Well, it's Lent. Today is Ash Wednesday. My question is what does that mean for activists who are aspiring to follow in the footsteps of the great prophet, dissident, teacher of unconventional wisdom, story-teller, mystic, and movement founder, Yeshua of Nazareth?
The question is obscured by long centuries of covering up those identities in favor of Jesus' overwhelming identification as "Son of God." That title swallows up all the rest and makes it difficult, if not impossible, to engage in what Thomas a Kempis called "The Imitation of Christ."
But for the moment, suppose we set aside "Jesus the Christ," and concentrate on that man his mother named Yeshua. He lived in a time not unlike our own, in a province occupied by an empire similar to ours. He found such occupation unbearable, and devoted his public life to replacing the "Pax Romana" with what he called the "Kingdom of God." There the world would be governed not by Roman jackboots, or by the law of the strongest, but by compassion and gift -- even towards those his culture saw as undeserving.
The latter was "Good News" for the poor and oppressed among whom he found himself and his friends -- laborers, working girls, beggars, lepers infected with a disease not unlike AIDS, and those fortunate enough to have government work as toll gatherers. He ate with such people. He drank wine with them. Some said he got drunk with them. He defended such friends in public. And he harshly criticized their oppressors, beginning with his religion's equivalents of popes, bishops, priests, ministers, and TV evangelists. "Woe to you rich!" he said. "White-washed tombs!" he called the religious "leaders."
What does it mean to follow such an activist and champion of the poor this Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013?
I would say it means first of all to ask that question and to pray humbly for an answer.
Other questions for this Lent: Does following Jesus mean taking a public stance against empire and "church" as he did? Does it mean praying for the defeat of U.S.-imperial forces wherever they wage their wars of expansion and aggression? Does it mean discouraging our daughters and sons from participating in a disgrace-full military? Does it mean leaving our churches, which have become the white-washed tombs of a God who through failed church leadership has lost credibility and the vital capacity to effectively summon us beyond our nationalism, militarism, and addiction to guns and violence? Does it mean lobbying, making phone calls on behalf of, and generally supporting those our culture finds undeserving and "unclean?"
Does it mean for Catholics that we somehow make our voices heard all the way to Rome demanding that any new pope save the church from itself by rejecting the anti-Vatican II schismatic tendencies of the last two popes, healing the wounds of the pedophilia crisis, reversing the disaster of "Humanae Vitae's" prohibition of contraception, allowing women to become priests, eliminating mandatory celibacy as a prerequisite for ordination, and recognizing and honoring the contributions of Catholic women like the members of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)?
Yes, I think, it means all of those things. But Lent also calls for self-purification from the spirit that arrogantly locates all the world's evils "out there" in "those people." In its wisdom, the grassroots church of Hildegard of Bingen, Francis of Assisi and St. Clare, Daniel and Phil Berrigan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Oscar Romero, Ignacio Ellacuria, Jean Donovan, and Matthew Fox calls us to deepen our interior lives for purposes of sharpening our discernment about how to contribute towards replacing empire with God's Kingdom. All of those saints, remember, were condemned by the hierarchy just the way Yeshua was in his own day.
Six weeks is a relatively long time for the purification necessary to eliminate undesirable patterns in our lives and to replace them with habits exemplified in the lives of the saints I've just mentioned. It's plenty of time for working on our addictions to the pursuit of pleasure, profit, power, and prestige. Each of us knows what behaviors in our own lives are associated with those categories. So it's time to get to work.
As for myself ... besides using this period for training my senses, I intend to recommit myself with renewed fervor to my daily practice of meditation, my mantram ("Jesus, Jesus"), spiritual reading, slowing down, one-pointed attention, spiritual companionship, and putting the needs of others first -- the eight-point program outlined by Eknath Easwaran in his book Passage Meditation. I'm going to keep a spiritual journal this Lent to make sure I stay focused.
Additionally, my wife Peggy and I will also be working hard on our communication and have decided to devote significant time each evening to listening to each other in a loving, respectful way.
And then there's our parish Lenten Program I'll be facilitating. It's called "The Quest of the Historical Jesus: from Jesus to Christ." It will be devoted to discovering the carpenter Yeshua behind the Jesus Christ of the gospels. In the light of our discoveries, we'll unpack the liturgical readings for the following Sunday in hopes of making those Lenten liturgies more meaningful and challenging.
In these ways I hope to pass my most fruitful Lent ever, to be truly able to rise with Yeshua to a new level of Kingdom-commitment on Easter Sunday.