for me. I want to know that sweetness in full. To do so, Oswald Chambers quotes St. Paul: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (Gal. 2:20); “These words mean the breaking of my independence with my own hand and surrendering to the supremacy of the Lord Jesus…it means breaking the husk of my individual independence of God, and the emancipating of my personality with Himself, not for my own ideas, but for absolute loyalty to Jesus.”
Lent then is an opportunity to let go of specific distractions so we can know Him more. It is simple: we give Him more space to love us; in gratitude, we love Him back. That rhythm sets in motion the ordering of our other loves, the people He calls us to love.
Immersed in His Spirit of love, we may hurt when we discover that we have loved others poorly, be it in needing another too much out of disordered desire or withholding love because one threatened us or did not give us what we wanted.
Our pain is good. Weep and rejoice in His mercy that renews our efforts to love others better. The Lord is faithful. He will not leave us alone in our human loves. He loves us and them too much! He converts us continuously with His self-giving until we love as He does. By the time we see Him face-to-face, we may well love others better than we do now.
The other night I beheld a demonic power in a dream; the blob-like entity had little form and was obscured by darkness. It made a variety of sounds as if it were feeding off something. Though I could not see its target, I realized the ‘thing’ was intent on foraging off a person, any person.
In the dream, I recalled a line from a movie in which the actor said wryly: ‘I sleep with all my friends.’ This entity was open to either gender, any person who would partner with it by indiscriminately engaging in sex of any kind. It was greedy and insatiable, as if its lust could not be satisfied. It gave the impression that it intended to devour its prey, to use the person up. I went from a mild intrigue to repulsion when I realized that the unclean spirit wanted the blood of embodied souls and would employ sexual immorality to get it. I rebuked the devouring thing in Jesus’ name and woke up.
I processed the dream with my wife and then the Desert Stream staff. We thought of a generation weaned on pornography and primed for ‘friendly’ sex with either gender; we admitted the doors to lust we had cracked in our own imaginations. And we considered how illicit sexuality counterfeits as completion yet actually fractures us. In truth, lust masks itself as love but has power to destroy persons (and marriages) who welcome it. We agreed that Lent is not long enough to contend with the battle for souls being waged today by predatory lusts.
We confessed our compromises and rebuked the devourer. We did both: repent and renounce. We are dealing not only with lusts of the flesh but with principalities which want our blood. We combat lust with Jesus’ blood and the authority He gives the faithful to pray for one another so we might be healed, ambassadors of freedom for a captive generation.
‘Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith because you know that your brothers and sisters are undergoing the same kinds of sufferings throughout the world.’ (1P 5:8, 9)